September 21, 2002
1030 IST

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US Tablighis fear crackdown

Suleman Din in New York

The Tabligh Jamaat religious movement is not popular, even among the Muslims whom they are supposed to serve.

Their detractors say they are unsophisticated, naive, passive, or that they are religious zealots, out of touch with modern realities.

But to those within the movement, who call themselves 'Tablighis', any criticism means they are doing their duty, which is to preach Islam unflaggingly.

The high-profile arrests of six suspected Yemeni members of the Al Qaeda in Lackawanna, Buffalo, though, has spread concern throughout the Tabligh Jamaat's silent but large network in North America. They fear that their religious activities will come under suspicion in the war on terror.

The Lackawanna arrests hold significance to the Tabligh Jamaat, because the Federal Bureau of Investigations mentions the movement's activities in their indictment of the men as the reason why they had gone to Pakistan in the first place, before joining one of Al Qaeda's training camps.

"As soon as I heard Lackawanna, I knew Tabligh Jamaat would come up," said one Indian Muslim in New York, who regularly partakes in their activities. "There is nothing else for Muslims living there."

The founder of the Tabligh Jamaat was Maulana Mohammed Ilyas, a Muslim scholar in New Delhi. In 1927, he started a voluntary group for Muslims that emphasised the spiritual and moral self-correction of oneself and his community.

The mosque he founded still exists in Basti Nizamuddin, New Delhi. It has since been built over many times, now topping five floors.

The New Delhi mosque is considered Tabligh's spiritual headquarters. It also has a sprawling madrassa and mosque in Raiwind, a farming village outside Lahore, Pakistan.

Raiwind hosts an annual three-day gathering, which draws one of the largest assemblies of Muslims after the annual hajj in Mecca. Last year over a million people reportedly attended the gathering.

Tabligh itself is the Arabic term for 'conveying a message'. The movement is best described as a mix of Alcoholics Anonymous and Jehovah's Witnesses. Central to Tabligh activity is asking its members to 'spend time' for the propagation of Islam.

Tablighis are expected to devote one hour a day, or one day a week, or one week every month or two, or one month a year, to travel with a group to other localities, inviting Muslims to mosques and reminding them of their Islamic duties. Members who go out on these missions are supposed to pay for their transport and living expenses.

For many Muslims living in North America, particularly lower income communities, the Tabligh Jamaat provides their only exposure to a formalised approach to their faith. The activities of the Tabligh have traditionally been centred in the South Asian community, but now it is finding adherents within the African American and Arab communities.

The industrial town of Lackawanna and its largely Yemeni population is one example of such a community. It is well known to members of the Tabligh Jamaat in Canada and the northeastern half of the United States as a place receptive to their mission.

The news of arrests is unsettling to Tablighis because this is not the first time that their movement and those connected to terror have recently been mentioned in the same sentence.

John Walker Lindh, infamously known as the American Taliban, is said to have been inspired to go to Afghanistan after travelling to Pakistan with the Tabligh Jamaat.

And the school of Islamic thought said to have influenced the Taliban, the Deoband madrassa in India, is also closely associated with the Tabligh Jamaat.

Even though Mukhtar al-Bakri, 22, one of the six men charged, has told the FBI that their story of going to Raiwind was just a cover for a trip to join the Al Qaeda, some Tablighis feel the damage has been done.

However, no clarification has been made. As part of their missionary creed, Tabligh leaders shun the media, and have no formal spokesman. Leading Tabligh figures in New York did not return calls for comment.

"The elders will never talk about it," said the Tabligh member in New York, who has made trips to both Nizamuddin and Raiwind. "They will just say, make dua, make dua."

Charged along with Bakri are Shafal A Mosed (24), Yahya A Goba (25), Sahim A Alwan (29), Yasein A Taher (24), and Faysal H Galab (26). At their last hearing on September 18, all were denied bail, and await trial.

America's War on Terror: The Complete Coverage
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