Coronavirus Outbreak: Hatred unleashed by debate around Tablighi Jamaat could prove pandemic’s most toxic legacy
The host of the religious congregation that has proved the largest single source of coronavirus infections in India, the Tablighi Jamaat, is being cast by propagandists as the vanguard of an Islamic conspiracy to inflict mass death
For four days, Zakia Ahmed sat in her living room, staring the newspaper photograph, her heart blinding her mind to the truth. "I didn't recognise the person on the ground," she recalled, "I didn't recognise him as my son." The last time she had seen Kafeel Ahmad, he had been pursuing a PhD in computational fluid dynamics in the United Kingdom. Then, one day in 2007, he crashed a car-bomb into Glasgow airport — and after it failed to detonate, turned his body into a weapon by setting himself on fire.
Lonely, socially disconnected and alienated from the values of society around him, Ahmed had found meaning in a missionary order, where he discovered a new brotherhood that fired his imagination with stories of the jihadist wars in Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
That group, the Tablighi Jamaat, now lies at the centre of the most fraught conversation in India. The host of the religious congregation that has proved the largest single source of COVID-19 infections in India, the Tablighi Jamaat is being cast by propagandists as the vanguard of an Islamic conspiracy to inflict mass death. In the crucible of #coronajihad, propagandists are forging the terror unleashed by the pandemic into a weapon — hate.
For the Tablighi Jamaat, this is good news: Over the course of a century, the organisation has worked to sunder Muslims from the world around them, drawing power from the storm-winds of hate unleashed by India's competing communalists.
The Tablighi Jamaat was birthed in the shadow of another great pandemic, the most murderous in Indian history. The savage plague of 1896-1925, and the great influenza of 1918-1919, had claimed millions of lives, and reshaped culture and politics. Like every time of mass death, the pandemics had led to a great efflorescence of religion, emphasising the importance of personal piety. New proselytising groups sprang up across the country.
In the 1920s, the Arya Samaj began proselytising among the Meo Muslims of the Mewat region, spanning Alwar and Bharatpur. Like many other liminal religious communities in India, the Meo practice of Islam incorporated many Hindu cultural practices. The Arya Samaj hoped to win them back to the Hindu fold.
Faced with this challenge, a Deoband-educated cleric, Muhammad Illyas, created the Tablighi Jamaat. His new organisation, whose story has been masterfully told by the scholar Yoginder Sikand, sought to turn members of Meo clans into lay preachers, who would transmit religious knowledge from village to village. The Tablighis propagated a purist Islam, that sought to defend Islam's cultural frontiers by eradicating the Meos' syncretic practices.
Today, the Tablighi Jamaat is estimated to have some 15 million followers worldwide, centred in its headquarters in New Delhi's Nizamuddin. From there, the Tablighi Jamaat runs an ideological empire stretching from Indonesia to Central Asia; the United Kingdom; even Gambia.
Every Tablighi chapter, in essence, follows the same pattern. Preachers reach out to new audiences through local mosques or cultural organisations—and then invite them to join in the project of preaching and proselytisation. Each missionary journey, or tashkil, can run to four weeks — known as a chilla — all the way up to a year.
Tablighi sermons and texts are firmly focussed on pietism, urging adherents to focus on matters of faith, not politics. Though it propagates the neo-fundamentalist vision of Deoband, aimed at weeding out supposed heresies and deviations from scriptural Islam, there is nothing in the Tablighi Jamaat worldview that encourages armed struggle to establish an Islamic political order.
Indeed, the relentless inward gaze of the Tabligh has earned it it stinging criticism from Islamists—among them, Sheikh Abdul Aziz ibn Abdullah ibn Baz, the former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. Ibn Baz instead endorsed the jihadist Abdullah Azzam's jihadist urtext In Defence of Muslim Lands, the first modern call for Islamist-led war against nation-states.
For its Islamist critics, the distinction the Tablighi Jamaat draws between the realm of din, or faith, and dunya, is itself heretical: Islam, rival schools like the Ahl-e-Hadith contend, rejects such a division.
Tablighi resistance to jihadism, though, is one reason why India’s intelligence services, among others elsewhere in the world, have quietly encouraged its activities. For years, Indian authorities allowed foreign visitors to attend Tablighi Jamaat activities on tourist visas, not the obligatory — and tightly-rationed — missionary permits.
Sa'ad Kandhlawi, the head of the Tablighi Jamaat — the 1965-born great-grandson of its founder, Illyas — is known to have informally met with senior Indian intelligence officials over the years, including now-national security advisor Ajit Doval.
Like most stories people tell, though, the idea of the Tablighi Jamaat as prayer-obsessed pietists elides over important parts of the truth. The Tablighi Jamaat has found itself enmeshed with the great currents of jihadist thought that transformed the world in all kinds of complex ways. Indian Mujahideen founder and fugitive jihadist Iqbal Shahbandri, his brother Riyaz Shahbandri, both participated in Tablighi events in Karnataka's Bhatkal. So were Sufian Patangia, the cleric at the heart of a jihad cell founded in Gujarat after the carnage in 2002, and, of course, Kafeel Ahmed.
There are similar stories from across the world. Richard Reid, the Al-Qaeda operative who sought to down a transatlantic flight using an explosive planted in his shoes, had attended Tablighi Jamaat gatherings; so too had Jose Padilla, who hoped to unleash a radiological weapon on New York, and Lyman Harris, who sought to bomb Brooklyn Bridge.
