What is the Tablighi Jamaat?
The problem with this 'extremist' sect is not that it proselytises, but it seems to have so little contact with the outside world
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 8 September 2009 18.30 BST larger | smaller Article historyThe Times has "revealed" today that the leader of the airline bomb plot, Abdullah Ahmed Ali, worshipped at the Queen's Road mosque in Walthamstow. This, the reporter says, is a mosque controlled by the Tablighi Jamaat. Given that most mosques in the east end of London, according to sources, are Tablighi Jamaat, that's not surprising.
Sean O'Neill, the Times Crime and Security Editor, writes that he visited the Queen's Road mosque in 1989, when it was controlled by the then leader of extremist group al-Muhajiroun, the subsequently banned so-called Tottenham Ayatollah, Omar Bakhri Mohammed. He writes:
The mosque is currently under the control of Tablighi Jamaat, an ultraorthodox Islamic sect which preaches that Muslims should replicate the life of Muhammad and tells them it is their duty to travel the world converting non-believers to the one true faith.
He's right in that the Tablighi Jamaat copy Muhammad in all his customs, even it is reported, eschewing beds for sleeping and toothbrushes for cleaning teeth; they use a twig. But he is wrong about their interest in non-believers, indicating the serious religion "blind spot" that bedevils coverage of world affairs now.
If it were the duty of the Tablighi Jamaat to convert non-believers, there might be a freer debate than there is. The cut and thrust of open engagement might encourage a truer encounter between neighbours. As it is, the Tablighi Jamaat is a revivalist group – interested only in other Muslims and therefore particularly inward-looking – which accounts for their danger to gullible young men.
The Tablighi Jamaat is the most successful of the many such groups to form after the Mutiny (known to India, where it comes from, as the Uprising) in the mid-19th century. Eighty million-strong today, the group shuns the harsh outside world, and creates an atmosphere of spirituality, solidarity and purpose among themselves that proves extremely compelling. Deobandi-inspired, adherents are interested only in reviving the faith of weaker Muslims, and thus helping to ensure either a passport to paradise, or the rule of Islam on earth, whichever comes soonest.
Neither is the Tablighi Jamaat "ultraorthodox" – in fact rather the opposite. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, founder of the Muslim Institute and godfather of the Quilliam Foundation, is against the huge 12,000-capacity mosque the sect wishes to build in Newham because, as he told me, he believes they peddle "fairy tales".
Their reliance on unorthodox stories of mythical heroes, their other-worldliness and pietism, their veneration for the founder and his family, and their ritualisation of certain select scriptures and practises like the chilla – a 40-day preaching tour all are obliged to undertake annually – has led one scholar to conclude that they function like a sufi order, something that the "ultraorthodox" Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia for example completely condemn.
It is because they are not activist enough that frustrated young zealots become fodder for the shadowy jihadi-groomers who infiltrate their ranks, say some.
Anthropologist Roger Ballard has for many years accused policy-makers and journalists of "protestantising" Hinduism and Islam in Britain. In their avowed intent to render all religions "equal", they also render them all the same – and thereby betray their ignorance about very real and urgent differences. Christianity reaches out to others and thereby saves itself the corrupting effects of the ghetto – privatisation, stagnation and paranoia. Islam in Britain too often wants to remain aloof, uncontaminated – and unreal.
To have harboured terrorists does not necessarily mean that Tablighi Jamaat is therefore a hotbed of terrorism, but it does mean we need to take it much more seriously. We should not allow this strange parallel world to continue. Newham Council has for two years failed to enforce planning requirements on the Tablighi Jamaat mosque next to the Olympic stadia – the very mosque which organised gatherings attended by Abdullah Ahmed Ali.
Instead of patronising and protestantising the Tablighi Jamaat, Christians in particular need to acknowledge the spiritual hunger of young men yearning for meaning, identity and a heroic role in life, as indeed is happening at the Springfield Project in Birmingham, opened by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Where secular Britain fails is where Tablighi Jamaat wins. One Muslim responding toa blog post on my website about the Tablighi Jamaat says: "TJ is the best thing that ever happened to me." We need to understand why that should be so. And that means engaging with real Muslims as friends, and real Islam as an accountable social entity. It means getting mosques registered for civil marriages for instance, and enforcing the same planning controls as for any other building.
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