By TR Vivek
May 16, 2019
The deadly Easter terror attack in Sri Lanka that claimed 253 lives has put Tamil-speaking Islamist groups on either side of the Palk Strait under the scanner. The National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ) is one of the prime suspects that the Sri Lankan government banned in the immediate aftermath of the eight serial blasts, for which the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility.
President Maithripala Sirisena used his emergency powers to ban the NTJ and another group known as the Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI). Security and counter terrorism experts in Sri Lanka believe the hitherto little-known NTJ to be an organisation that split from the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamaath (SLTJ) in 2014.
SLTJ, a prominent Muslim outfit that seeks to spread a fundamentalist, Wahhabi version of Islam has a track record of inciting racial hatred, vandalising Buddhist places of worship, and openly endorsing the IS brand of violent jihad. In 2016, SLTJ’s general secretary Abdul Razik was arrested for hate speech.
The Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamaath (TNTJ), which in the aftermath of the bombings, found itself in the eye of the storm — initial reports by media houses laid the blame of the terror attack on them — is a bonafide affiliate of SLTJ.
Both organisations actively collaborate towards translating and distributing versions of the Quran, spreading the message of what they claim is true Islam; the SLTJ has also hosted TNTJ leaders in Sri Lanka.
Beyond religious ideology, the two organisations are conjoined by the bonds of Tamil linguistic identity. Muslims comprise nearly 10% of Sri Lanka’s population. Concentrated in the north and east of the country, a majority are Tamil speakers.
By all measures, the TNTJ is a hardliner religious organisation, but it insists that it had nothing to do with the serial blasts on April 21, Easter Sunday, that occurred in St Sebastian’s church in Negombo, among other churches, and in many luxury hotels in Colombo.
Ties Of Tongue
In the aftermath of the bombings, multiple media reports linked the Chennai-headquartered TNTJ to the attacks, forcing its leaders to address a press conference to deny the allegations, as well as condemn terror attacks as anti-Islamic.
“Connecting NTJ with TNTJ is like saying All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) are sister groups because DMK is common to both their names. Thowheed is an Arabic word that means oneness of God, and several organisations use it. No government has linked us with NTJ; it’s only the handiwork of some media houses that seek to spread mischief and defame real Islam. We work closely with SLTJ, a peaceful organisation that functions within the laws of Sri Lanka. Whoever has carried out the attacks cannot be a real Muslim,” says B Abdul Rehman, a tall, slender man in his mid-thirties who is the vice president of TNTJ.
When HT visited them earlier this month, the cramped three-storey headquarters, surrounded by power tools and textile sellers in the wholesale trade hub of the old British settlement of George Town, Chennai, was abuzz with activity.
Hundreds of bundles of TNTJ’s mouthpiece, a 16-page Tamil weekly tabloid called Unarvu [which loosely translates to ‘consciousness’], are piled up ready for dispatch. Every inch of the tabloid dated May 3-9, 2019, is devoted to the Sri Lanka terror attacks. In Unarvu’s crosshairs is a Times of India report that alleged TNTJ’s links to the prime suspect NTJ; one article praises BBC’s “even-handed coverage” de-linking them from the banned Sri Lankan group; several articles denounce IS as an Jewish-American enterprise. The receptionist’s phone hasn’t stopped buzzing. The attendant, a bearded man in his twenties, patiently directs all media queries to TNTJ’s leadership. Though Hindi is not the lingua franca here, he addresses everyone with the north Indian suffix “ji”.
TNTJ runs 600 mosques in all districts of the state, conducts summer camps for children, and also provides ambulance services, medical and educational help to the poor within the community, and organises blood donation camps. It runs old age homes, homes for children without families and Islamic schools. It claims to have a membership of nearly one million.
A Hardliner View
TNTJ claims to be the largest Muslim group in Tamil Nadu with membership exceeding a million. It was established in 2004 by P Jainulabdeen (popularly known as “PJ”) as a non-political organisation to spread a hardcore Saudi-Wahhabi inspired version of Islam. The TNTJ’s precursor, the quasi-political Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), also led by PJ, was a somewhat bigger tent that attempted to electorally rally the state’s 6-7% Muslim population. In the 2011 assembly polls, its political wing, Manidhaneya Makkal Katchi won two seats, as an ally of the AIADMK. In the following elections, it tied up with the DMK, and contested on four seats. It won none.
The TMMK, eventually, morphed into a hardliner, proselytising organisation called TNTJ that sought to replace other branches of Islam including Sufism and Shiaism with its Saudi-inspired version. It began to publish a monthly religious magazine, Ekathuvam (which translates to ‘oneness’), and booklets titled Kolgai Vilakkam (‘ideological explanation’), and Manithanukketra Margam (‘the best path for man’).
The TMMK and its later avatar TNTJ, has often been critical of the DMK and Tamil nationalist groups for their support of the militant Sri Lankan separatist movement led by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The predominantly Hindu and Catholic LTTE’s expulsion of Tamil-speaking Muslims from the territories under its control in the 1980s sowed the seeds of distrust.
