The Sunday Telegraph
Army of darkness
For all its shadowy mystique, Tablighi Jamaat declares itself to be nothing more than a peaceful, apolitical Muslim missionary movement. So why is its name increasingly being linked to terrorism – and its growing presence in the West viewed by anxious cri
Along the dusty roads, and through the rural towns and villages of the poorer parts of the Islamic world, travel small groups of men from a secretive and little-understood movement called Tablighi Jamaat, carrying what its followers proclaim to be the true word of God. In so far as it speaks at all to outsiders, the organisation, founded almost 80 years ago, declares itself to be non-political and non-violent. Yet, with increasing and alarming frequency, the name of Tablighi Jamaat is cropping up in the worldwide fight against terrorism.
Several of those arrested on August 9 in connection with the alleged plot to blow up airliners en route from Britain to America, had attended Tablighi study sessions in Britain. At least two of the 7/7 suicide bombers – Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer — had worshipped at a Tablighi-run mosque in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Richard Reid, the failed British shoe-bomber, is known to have Tablighi associations, while the path to violent radicalism of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” now serving 20 years for treason, appears to have begun with his contact with Tablighi missionaries.
In America, the activities of the Tablighi have been under close scrutiny for some time. A confidential FBI memo, leaked to a television news network last year, portrayed the group’s followers as likely to be particularly susceptible to the terrorist cause. “We have a significant presence of Tablighi Jamaat in the US, and we have found that al-Qaeda used them for recruiting, now and in the past,” says Michael Heimbach, the deputy chief of the FBI’s international terrorism section. Yet, in Britain, the organisation, its shadowy membership and less-than-explicitly stated aims remain virtually unknown.
It should be otherwise, for, while rival Islamic groups flaunt their reach and power, Tablighi Jamaat – loosely translated as “propagators of the faith” – exercises influence in a more discreet, yet more worrying, fashion. The organisation was founded in British-ruled India in 1927, at a time of growing political friction between Hindus and Muslims that led to the partition of the sub-continent in 1948. Both communities rallied their faithful loudly, and one of the voices that rose above the clamour was that of Muhammed Ilyas Kandhalawi, a scholar and cleric who prescribed a strict code of religious observance. Tablighis, however, were taught that their true security – indeed, their religious duty – lay in recruiting as many followers as possible. No limit was placed on the potential pool of converts, and so, implicitly, the ultimate objective was the Tablighisation of the world. The group, for all the mystique that surrounds it, has been diligent, and, today, with a growing presence in the West, it is viewed by anxious critics as a Trojan horse of Islamic fundamentalism.
It operates legally in both Britain and America, and it should be stated that none of its leading figures is known to have said anything that suggests support for terrorism. Indeed, the Tablighis reject any form of political alignment, restricting their activities, according to the group’s founding creed, to prayer and selfimprovement through intense study of the Koran. So much so, that some hardline Muslim groups have, in the past, attacked Tablighi Jamaat for its conspicuous failure to take a political stance on issues such as Israel and the Iraq war.
Yet, say Western critics, this passivity is not all that it seems. The group’s ideal of a world governed by an ultra-conservative, neo-medievalist form of Islam, in which women are subservient and all laws and customs are based on religious dictates, is barely distinguishable from the wish lists of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Marc Gaborieau, the head of the School of Indian and South Asian Studies in Paris, and a Western authority on Tablighi Jamaat, says that the group’s objective is “the conquest of the world”. Less easy to divine, he admits, is the strategy. “It is extremely secretive and suspicious of outsiders and no one at the centre of its activities has been fully identified or has spoken about how it operates. We know that it does not recognise national borders and that, despite its claim to be apolitical, it does have ties with politicians and branches of the military, particularly in Pakistan and Bangladesh.”
The modern leadership of the Tablighi is one of its core mysteries. After Kandhalawi’s death in 1944, control passed to his son, Muhammed Yusuf, who led a dramatic expansion across the sub-continent until his own death in 1965. It is understood that real power is still held by family members, although how it is exercised, and by whom, remains largely unknown.
“It operates in every sense as a secret society in this country, as much as elsewhere,” says Dr Patrick Sukhdeo, the director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity. “Its meetings are held behind closed doors. We don’t know who attends them. How much money it has. It publishes no minutes or accounts. It doesn’t talk about itself. It is extremely difficult to penetrate.”
For all its growth, Tablighi Jamaat has, in one sense, changed little. In the early days, it would send its followers out as missionaries. Working in small groups, with few material possessions, they would walk from village to village, denouncing modernity as blasphemy and calling for a return to the 7th-century origins of Islam and what Kandhalawi perceived to be the purity of the faith.
Today, the organisation runs on a global scale — it has about 50,000 followers in America alone — but its missionaries still operate in the traditional way, visiting Muslim community groups and mosques to call for a re-embracing of the faith.
In Britain, the group is run from the 3,000-capacity Markazi Mosque in Dewsbury — built with funds from Saudi Arabia — which also functions as Tablighi Jamaat’s European headquarters. Signs around it warn: “Photography prohibited. Unauthorised persons not allowed. Trespassers will be prosecuted.” Residential courses for young Muslims are held there and the group sends its missionaries across the Continent.
Last week, Shabbir Daji, a secretary and trustee of the Tablighi Jamaat movement and a spokesman for the mosque, denied that the organisation had any links with Islamic extremism. “We are a society that offers information to Muslims on how to reform themselves,” he said.
“We are not a political organisation and we do not let any brothers speak about politics within the mosque. We do not create those sort of people [terrorists]. We condemn them totally. If we think anyone has an agenda outside of our own, we immediately throw them out of the mosque. We have nothing to hide. We feel very bad and very angry that we are being linked to what is going on. People are putting out information that is untrue. It is