Inside the Tablighi Jamaat, a UK Islamic group with a mission
By Paul Lewis
THE GUARDIAN, LONDON
Tuesday, Aug 22, 2006, Page 9
Thousands of young Muslim men are attending meetings in east London every week run by a fundamentalist Islamic movement believed by Western intelligence agencies to be used as a fertile recruiting ground by extremists.
`A former body builder showed pictures on his mobile of the "pumped-up gym fanatic" he used to be. After spells in prison, he said, he went on a life-changing four-month trip to Pakistan.'
Tablighi Jamaat, whose activities are being monitored by the security services, holds the tightly guarded meetings on an industrial estate close to the area where some of the suspects in the Aug. 10 terror raids were arrested.
Last week it emerged that at least seven of the 23 suspects under arrest on suspicion of involvement in the plot to blow up transatlantic airliners may have participated in Tablighi events.
The organization -- influenced by a branch of Saudi Arabian Islam known as Wahhabism -- has already been linked to two of the July 7 London suicide bombers who attended a Tablighi mosque at the organization's headquarters in Dewsbury, northeast England. The jailed shoe bomber Richard Reid is also known to have attended Tablighi meetings.
Until now, the leaders of Tablighi Jamaat -- which means "group of preachers" -- have refused to open their doors to outsiders, shrouding the organization in mystery.
Tablighi enthusiasts say that the organization, founded by a scholar in India in the 1920s, has no involvement with terrorism and simply encourages Muslims to follow the example of the prophet and proselytize the teachings of the Koran. As one sympathetic imam put it, they were the "Jehovah's Witnesses of Islam."
Last Thursday evening, we witnessed around 3,000 men from as far afield as Great Yarmouth (eastern England) and the Isle of Wight (southern England) stream through the back streets to the Stratford meeting.
There, at the gates of a seemingly derelict industrial site, men in fluorescent jackets waved those who are known to the Tablighi Jamaat hierarchy under a security barrier, and into one of three fields that surround a cluster of prefabricated buildings which form a temporary mosque.
As we entered the complex one person spoke admiringly about the "main man" for the southeast division of Tablighi Jamaat.
"We can't call him a prophet," he said. "No one can be a prophet. But when you meet him you'll realize. He's helped a lot of people in the area to follow the right path, the path of the prophet. He'll talk to you openly this evening and everything will make sense."
Seconds later, the main man stood next to his red van in Islamic dress and a smart blue waistcoat as hundreds of men, many carrying suitcases and sleeping bags, filed past him into a network of six rooms cobbled together with planks of wood and corrugated plastic windows.
The largest room was reserved for the main speaker, an elder from Preston (northwest England) who spoke in Urdu. His sermon was relayed through a microphone to five other rooms in which interpreters provided simultaneous translation into English, Arabic, Sinhala, Turkish and Somali.
Thoom heaved as a sea of faces, white, black and Asian, spilled into the hallway. Most were teenagers and men in their 20s and 30s dressed in Islamic dress, caps and beards. Some came in suits and ties, others in jeans and hoodies. There were old men too, who weaved slowly through to the front of the room, and a few young boys.
The main man took a seat in the middle of the room to interpret proceedings. The murmur of hundreds of whispering voices stopped as he put on his headphones.
"We come to submit our will to Allah," he began. "We have to live the life that Allah has prescribed for us. We have been invited into Allah's house."
He continued to translate the preacher's message.
"If a person is drowning, the man who saves him needs to take him out of the water. If he has swallowed too much water, that water must come out. At the moment we are in a worldly ocean and we are all drowning. For us to become successful, we must come out of this world for a short period of time," he said.
Although not a scholar, the interpreter is deeply respected. Quietly, some in the congregation whisper that he has seen miracles -- the sign of a truly committed Tablighi.
After an hour the preacher concluded with a call for followers to join the effort and commit to a trip away.
"We must leave our houses, our businesses, our families, for a short period of time, and follow the path of Allah and practice the ways of the prophet, going from mosque to mosque," the interpreter said. "Then [the behavior] will become second nature to us. We shall go to India and Pakistan for four months to follow these ways."
What Tablighi followers call "the effort" -- traveling around the country for three days or 10 days, depending on their level of commitment -- is key to the organization. Once they have completed the first stage, they may undertake a 40-day trip, which is likely to entail travel around Europe.
Finally, a Tablighi member will be given the opportunity to take a four-month journey to Pakistan or India. During their "efforts" members are encouraged to emulate the life of the prophet and show others "the path."
On domestic trips, members are sent to communities where they will have most leverage. Next month, for example, students will be sent to universities throughout the country.
Later in the evening, the rooms are transformed into dining halls. A small group of men who know several of the arrested suspects gathered round to share out plastic plates of chickpeas, lamb and naan bread, washed down with cans of peach juice and Coke.
"It will shock you but we all used to be deep into drugs and crime and all that," said one man, in his 20s, who went on a three- day trip to Woking, southwest of London, with one of the suspects arrested in last week's raids. "This area used to be a dodgy area. Tablighi changed all that."
A former body builder showed pictures on his mobile of the "pumped-up gym fanatic" he used to be. After spells in prison, he said, he went on a life-changing four-month trip to Pakistan.
"I went to places you wouldn't believe," he said. "There are people in Pakistan and India who know less about the prophet than people in east London."
The Urdu interpreter acknowledged that Tablighi Jamaat had roused suspicions.
"I know three or four people who come here regularly who are informants," he said.
"After Sept. 11 the security services met with our elders at our headquarters and told them that they keep the flight records of every Tablighi member who travels abroad. But we are not worried. They can close us down and it will not matter because the effort will continue. We have no fear," the interpreter said.
He said he was not worried about the suspect he knows best, a young man he recently took on a 40-day trip to Scotland.
"Anyone who suffers for Islam will be rewarded," he said.
Asked about the association between Tablighi Jamaat and terrorist groups, he replied: "Tablighi is like Oxford University. We have intelligent people -- doctors, solicitors, businessmen -- but one or two will become drug dealers, fraudsters. But you won't blame Oxford University for that. You see, it does not matter if someone speaks in favor or against this effort. Everything happens with the will of God."
Another follower added: "Sometimes the youngsters say that if they saw President [George W.] Bush they would chop his head off, and things like that. But we're discouraged from talking about politics. If elders say these things it is out of anger. They're not dangerous, they can't actually do anything."
By the early hours, 300 followers had volunteered for a three-day trip. One man who knows six of the suspects arrested last week leaned against the wall, the City of London glowing behind his shoulders, and adjusted his cap.
"Do you see now?" he said. "Tablighi is not the problem. It is the solution. It is another world in here, completely different from the world outside."