Up until 2018, PJ, 66, was the face of TNTJ. Last year, however, he was expelled when multiple audio recordings (purportedly in his voice) of explicit sexual conversations with women, began to circulate. Born in Thondi, a small seaside town in the Muslim-dominated region of Ramanathapuram on the south-eastern coast of Tamil Nadu, just across a stretch of sea from Sri Lanka, he built TNTJ Bayan by Bayan — the Arabic term used by TNTJ followers for speeches based on the teachings of Quran and Hadith. A small, dark-skinned man, with a closely trimmed beard, PJ’s speeches are available on YouTube. Almost always attired in a full-sleeved shirt, a white lungi, a prayer cap and brown tinted Ray-Ban aviator glasses, he speaks Tamil with a thick Madurai accent. The only foreign words used in PJ’s bayans are direct, extempore quotations from the Quran in Arabic. TNTJ’s version of Islam does not even attempt any indigenisation. There is no mention of Deoband, the pre-eminent seminary of sub-continental Islam in its literature. An overwhelming majority of the young people who now form TNTJ’s leadership at the state and district levels were inspired by PJ.
Since 2004, PJ’s bayans, titled Islam Oru Iniya Margam (‘Islam, the sweet path’), syndicated on several Tamil satellite TV networks, have fuelled TNTJ’s popularity among Tamil Muslims in India and abroad. “We believe only in PJ’s tarjuma (translation) of Quran because he is a real Aalim (scholar),” says Arif Khan, a 42-year-old district secretary of TNTJ in Ramanathapuram.
“PJ had trained us so well in the margam [Islam’s true path] that we have the courage to throw him out when he himself commits haram,” adds Khan.
In the wake of the scandal, PJ refused to grant HT an interview — this was conveyed through the employees of the departmental store that he runs in Broadway, barely a few hundred metres from the TNTJ headquarters. He now heads another religious outfit.
TNTJ condemns terrorism as anti-Islamic. It also labels Muslims who don’t adhere to its version of Islam as apostates.
“In a traditional sense, TNTJ is a purist Islamic outfit. It was one of the organisations that forced the cancellation of American Islamic feminist scholar Dr Amina Wadud’s lecture in Chennai. However, it engages in religiously inspired community work as well but it is primarily driven by Islamic identity assertion politics in the face of rising communalisation of society and politics,” explains Neshat Quaiser, a former professor of sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. Wadud, an Islamic scholar, was supposed to give a lecture on Islam, gender and reform, in 2013, which was cancelled after the state police received information of possible violence.
Setting the Ideal Path
In Muslim-dominated Keelkarai, about 15 km from Ramanathapuram, TNTJ has put together an “Exhibition of Islam” in a playground. It has stalls on the ideal way to lead their lives — issues of converting idol worshippers, Quranic duty, and “handling” of women form the bulk of the exhibition.
One of the biggest victories that TNTJ claims is the weaning away of Tamil Muslims from dargahs. “In Keelakarai, there are two Dargahs by the seaside. In a town of 40,000, we have worked so effectively that not more than 40-50 people visit them,” boasts Ayub Khan, the TNTJ Ramanathapuram district general secretary.
TNTJ also takes pride in the increasing number of Muslim women opting for the burqa in Tamil Nadu. “Women are like jackfruit. They are bound to attract flies. Just as we should cover the fruit, we must cover our women,” explains Habibullah, a 36-year old tailor and the head of TNTJ in Madurai.
According to Quaiser, Tamil Nadu Muslims have traditionally been deeply rooted in syncretic socio-cultural ethos and the state has largely been free from radical Muslim politics. However, incidents like the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, and the Gujarat riots in 2002, “Tamil Nadu too has witnessed certain limited amount of radicalisation of Muslim politics, which in no way be characterised as mainstream Tamil Muslim politics.”
“In Tamil Nadu for instance, there has been a dramatic increase in Muslim women wearing the Burqa. It is partly an effect of the work TNTJ and similar outfits have done but in large measure a reaction to the rise of Hindutva in post-Babri Masjid demolition India. Although they have nothing culturally common with North Indian Muslims, the Tamil Muslims are trying to forge a certain unity in this context. The rise of Hindutva also gives organisations like TNTJ a concrete shape and the ability to articulate their regressive worldview. Both come together to create an extremely dangerous situation,” says Quaiser.
At Alhidaya, a women’s madrasa run by TNTJ in Madurai’s Avaniyapuram, warden Ziaur Rehman, a young man in his 30s, calls it a “reformatory” for Muslim girls. On the day HT visits, about 80 young girls have finished a 10-day introductory course on the Islamic way of life. There is also a 10-month diploma course post which around 100 girls between the ages of 15 and 25 would become “aalimaas”—fully trained in the Quranic way of life.
“Did you see that girl at the gate? Her father got her here because she was chatting with boys in her street. She was arguing with her parents on matters of deen [faith]. She would sit in the drawing room alongside male guests. Did you see how perfectly she wore the hijab? All parts of the body completely covered, just the face visible. That is what we do. You call it fundamentalism; we think it is the only way to live.”