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Rally for secretive Islamist group TJ exploded Covid-19 in India - but is that the most dangerous thing about this movement?

Abhijit Majumder
Abhijit Majumder

is a senior Indian journalist who has been the editor of national dailies like Mid Day, Hindustan Times (Delhi and NCR editions) and Mail Today. Follow him on Twitter @abhijitmajumder

is a senior Indian journalist who has been the editor of national dailies like Mid Day, Hindustan Times (Delhi and NCR editions) and Mail Today. Follow him on Twitter @abhijitmajumder

Rally for secretive Islamist group TJ exploded Covid-19 in India - but is that the most dangerous thing about this movement?
One in three people who have tested positive for the Covid-19 virus in India have contracted it at a common source: a gathering of a massive and mysterious Islamic organisation named Tablighi Jamaat (TJ).

Of the total 5,734 confirmed cases in the country, a huge 1,445 were infected during an event of the Tablighis at Delhi’s densely populated Nizamuddin area, the Indian health ministry said on Monday. The lethal virus has killed 166 people in India so far — and incredibly nearly 65 percent of new cases originate from the TJ event.

It’s not just India where the TJ has been a major source of the spread. Similar situations have been seen in Pakistan and Malaysia, too. The first two cases of Covid-19 in Gaza had been imported from an event hosted by the religious outfit in Raiwind, Pakistan. Pakistan quarantined 20,000 TJ worshippers who flouted government advice and attended a gathering in Lahore in mid-March — and is trying to track down tens of thousands more.

In breach of local guidelines amid a 21-day national lockdown, the March event at the Nizamuddin Markaz mosque in Delhi attracted 1,010 Indian and 281 foreign Muslim worshippers, according to reports.

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In an audio widely shared by media, TJ chief Maulana Ameer Saad Kadhalvi — right now hiding in “self-quarantine” in Delhi despite a First Information Report (FIR) against him — is heard exhorting his supporters to defy the lockdown and government advisories and get together for the religious event.

But it didn’t stop there. There are also reports of Tablighi Jamaat men spitting at doctors and medical officials and attacking caregivers and cops in cities like Indore Ahmedabad and Madhubani. Nurses and female doctors even reported TJ Covid-19 patients wandering semi-naked around quarantine facilities. On Sunday, a man was shot dead at a tea stall in Uttar Pradesh after he criticized the TJ for recklessly spreading the virus. Indian social media has exploded with condemnation, describing the group’s wilful and dangerous negligence under hashtags like #CoronaJihad.

So, what exactly is Tablighi Jamaat?

The Tablighi Jamaat, or ‘group for preaching’ movement, began in Mewat, India, in 1927 inspired by the hardline Deobandi school of Sunni Islam. Deobandi is the most widely practised form of Islam in south Asia. TJ sends missionaries across the globe for proselytising and to bring Muslims back to more orthodox Islamic practices. According to a Pew Research estimate in 2010, TJ operated in 150 countries and had an estimated 12 million to 80 million active followers.

Besides many countries in Europe, TJ made inroads into central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For instance, there were 10,000 TJ members in Kyrgyzstan alone a decade ago, with the memberships driven by Pakistanis initially, according to Pew.

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“The largest group of religious proselytizers of any faith, they are part of the reason for the explosive growth of Islamic religious fervour and conversion,” wrote Alex Alexiev in his piece, ‘Tablighi Jamaat: Jihad’s Stealthy Legions’, in the Middle East Quarterly as early as 2005.

“Despite its size, worldwide presence, and tremendous importance, Tablighi Jamaat remains largely unknown outside the Muslim community, even to many scholars of Islam. This is no coincidence. TJ officials work to remain outside of both media and governmental notice. TJ neither has formal organizational structure nor does it publish details about the scope of its activities, its membership, or its finances,” Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury wrote in 2018.

TJ finds it easy to function across nations by cleverly avoiding political opinion or discussions. Because of its secrecy, scholars are forced to rely on versions of its acolytes who call it an apolitical, devotional movement.

Indirect line to terrorism?

But intelligence agencies across the world hold a different view. French intel officials have been quoted calling TJ an “antechamber of fundamentalism.” An estimated 80 percent of France’s Islamist fundamentalists have Tablighi roots.

Tablighi members held influential positions in Pakistan’s former Nawaz Sharif government, and many have been linked to terrorist groups like Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. TJ member Zacarias Moussaoui was charged in the 9/11 terror plot. French national Hervé Djamel Loiseau fought alongside Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and starved to death in the battle of Tora Bora. Algerian-born French citizen Djamel Beghal joined Al Qaeda and plotted to blow up the US Embassy in Paris — and devout Tablighi Syed Rizwan Farook killed 14 people in the 2015 San Bernardino shootout before being shot.

The hand of TJ — mainly in ideological training — has reportedly been found in the 2008 Barcelona bombing plot, Portland Seven and Lackawanna Six terror cell busts in the US, the 2006 Transatlantic aircraft bombing plot, the 7/7 London bombings, the 2007 London car bombs, and the 2007 Glasgow International Airport attack.

The Tablighi Jamaat event has now set off a biological bomb in India, a nation struggling to contain the pandemic among its gargantuan population. It is time to put the organisation under the microscope along with the deadly virus —  and stop both from spreading.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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