‘Coronavirus exposes the idiocy of Islamophobia’, writes Mehdi Hassan, an Aljazeera journalist based in Washington DC. This precisely captures what is happening in India and Nepal when it comes about Islamophobic approach of looking at COVID-19. The Indian media and government tirelessly blamed Muslims for the infection as if Tablighi Jamaat is the only reason behind this pandemic. Some folks here in Nepal as well tried to give a communal angle to the virus. Nevertheless, Muslims are greatly thankful to the Nepal government as it did not point fingers on them. However, it is sad that it did nothing to make those spewing hatred accountable.
Let me assert in the very beginning that I am not defending the Jamaat in any way whatsoever. I am just trying to deconstruct the convoluted case of Tablighi Jamaat and connect various dots that explain how we came here and point out the way ahead to avoid any collateral damage.
Nepal was grappling with its own inadequacies to address the pandemic and then the Indian TV channels claimed a Nepali Muslim engineering to export more than 200 COVID-19 infected Muslims India with intention to spread the virus there. The irony died many a deaths as the total confirmed cases in Nepal were still in single digits till then. Then came the rumor of two Muslim women in Janakpur throwing paper money with their spits on it so that they can spread the virus. Later, the respective administration clears that the money just fell from their possession and they did not have any such ill-intention and also, they are not infected. These two events are clearly part of systematic efforts to demonize Muslims.
Then comes the case of Udayapur where some people belonging to Tablighi Jamaat, who according to media reports are Indian citizens, tested positive. They were found in a mosque, a place where they usually live, and were termed as ‘hiding’ there. Let me tell you, in the days to come some more people from Tablighi Jamaat who are not Nepali citizens may be found stuck somewhere in Nepal and they might even be carrying the virus. Are these people terrorists who are engaged in a holy war using the weapon of virus? Such superficial judgment is not in the best interest of anyone. Nuanced understanding of the entire idea of the Jamaat is essential before jumping to any hasty conclusion. Let me explain why.
First let me give a brief introduction of what Tablighi Jamaat is. This is an organization that came into being some 100 years ago and now has its presence in more than 150 countries. The aim of the organization was to bring Muslims on the true path of Islam which still remains the same after 100 years. The Jamaat adheres to ideology of Hanafi school of thought with the chief tutor being Darul Uloom Deoband, the largest Madrasa in India and probably in the South Asia. When you look at the number of people who are on the move at any given point of time, you will realize the Jamaat is the largest Muslim proselyting organization in today’s time. Devotees join the Jamaat so that they can preach the Muslims. They travel metropolitan cities like London and New York and you can spot them carrying essential items on their shoulders reaching the remotest parts of any country where they can trace Muslims. But these preachers are not employees who are paid to be doing the job of preaching. The United States Institute of Peace describes them as ‘nebulous collection of loosely affiliated, itinerate jamaats(participants)’.
The organization managed to stay away from any controversy as they claimed to remain absolutely ‘apolitical’ in their orientation and completely ‘neutral’ toward all the socio-political organizations and events. Sometimes, their extreme neutrality frustrates the people from every side. Like, they demonstrated an utter silence at time of Babri Masjid demolition and in its aftermath. Their neutrality had indeed frustrated Muslims. Likewise, it is claimed that in their congregations in Pakistan even people with radical orientations do take part. They do not do anything to stop them from participating. They believe one day their preaching will bring those people on the right paths of Islam and they will give up their bad behaviors including the radicalism.This neutrality frustrates the global security agencies at times and this makes some policy makers accuse the organization of being a gateway to radicalism. However the research by USIP nullifies the claims of the organization’s links with any militancy. In fact, the key method that they employ is to never engage in Jihad that indulges in killing people rather pursue Jihad with the evil within the self (Jiahd-bin-nafs).
For most of you, an organization of this gigantic size, their orientation and the remarkable skills to work locally did not exist just a month ago. You also did not know that the bearded person alongside Narendra Modi in 2014, Zafar Sareshwala, belongs to Tablighi Jamaat. Also, you are not aware that Mahmood Madani, the only Maulana who supported India’s contentious Citizenship Amendment Act, is somebody Tablighi Jamaat unquestionably stands behind. Do you think the world’s most sophisticated electoral machine has these picks randomly? It may surprise you that when it comes about Muslims, Tablighi Jamaat was the only entity both the governments of India and Pakistan adored. Imran Khan’s election campaign had specific slogans that targeted to influence this particular ideology. In fact, this reality takes him to the quandary of whether to lock down mosques or let them open. Eventually he succumbed to the pressure and permitted the mosques to remain open during the Ramadan, just days away.
