Islamic missionaries unfazed by claims of al Qaeda links
ISLAMABAD, Sep 14: Devotees came in their tens of thousands, unrolled mats, pitched tents, assembled mini-stoves, and spent the weekend in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad sipping tea, praying and listening to sermons.
From Friday night to Sunday morning, preachers of Islamic revivalism held sway over a congregation organised by Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary organisation that has spread from South Asia to Europe, North America, South Africa, and South East Asia.
''Allah sent us for the good of mankind, whether it is in India, China, Russia or elsewhere,'' Haji Abdul Wahab, the white bearded Ameer, or leader, of the movement in Pakistan, told his flock at the beginning of the mass meeting.
''We aren't for one nation. We're for the entire world. No one is our enemy except the devil,'' he told the crowd, many sitting cross-legged on the ground at a site until recently used as a tent village for victims of a big earthquake last year.
Nevertheless, Tablighi Jamaat's name has frequently surfaced during investigations into terrorism in the West.
According to British media reports, several suspects in the Heathrow airline plot uncovered by British police last month, with US and Pakistani help, attended the group's meetings in Britain.
Up to all four of the suicide bombers who attacked London's transport system in July last year are also reported by the British media to have been worshippers at Tablighi Jamaat's European headquarters in Dewsbury, in northern England.
French intelligence labelled the movement an ''antechamber of fundamentalism'', according to a report cited by French media. The United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation has said that al Qaeda has recruited Tablighi Jamaat members.
''We have a significant presence of Tablighi Jamaat in the United States, and we have found that Al Qaeda used them for recruiting,'' Michael J. Heimbach, the deputy chief of the FBI's international terrorism section told the New York Times in 2003.
Its followers are often young men searching for an identity like American John Walker Lindh who went on a proselytising tour with Tablighi missionaries after converting to Islam. He later joined the Taliban in Afghanistan and met Osama bin Laden.
But Tablighi Jamaat leaders say it is a non-political movement which does not promote the interpretation of jihad as violent struggle that militants use to justify their acts.
''(Foreign intelligence agencies) know that we have nothing to do with politics or any government and that's why they allow us to visit their countries,'' Rahim Khan, one of the movement's veterans, told Reuters.
Founded during the 1920s in pre-independence India, Tablighi Jamaat espouses a puritanical form of Sunni Islam. Followers travel widely spreading their message, both through sermons at mosques and door-to-door. Members undertake to spend months away from their families on spiritual journeys. ''They don't discuss politics. They have mellow, calm, puritanical approach of Islam,'' Hasan Salim Patel, of the Islamic Foundation, told Reuters by telephone from Britain.
The group's annual congregation in Bangladesh, the Biswa Ijtema, attracts more than three million followers.
In Pakistan, it is headquartered at Raiwand, near the eastern city of Lahore, and patronised by politicians, not just from religious parties. Tablighi Jamaat has also attracted members of the top ranks of the military.
Most members of the congregation in Islamabad were clad in traditional shalwar kameez baggy tunics and trousers. Several army officers in civilian clothes arrived in staff cars.
The group draws supports from all stratas of Pakistani society. A former cricket star, Saeed Anwar, and pop singer, Junaid Jamshed, are among the movement's best known followers.
Many Pakistanis scoff at what they regard as scaremongering by Western media that a movement with such mass appeal could be associated with terrorism.
''Islam is religion of peace and they have been doing a great job peacefully. We haven't found any case in which they they have used Islam wrongly,'' said Tariq Azim Khan, Pakistan's deputy Information Minister.
In contrast to the Tablighi Jamaat movement, the Pakistani Islamic charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United States because of its links with a feared militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba.
While being far from militant itself, some analysts say Tablighi Jamaat's congregations, particularly in the West, have been milked by militant groups seeking recruits.
Asghar Bukhari, spokesman for Britain's Muslim Public Affairs Committee civil liberties group, said the movement was one of the most influential Islamic groups operating in Britain. He rejected notions it might be militant.
But, Bukhari said the rejection of Western values by some followers who immerse themselves in their religious observances to the exclusion of the outside world creates a void that radical groups might exploit.
''Many members of the Tablighi Jamaat withdraw from society because they see so much evil in it,'' Bukhari said by telephone from Britain. ''That, obviously, is a road to disaster.'' ''If you have no connection with society, no relation with society, then you are prone to possibly be convinced that there is only a limited number of avenues to change that society you are so aggrieved with.''