In a recent statement, Interior Minister Rehman Malik came down hard on the Tableeghi Jamat (TJ), claiming that the Islamic evangelical movement has become a breeding ground of extremists. His statement understandably ruffled quite a few feathers, especially within parties like the PML-N and the JUI-F.
PML-N’s Sharif brothers have had close links with the TJ, and the JUI-F follows the Deobandi school of thought that the TJ too adheres to. Also, quite a big number of TJ members are from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the province from where the JUI-F draws the bulk of its electoral support.
For long the TJ has been viewed as a benign movement that distances itself from mainstream politics and militancy, focusing instead on propagating ‘correct’ Islamic rituals and attire, and ritualistic paraphernalia in tune with the Deobandi line of thinking. The TJ was formed in the 1920s to supposedly cleanse Islam in the subcontinent of Hindu and Sikh influences.
After Pakistan’s creation in 1947 the TJ was ironically more successful in attracting positive attention from Pakistanis living abroad than those living in the country. Based in Raiwind in Punjab, the TJ membership and appeal however got a two-fold boost after the arrival of the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship in 1977.
This was the time when Zia used a part of CIA and Arab funds (dished out for the anti-Soviet Mujahideen insurgency in Afghanistan) on constructing a number of indoctrination centres in the shape of Deobandi and (the more radical) Salafi-dominated seminaries. The rise in the TJ’s fortunes was thus a product of the proliferation of the more puritanical strains of Islam by the Zia regime.
By the late 1980s, the TJ became successful in also attracting membership from the country’s petty-bourgeois and trader classes, especially in Punjab and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. In the 1990s, it also began attracting the interest of certain prominent sections of Pakistan’s affluent middle-classes, including certain pop musicians, TV actors and eventually cricketers.
Through the sectarian turmoil that the country faced in the 1980s and 1990s, the TJ was free to preach and recruit. It was always believed to be a harmless movement that had no political, sectarian or militant motives. However, since the country’s Sunni majority remains Bareilvi — an 18th century sub-continental Muslim concoction built from elements of Sufism and ‘folk-Islam’—a parallel evangelical movement emerged from within this fold.
Called the Dawat-i-Islami, it claims to represent the Barelvi majority’s spiritual interests. Also seen as non-political, the Dawat however has been accused of containing members that have graduated to becoming members of the Barelvi Sunni militant organisation, the Sunni Tehreek. The guard who shot dead Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer (for ‘blasphemy’) was also a former member of the Dawat. It is also staunchly anti-Deobandi creed.
What Malik spouted about the TJ may be the first time a member of a sitting government in Pakistan has accused the outfit of breeding possible recruits for various hardcore Islamist organisations. Alarms in this respect were first raised by some western observers when in the mid and late 1990s the radical anti-India/Hindu and anti-West chief of the ISI, Major Javed Nasir, became a staunch member of the TJ. This was also the time the TJ was making great headway in the Pakistan army.
The event was seen as being only incidental and the TJ continued to recruit and preach freely—now more than ever after making deep inroads into Pakistan’s showbiz scene and the cricket team as well. But the accusations (though suppressed in Pakistan) kept coming. The TJ’s name came up in connection with terrorism plots such as in October 2002 in the US (the ‘Portland Seven case’) and the September 2002 ‘Lackawanna Six case’ (also in the US).
The TJ was mentioned again in the August 2006 in a plot to bomb airliners en route from London to the United States and in the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005. Most of those accused in all these cases were said to be members of various violent Islamist organisations, but they were also said to have been a part of the TJ at some point before their final radicalisation.
In 2008, the Spanish police arrested fourteen Asian Muslims for allegedly planning to attack various places in Spain. Twelve were Pakistanis. A Spanish Muslim leader claimed that all of these men had once been members of the TJ. Though counter-terrorism experts have understandably focused their studies more on the militant groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, in the last five years or so, many of them have now begun to also study the dynamics of evangelical groups like the TJ.
They believe that in spite of the fact that the TJ’s primary function remains non-political, its rather secretive organisational structure and the goodwill that it enjoys among most Pakistanis allows elements from terrorist organisations to use it as a way to recruit members for more violent purposes. They say that many young men joining the TJ are more vulnerable to the Islamists’ propaganda due to the TJ’s conservative social orientation.
Rehman Malik was not shooting in the air. He was merely pointing out yet another area of concern in a country being torn apart by men committing violence in the name of faith. His statement only became controversial because very few Pakistanis are aware of the potential of the TJ polluting its pond with rotten fish.