Barcelona's Tariq bin Ziyad mosque — a facility that serves a large community of illegal immigrants from West Asia and Pakistan — has been associated with at least three plots involving Tablighis: Bombings of the city in 2007 and 2008, and another attempted strike in 2008.
And in Pakistan, two former special forces personnel accused of attempting to assassinate former Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharraf in 2008 — Naik Arshad Mahmood and Lance Naik Zafar Iqbal Dogar — were both members of the Tablighi Jamaat. Even the journalist Daniel Pearl’s assassin, Omar Saeed Sheikh, attended Tablighi events.
This body of evidence might seem damning — but there's a catch. In each of these cases, the jihadists acted with inspiration, training and resources provided by organisations or leaders other than the Tablighi Jamaat. In the case of the Shahbandri brothers, inspiration came from the Lashkar-e-Taiba; Patangia was tied to the Jaish-e-Mohammed. The western bomb-plots, similarly, were linked to Al-Qaeda.
Indeed, Yasin Zarar Siddibapa — a top Indian Mujahideen operative charged with staging multiple attacks in India, including the bombing of the German Bakery in Pune — told police interrogators that his jihadism was a form of rebellion against his father, a traditional Tablighi Jamaat follower.
Are terrorists, then, simply recruited from the Tablighi Jamaat by jihadists fishing, as it were, in the same religious-fundamentalist pool? Or is it that would-be jihadists tire of the pietism of the Tablighi Jamaat, and turn to other groups? Is there, alternatively, a kernel embedded in the Tablighi Jamaat message that leads some to violence?
The simple answer is no-one knows: Human motivation is opaque, and there’s no machine to look inside peoples' minds. It’s significant, though, that terrorists, in interviews and under interrogation, almost invariably attribute their actions to political events — like wars, discrimination or communal riots — not theological exegesis. Indeed, there’s a large corpus of social science research showing that ideology is, for the most part, a post-facto rationalisation of decisions people have already made.
From Tablighi texts, though, it isn’t hard to see that the semantic space that separates the jihadist from the Tablighi proselytiser isn't a large one. In one sermon, the British Tablighi scholar Abu Yusuf Riyadh al-Haq encourages Tablighis that their missionary journeys begin with "the intention of laying down your life for the sake of Allah". He argues, "You are not just talking about going on the battlefield... You are on the battlefield."
Perhaps as important, Tablighi principles do not reject the idea of a struggle for the creation of a state ordered by the principles of God's law. Instead, they assert that political struggle to create such a state must be preceded by the religious purification of the Muslim ummah, or nation.
This is precisely why so many jihadists have begun their journeys in the Tablighi Jamaat, before finding other vehicles for praxis. There's no arguing with the fact, though, that of millions of Tablighis, just a handful have been drawn to terrorism. That's why intelligence services across the world see it as something of an ally — a less-that-perfect one, to be sure, but one that merits engagement.
As the scholar Marc Gaborieau has perceptively noted, the Tablighi Jamaat far from being indifferent to politics: Instead, its conception of of power and influence has a different sensibility from that Islamists, who are obsessed with capturing the State.
From the stories of other transnational religious organisations — among them Hindu groups like the Osho cult and the Hare Krishna, or Christian Evangelists — we know new religious movements flower when the traditional social order no longer appears to hold out answers to the complex psychological needs of individuals. The contexts vary, but these are all movements that seek to address dislocation and trauma by obliterating all forms of uncertainty and intellectual doubt.
In the United Kingdom, much of the Tablighi Jamaat following comes from educated immigrants — enthused by the material possibilities of their new homeland, but profoundly uncomfortable in a post-religious cultural milieu with extensive sexual freedoms and gender equality.
The Tabligh's growth in India, alternately, has mirrored the growing ghettoisation of Muslim communities in response to communal violence; in Indonesia, it appeals to social classes like the urban petty bourgeoisie, disoriented by the rapid reordering of their world by capitalism.
Pietist Tablighis, at their core, are responding to an urge to secede from the world they live in, and retreat into another, walled-off society governed and protected by God's will — not the fraught, ever-shifting norms of often-hostile human beings.
That this separatist impulse has become embedded across many Muslim communities is now clear. In one Indore neighbourhood, Muslims rioted when health workers — led by a Hindu, Dr Trupti Kataria and a Muslim, Dr Zakia Syed — arrived to conduct quarantine inspections. Tablighi Jamaat workers have been accused of spitting at medical staff, and throwing urine-filled bottles at the police; in several parts of India, Muslim communities defied efforts to suspend congregational worship.
Little genius is needed to see why fear and suspicion characterise the relationship many Indian Muslims have with the State and the wider society around them. The most spectacular growth of the Tablighi Jamaat has come not in its homeland in Haryana and Rajasthan, but in states battered by communal violence. Indeed, Gujarat has seen a dramatic expansion in Tablighi activities since 2002; preachers from that state have increasing influence over the group’s activities.
The pandemic has cast merciless light on just how deep India’s communal fault lines are, and how fractured the relationship between the State and Muslim communities has become. There’s a real possibility these strains could deepen in coming months: religious frenzy has, after all, flowered through every pandemic in human history, sometimes exploding into large-scale violence.
For the Tablighi Jamaat, the answer lies in a kind of Partition: One made not of borders, but a sundering of Muslim from Hindu, and a walling-off of minds more profound, in many ways, than that even the savagery of 1947 could achieve. The construction of its dystopia could prove the pandemic's most toxic legacy.
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