By: NOMAN HANIF
Published: July 24, 2007
According to a report in Eurasianet on 23rd July 2007, the Pakistan based Islamic movement, Tableeghi Jamaat has been the one of the most active entities proselytizing in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan. Shamsibek Zakirov, an advisor of the head of the State Agency for Religious Affairs under the Kyrgyz Government stated that "it is not a secret that Islamic radicals from Pakistan are actively working among the Muslims in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan. The Tablighi Jamaat is the most active organization of all foreign Islamic missionaries."(Eurasianet.org)
The unhindered growth of the movement in Central Asia bearing in mind the nature and position of the Tableegh vis-vis Pakistan raises some interesting questions as to the underlying reason of its presence in Central Asia. Traditionally, the landscape of Central Asia’s post Soviet space has been dominated by two movements, primarily that of the global Islamic movement, Hizb ut Tahrir or Liberation Party and to a lesser degree that of the IMU or Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Out of the two HT commands a greater ideological presence and influence throughout the region. Due to its political nature and the call to replace the ex-Communist regimes with an Islamic system and a Caliphate, HT has been banned by all the countries of Central Asia. It has been described as the greatest threat to US interests in the region by center right and right wing think tanks in America.
The threat of HT continues to shadow US policy towards the Caspian oil region and the energy corridor between Central Asia and Pakistan. The number of HT membership in the region has been estimated to run into many thousands with many filling the prisons of Central Asian states for being mere members. There are three contributing factors to HT’s success in the region, firstly the nature of its ideology which constructs classical Islam as a modern intellectual paradigm and hence was naturally capable of filling the ideological vacuum left by Communism and responding to an ideologically based society.
Secondly, leaders like Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov manufactured a threat to the stability of Central Asia through HT in order to gain support and maintain favour with Russia, China and the West. Thirdly, the economic conditions, corruption and ineptitude of the regimes coupled with the brutality with which HT and political Islam in general was targeted generated the conditions for HT’s expansion. The situation at present is the failure of Russian, Western and Central Asian policy to halt the juggernaut of HT. It is within this context that the study of Tableeghi Jamaat must be situated.
The Tableeghi Jamaat or Islamic Missionary Movement was started in the 1920’s by Maulana Iliyas with the aim of changing society through applying a model of individual spiritual and moral change based on the Prophet Mohammed and his disciples. Due to its position of eschewing politics and refraining from criticising governments the movement has been tolerated and even welcomed in many Islamic countries as a counter-balance to radical Islam. The missionary nature of its work has even afforded it a reception in Israel. The tableegh now centres’ itself largely in Pakistan where its headquarters are to be found in former Pakistani Prime Nawaz Sharif’s home town of Raiwind near Lahore in the Punjab.
However, despite its apolitical nature, the reality of the Islamic movement in Pakistan is that it is heavily infiltrated and influenced by the state and especially the Pakistani intelligence agency the ISI. One of the biggest gatherings in the world from amongst the Islamic movements is held annually by the TJ in Raiwind. Amongst its followers are many from the armed forces, political elites and the intelligence services. Because it espouses no desire to engage politically, regimes feel safe from the movement. Yet despite this the Pakistani intelligence and by default the US, fed heavily off the movement as regards recruitment for the Afghan and Kashmiri jihad during the 1980’s whilst it internally engaged to depoliticise the masses.
It was also through the Pakistani intelligence that the US policy towards Central Asia was active including the Caucuses in Chechnya. The covert support for the ISI backing of the Taliban along with its destabilising influence on Russia and China also fitted in with the US involvement in the Great Game in Central Asia. However, due to an understanding between the US and Russia in 1994 whereby Russia agreed support US action in the UN over Iraq if the US agreed not to interfere in Chechnya by supporting the Chechen fighters started a change in the architecture of US involvement in the region. Despite this, the conflictual dynamics of energy security, strategic presence and political Islam kept the US firmly engaged.
In the post Soviet space however, it was political Islam which provided the greatest threat to energy security and strategic presence in the region. Hence, with the excuse of 9/11, the US launched a diplomatic offensive in European capitals, Moscow and Beijing aimed at overtly justifying an alliance against a vague conception of a war on terror built on a commonly perceived threat of political Islam.
