The spread of the COVID-19 infection from a Tablighi Jamaat ijtema (gathering) in New Delhi has become an occasion for stoking the flames of Islamophobia that have been licking this country for a while. Many TV channels are accusing the Tablighi Jamaat of “endangering India” being “anti-national”, and the head of the BJP IT cell has tweeted that this is part of an “Islamic insurrection”.
Most Indians may not be aware of it, but the Tabligh is the largest Islamic movement in the world, and they are headquartered a couple of kilometres away from the Parliament House, in the New Delhi suburb of Nizamuddin. That you have not heard of it is not because it is sinister, but that it is fairly innocuous.
- That you have not heard of Tablighi Jamaat before is not because it is sinister, but that it is fairly innocuous.
- The Tabligh deserves to be condemned, but it is not as though they deliberately set about spreading the infection.
- Authorities in India have not seen the Tablighi Jamaat as an Islamist organisation.
- Western intelligence agencies have long accused the Tablighi Jamaat of promoting radicalisation.
- Tablighis disgruntled with the group’s apolitical program could break orbit and join militant organisations.
Tablighi Jamaat Cannot Evade Responsibility
The Tablighi Jamaat leadership should have displayed better sense in conducting the ijtema itself, given the already deteriorating public health environment around the country. At Prime Minister Modi’s call, Holi 2020 on March 10 was already a remarkably subdued affair and people began to avoid large gatherings. Truth be told, till he ordered a lockdown on the evening of March 24, the seriousness of the situation did not really get through. To blame the Tabligh alone for the chaos that accompanied their ijtema is to willfully ignore the fact that the outbreak caught everyone unawares, witness the large and unorganized movement of migrants across the country under conditions of great hardship.
The Tabligh deserves to be condemned, but it is not as though they deliberately set about spreading the infection, after all, the first to be affected are fellow Tablighis and Muslims.
And they were not the only ones who whose recklessness was born out of ignorance, many other personalities in the country ranging from starlet Kanika Kapoor to Karnataka Chief Minister Yediyurappa and Yogi Adityanath were involved in public gatherings a week after the ijtema. If it comes to blunders in handling the Covid threat, even greater personalities like Xi Jinping and Donald Trump are in line before the Tablighi Jamaat leadership.
Indian State and Tablighi Jamaat
Unlike the Jamaat-e-Islami or the Jamiat ulema-e-Hind, the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) membership tends to be poor, inward looking and the central message of the Tabligh in India is detachment from worldly affairs. Not many who readily condemn the organisation, not in the least the equally medieval TV anchors, are really familiar with the outfit and the role it has played in this country.
Given its vast influence in the Islamic world, our intelligence services have good links with the outfit, evidenced by NSA Ajit Doval’s involvement in clearing the Markaz off its unwelcome guests last month.
But this is a discreet contact and the Tablighis tend to avoid the limelight to the extent they can.
As for politicians, they have been kept at distance by the Tablighi Jamaat. Since the outfit has no public interface and does not publish or declare any authoritative statement of its organisation or ideas, it has no way of endorsing or attacking any political party. That is by choice more than anything else.
Tablighi Jamaat is Not Like Jamaat-e-Islaami
Authorities in India have not seen the Tablighi Jamaat as an Islamist organisation and it was not, like the Jamaat-e-Islami, banned during the Emergency. The Tabligh has never been accused of encouraging terrorism or violence of any kind. However, Riyaz Bhatkal or Riyaz Shahbandri, and Irfan Bhatkal of the Indian Mujahideen used the Tablighi global network to reach out to Islamists across the world.
An important reason why Indian Muslims were not affected by the kind of violent religious extremism that affected the world in the last forty years is because of organisations like the Tablighi Jamaat which is orthodox, but quietist.
Its leadership has largely been statist, in that they support the government of the day and self-consciously avoid all politics and focus on what orthodox Muslims say is the greater jihad—the struggle within for faith and piety.
The partition of the country and the creation of Pakistan played an important role in shaping the ideology of the outfit. Suddenly Muslims had to come to terms with the fact that they were a minority. And hence, Maulana Yusuf the head of the outfit between 1945-1965, encouraged the inward looking approach. In fact, scholar Yoginder Sikand has said that the spread of the organization around the world is because it encourages its followers to come to terms with the secular world by personalising Islam and “making a defacto distinction between religion and politics.
Tablighi Jamaat and the Global Jihad
Western intelligence agencies have long accused the Tablighi Jamaat of promoting radicalisation. In its annual report in 2005, the German domestic intelligence organisation BfV claimed that Tablighi Jamaat had played a particularly “important role in the process of radicalisation” of socially and economically disadvantaged Muslims because of their technique of debate and discussion.
The FBI was more cautious when its chief Robert Mueller told a Senate Committee on Intelligence in February 2005 that “individual members of legitimate organizations such as Jama’at Tabligh, may be targeted by al-Qa’ida in an effort to exploit their networks and contacts here in the United States.”
Actually, as a Stratfor analysis put it in 2008, there is an indirect connect between the Tablighi Jamaat and the world of global jihad. This is the one that arises “when Tablighis disgruntled with the group’s apolitical program could break orbit and join militant organisations.” Certainly, given its very nature, it provides a large pool of the pious who can further the lesser jihad machine.
Like the Deobandi organisations, dissatisfied Tablighis in Pakistan have taken a more radical approach and chosen the path of violence while also influencing radicals in Europe.
Zia ul Haq encouraged the Tablighi Jamaat hoping it would keep the influence of the Jamaat-e-Islami at bay. But over time, like the Deobandis, the Tablighis, too, became militant in the country. One of them, Lt Gen Javid Nasir became the chief of the ISI and another Rafiq Tarrar was the President of Pakistan who Musharraf displaced in his coup.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)