By Muhammad Amir Rana
15 February 2016
A NOTIFICATION issued by the Punjab government has banned preaching activities on university campuses. However, the notification does not provide enough reason for the government’s decision to put restrictions on the activities of the Tableeghi Jamaat on university campuses and its members’ stay in hostels.
Apparently, the decision has been taken from a security perspective. The Tableeghi Jamaat has easy access to university campuses and mosques attached to hostels. The law-enforcement agencies suspect that terrorists could use the Tableeghi Jamaat’s loose organisational structure to facilitate their operational mobility on university campuses. The provincial government’s decision is, therefore, an important initiative in the context of militants’ onslaught on educational institutions.
The religious and rightist parties’ reaction was expected. They criticised the decision on the basis of their belief that the Tableeghi Jamaat had no links with terrorism. As always, they saw a Western conspiracy behind this decision and deemed it tantamount to the banning of the preaching of Islam.
Apart from the internal discourse of the Tableeghi Jamaat, which is peaceful and influenced by the Sufi traditions of the subcontinent, the group has sectarian undercurrents. Indeed, it has been an important tool for the promotion of the Deobandi school of thought in the country, which also raises some critical questions. For one, why would the government allow the organisation of a particular sect to preach in educational campuses and not others? Should the government also allow members or groups of marginalised Muslim sects to preach on campuses?
Those who are familiar with the Tableeghi Jamaat’s preaching practices know that its members go into classrooms with the cooperation of the administration of a school, college or university. The administration fears that non-cooperation would be used to tag it as anti-religion. Is the same ‘right’ to disturb academic activities at educational campuses available to preaching organisations of any other sect or religion? The group once had specific times to go door to door and invite people to mosques but this is a new practice — its delegations have now started visiting offices and schools during work hours.
The Tableeghi Jamaat has expanded its outreach and influence in sections of Pakistani society to the extent that its delegations are sometimes invited to cabinet meetings and important state functions. Millions participate in its congregations in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. The growth of participants in its annual congregation is exponential. This makes it necessary to review the group’s policy, discipline, impact, and more importantly, the reason why people are attracted to it.
Critics raise many objections to the methodology of the group, especially the time of its preaching visits, schedules, emphasis on its six principles and its way of administering the oath of allegiance. These acts are labelled impermissible innovations in religion. Western scholarship has criticised the Tableeghi Jamaat for its potential links to jihad, terrorism and political Islam. On the contrary, religious circles in Pakistan, particularly religious scholars, who are also engaged in politics, criticise the Tableeghi Jamaat for pushing the people away from jihad and politics.
It is interesting to note that the founder of the Tableeghi Jamaat, Maulana Mohammed Ilyas, initially established educational institutions along the lines of convents where common folk would come for a limited time. They were given basic knowledge of Islam and worship. However, as its influence and numbers grew, its approach and methods of preaching changed.
When setting up educational institutions on a large scale to attract Muslims to religion became difficult, mosques were brought into use as schools and affiliations were forged with educational institutions. However, the preaching model remained that of the Sufi mystics.
Sermons based on scholarly arguments were avoided. The basic principle named Taleem was: “those who have a higher knowledge of Islam should share it with others and those who have little should learn from others”. The method was derived from the one practised by the As’haab-i-Suffa (Companions of the Prophet [PBUH] dedicated to teaching Islam in the Prophet’s mosque in Madina).
Despite its simplistic message, the Tableeghi Jamaat has failed to shed its sectarian image. Traditionally, it has used mosques belonging to the Deobandi sect for taleem and other activities. Never has a Shia mosque been used.
The Tableeghi Jamaat does not believe in charismatic leaders. They are to be respected and venerated which again is part of the Sufi mystic tradition. Maulana Tariq Jameel is an exception and reportedly the elders of the Tableeghi Jamaat have reservations about his way of reaching out to celebrities and the ruling elite. However, their displeasure cannot stop Maulana Tariq from continuing his ways because he himself has become a celebrity.
From a security angle, there’s no evidence that the group is directly involved in militancy. But the possibility of individual members getting involved has never been ruled out.
The possibility of Tableeghi Jamaat-associated youth moving towards extremism is also there. Many of those associated with jihad and violent sectarian groups have been linked to it at certain times. The Tableeghi Jamaat attracts the youth and brings them to the mosque, but it cannot control them. In the mosque, people associated with jihad and sectarian groups are also present.
The loose organisational structure of the group is viewed as the biggest threat as it makes it easy for militant entities to penetrate ostensibly for recruiting new members and hiding from law-enforcement agencies. The latter claim, that many terrorist groups have hidden themselves in the Tableeghi Jamaat to avoid arrests, and, sometimes to carry out terrorist activities.
Despite the fact that the terrorist threat is increasing, the Tableeghi Jamaat seems unwilling to change its organisational structure. That is partly because some of its elders believe that developing it on the style of a formal party will damage the organisation’s preaching image and appeal.
If Tableeghi Jamaat elders are not sensitive to the penetration of militant elements, the state should also not compromise on its role to ensure security both in mosques and on campuses.
Muhammad Amir Rana is a security analyst.