By James M. Dorsey
Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif bin Abdulaziz al-Sheikh has ordered imams in the kingdom to identify one of the world’s largest Muslim movements as misguided, deviant, dangerous, and a breeder of militancy.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s offensive against Tablighi Jamaat or Society for Preaching, a secretive transnational ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim missionary movement of South Asian origin long banned in the kingdom, came in response to members of the group celebrating the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and openly criticizing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s social reforms.
The Twitter account of Mr. Al-Sheikh’s ministry instructed imams to point to the group's "most prominent mistakes…mention their danger to society" and emphasize that Saudia Arabia forbids any "affiliation" with the group.
To be fair, the ministry last month waged a similar campaign against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the late scholar Muhammad Surur whose fusion of the Brotherhood’s political ideology with Saudi Wahhabism’s theological purity influenced prominent reformist clerics in the kingdom.
The Tablighi, the largest group of proselytisers of any faith, insist that they are religious and spiritual, not a political group, and have nothing to do with politics or militancy.
While largely accurate, it fails to explain why a fair number of Tablighi youth have over the decades joined Islamist and jihadist groups and/or been linked by intelligence agencies to acts of violence. Encouraging disengagement from material in favour of spiritual life, the Tablighi, a defuse and decentralized group, is believed to have up to 80 million followers in some 150 countries.
Zahack Tanvir, the Saudi-based editor of The Milli Chronicle, an online publication in Britain, who describes himself as an anti-Islamist “traditional Muslim,” noted that the targeting of the Tablighi followed the resurrection of a year-old tweet criticising the municipality of the holy city of Medina’s plans for a shopping mall with cinemas and western-style entertainment venues.
The controversial tweet was retweeted by Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani, one of Pakistan’s most prominent Islamic scholars and a former Pakistani supreme court judge and ex-member of the Council of Islamic Ideology, the state-appointed body created to ensure that Pakistani legislation does not violate Islamic law.
Mr. Usmani heads Wifaq ul Madaris Al-Arabia, the most extensive grouping of religious seminaries in Pakistan with some 23,000 associated madrassas.
His membership in the Jeddah-based International Islamic Fiqh Academy that studies Islamic jurisprudence and law reflects his ties to Saudi Arabia. So does his chairmanship of the Sharia board of the Bahrain-headquartered Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) which promotes Islamic legal standards for Islamic financial entities.
Mr Usman's criticism of the Jeddah development plan may have been particularly stinging, given his ties to the kingdom and status as a scholar.
The targeting of the ultra-conservative proselytisers comes as reformist Saudi clerics are either incarcerated or forced to remain silent at the risk of imprisonment, and those aligned with the government are reduced to publicly rubber-stamping Mr. Bin Salman’s policies.
Mr. Tanvir said that Mr. Usman’s retweet had sparked widespread criticism among conservative South Asian Muslims of the Saudi reforms, including lifting a ban on women's driving, expanding women's rights, and loosening of social restrictions and gender segregation, and greater professional opportunity for women.
"Taqi Usmani's problem with Saudi reform reflects the anxiety of many Pakistani clerics who view themselves as bastions of Islam and having the right to act as caretakers of the Muslim world based on Pakistan being one of the first Muslim-majority countries to have been formed. The reforms also threaten the kingdom's patronage of Pakistani clerics," a Pakistani analyst said in an interview.
Mr. Tanvir said in an online text message interview that the ministry’s sensitivity was partly driven by the fact that the influential group, despite the ban, continued to raise funds in the kingdom and meet in private homes and hotel rooms. He did not hide his antipathy towards the Tablighi and the ultra-conservative Deobandi strand of Islam that shapes their worldview.
Mufti Akbar Hashmi, an Indian Tablighi Jamaat cleric, appeared to confirm the ministry's concern in a head-on response to the campaign that denied the legitimacy of the kingdom’s ruling Al-Saud family.
“Why is Saudi Arabia afraid of Tablighi Jamaat? Why?... The Saudi government is extremely scared that people in the kingdom affiliated to the Taliban (Tablighi Jamaat) may rise against the government… I personally believe that there will be a great uprising. Mark my words. Whether I live or die, this revolution shall surely happen, especially in Saudi Arabia. This government will soon disappear,” Mr. Hashmi thundered.
In a seemingly contradictory gesture for a firebrand, Mr. Hashmi’s Facebook page features a picture of recently detained Indian cleric Kaleen Siddiqui saying, "inter-faith dialogue is not a crime."
Mr. Siddiqui was detained in September by the Uttar Pradesh Anti-Terrorist Squad on suspicion of running India’s “biggest (religious) conversion syndicate.” A British charity that helps deprived children and orphans in Pakistan allegedly funded two other clerics arrested on related charges.
Several Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh, have enacted anti-conversion laws to tackle an alleged Muslim ‘love jihad’ in which Muslim men allegedly lure Hindu women into marriage to convert them to Islam forcefully. The conspiracy theory has helped fuel a wave of Hindu nationalist-inspired Islamophobia in India.
Two months later, the Tablighi Jamaat contributed to Islamophobia in India in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic when cases in the country still numbered in the thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. Nevertheless, thousands of Tablighi followers assembled at their Delhi headquarters, including travellers from virus hotspots Malaysia and Indonesia.
Authorities said the gathering had become a super spreader, asserting that it was responsible for one-third of the 4,000 positive cases in March of last year. As a result, some 25,000 Jamaat followers and their contacts in 15 states were quarantined within days of the authorities shutting down the headquarters.
Mainstream media accused the Tablighi of neglect and blamed India's 200 million Muslims for spreading the virus.
The hashtag #CoronaJihad trended on Twitter, with ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) officials dubbing the religious gathering “corona terrorism.” They advised the public against buying fruit and vegetables from Muslims.
At about the same time, Tablighi mass prayers in Malaysia and Indonesia contributed to spreading the virus in Southeast Asia. Similarly, Pakistan quarantined 20,000 people in April of last year and searched for thousands more who attended a Tablighi congregation near the city of Lahore.
Eleven Saudi nationals detained in last year’s Indian government sweep of participants in the Tablighi gathering walked free after paying a US$130 fine for visa violations that included illegal missionary activity and attending a religious congregation. The Saudi minister’s targetting of the group suggests that they may not have had a warm welcome once they returned to the kingdom.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.