There are two reasons that let the organization continue with their job across the world and you never heard of it: they exclusively preach Muslims with the quest of making them purer. The second, they are categorically against Jihad and any kind of killing or violence and they have no political aspirations. In fact when in 1949 India was considering to ban RSS it also mulled about banning Tablighi Jamaat. On this, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, India’s freedom fighter and first education minister of Independent India, said, ‘yeh log (Tablighi Jamaat) zameen se neeche aur aasman se ooper ke baat karte hain. Inse kisiko koi khatra nahin hai [these people either talk of Allah and his power or they talk of life after death. No one has to feel any threat from them].' It became apparent that not only India and Pakistan saw them through this lens the entire world institutions responsible for global governance saw them from this prism.
Though Tablighi Jamaat have been a loved child for many governments but various Muslim groups have seen them differently. Two years ago their institution, Deoband, distanced from Jamaat when Jamaat undermined the importance of education in attaining leadership. Maualan Wahiduddin Khan, arguably one of the most consequential Muslim intellectual, today, once quipped, ‘the Jamaat’s initial aim was to make Muslims of Mewat (who were tribal people) real Muslims. Now they are trying to make the entire Muslim community Mewatis.' Saudi Arabia did not like their methods to the extent that on 13th February 2020 its Ministry of religious affairs notified all the Imams of mosques to denounce the methods of Tablighi Jamaat in Friday sermon. A noted Indian historian Irfan Habib calls TabilghiJamaat ‘an enemy of Islam’.
When the world gets inflicted with the misery of COVID-19 the organization was on, as usual, its mission and its nebulous preachers were scattered in every corner of the world’s more than 150 countries busy bringing their Muslim brethren on the true path of Islam. The international community missed to spot an organization like this and to alarm them. Let’s admit, barring a few exceptions no country was taking the virus seriously. The fact that the organization does not entertain scholarship and intellectuality, they even failed to comprehend what they were preaching. Otherwise, they would have known that Prophet Muhammad has very definitely asked ‘when a plague happens in a settlement don’t enter in that and don’t come out of that’. Also the prophet didn’t shake hand with a person who was enduring infectious diseases. Their lack of knowledge of Islam becomes extremely evident when amidst this COVID-19 crisis they created a binary between the virus and Allah and left everything on the wishes of Allah. They didn’t know that once when the prophet was travelling with a companion and when they were taking rest the companion left his camel free. The prophet asked, why did not you tie the camel? ‘Allah will take care of it’, replied the companion. On this prophet said, ‘first tie your camel and then trust Allah’. Likewise, the vocabulary of Azaan that calls people to come to prayer to the mosque had been amended during the times of incessant rains so that worshippers don’t face hardship. These were the very underlying reasons countries in the Middle East locked down mosques as soon as pandemic emerged. Azaan vocabularies amended which now says ‘pray in your homes’.
The way people—both Muslims and non-Muslims—are reacting to the whole issue of Tablighi Jamaat makes me laugh as well as pains me. This reminds me of a piece by Hamid Dabashi where he had called some of the most highly consequential intellectuals like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris ‘literally illiterate’ about Islam and Muslims. The whole episode of Tablighi Jamaat—from stupid and extremely irresponsible behavior of Tablighi Jamaat to continue with their preaching job to the indiscriminate demonizing of Muslims reflects the same.
Irrefutably the decisions to continue with their congregations in various parts of the world was not only irresponsible but was callous and criminal. Any quest of defending the event by citing any other event is futile as two wrongs never make a right. This takes us to some pondering. Had the Tablighi Jamaat known Islam they would have called off their events way before the World Health Organization (WHO) called the COVID-19 a pandemic. If the Islamophobes know even a fraction of what Tablighi Jamaat is, they would not have brought them as a fodder to their Islamophobia. If the states recognize the social cost the society is going to bear due to this indiscriminate dehumanization of Muslims they would have dealt with these Islamophobes in the stringent way possible. Too much illiteracy gave birth to this organization and its flourishing. Too much illiteracy around it is leading it toward another disaster. Plausibly they are terrified and distressed. Efforts should be made to make them feel comfortable so that they come out and report. If there are people from the Jamaat who still believe that they don’t need any medical help and Allah will do best for them, they are without any ifs and buts the enemies of humanity, Islam and Muslims, and must be punished stringently. Blaming them will make them stay indoors. Blaming them at this time of crisis will have longer consequences as the Jamaat has been implicitly seen as an antidote to all the Islamic extremism. Their stupidity and irresponsible behavior being called out as ‘Corona Jihad’ is in extremely bad taste and lacks any futuristic approach.
(Mohd Ayub is a researcher based in Kathmandu who focuses on issues of development, globalization, and labor migration)