Covertly, the war on terror was a political trap to justify US military expansion in order to secure energy corridors and strategic positions. Hence Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan questioned the need for US bases in Central Asia as well as the strategic positioning of its military bases in Afghanistan which he claimed logistically had nothing to do with the Pak-Afghan border and the War on Terror and judging by the positioning of the bases more to do with the encirclement of Central Asia. (craigmurray.com)
The Pakistani involvement in Chechnya was confirmed by General Parvez Musharraf whose first priority upon receiving the green light from Washington to seize power was to dismantle the Pakistani link with the Chechen cause. The aim was to remove the threat of radical Islam from the theatre of Central Asian politics. Initially, Russia had turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s insertion of Wahabist’s into the Chechen cauldron as the Sufi doctrine of the Chechen’s would inevitably collide with the anti-sufist Wahabist’s with the hope of igniting a civil war amongst the Chechen’s. However, the Wahabist inclination toward’s jihad undermined this strategy. The war on terror also enabled Musharraf to allow the US to remove the Taliban which was being used indirectly by the US to foment Islamic radicalism in Central Asia. The nexus which had once been fostered by the US and Pakistan between Central Asia and Pakistan threatened to unify a movement from Central Asia to Northern Pakistan. This nexus had to be broken, hence the crackdown by Musharraf on Central Asians studying in the madrassas of Pakistan and the agreement with the Northern tribals to co-operate on the basis that foreigners including Central Asian’s were removed. Furthermore, intelligence reports suggested that the pro-government elements of the Taliban had started to breakaway from the Central Asian elements causing fissures within the Taliban itself.(Jamestown.org)
Thus the insertion of the Tableeghi Jamaat into Central Asia has to be seen in the context of a US policy aided by the Pakistani regime in combating radical/political Islam in Central Asia and more specifically the threat of HT. Although the arrival of the TJ in Central Asia was in 1991, its concentration on the Ferghana Valley considered the hub of radical activity amongst HT and the IMU gives a clear indication of its professed target. The hand of Pakistan and by default the US seems apparent. According to Igor Rotar;
“Virtually all of the Tablighi members active in Central Asia are locals who have undergone training in either India or Pakistan” (Eurasia.net 23rd July, 2007)
It is this very Pakistani factor which has aroused suspicion amongst the Central Asian regimes as to the political reality of TJ in the region and the role of the US. Having failed to detach states such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan away from the Russian orbit and the involvement with Pakistan over the Taliban, suspicions of the US hand in TJ would be inevitable, especially since the training of its members is occurring in Pakistan. In contrast to HT in Kyrgystan whose membership derives more from the Uzbeks, TJ’s is more indigenously Kyrgyz. Yet despite its official sanction in contrast to HT, the Kyrgyz authorities remain suspicious of it. According to Igor Rotar
“While Zakirov admitted that all available evidence indicates that the Tablighi Jamaat continues to adhere to an apolitical stance, he nevertheless adopted a skeptical stance toward the group” (Eurasia.net, 23rd July, 2007)
For this reason Uzbekistan has formally banned the TJ and Kazakhstan frequently picks up their members for questioning. It is the likely the position of the US that Central Asian regimes especially those of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan can be persuaded to overcome the alternate Islamic deficit by heavily promoting TJ as an alternative to the threat posed by HT and changing their current policy towards it by arguing the interests of stability and security. However, a number of obstacles remain in it way. Firstly, the Central Asian regimes possess an ideological, economic, political and security credibility deficit amongst their populations which neutralises the apolitical idea of TJ. Secondly, HT provides a more superior and comprehensive understanding and vision of Islam and politics that TJ does not possess. This is something well understood by the US as its own think tanks such as the Nixon Center, Brookings Institute, Hudson Institute and the Heritage foundation have detailed the ideology of HT.
Hence the idea of the US promoting the TJ as an altruistic policy for Central Asian stability is not one shared especially by the Kyrgyz religious Affairs minister. Rather it seems the sentiment remains that through Pakistan and the TJ, the US is looking for another channel to open up influence in the Central Asian Islamic theatre. Thus says Zakirov;
“"Many Tablighi members are uneducated and very fanatical. I don’t think that importing the Pakistani version of Islam will promote the stabilization of Central Asia.”
Zakirov’s comments reflect the difference in understanding over HT and TJ. Firstly that HT commands a membership from all strata of society including from the academia and intelligentsia and secondly HT and its ideology is not considered indigenous and not linked to any foreign state. More succinctly it identifies a characteristic amongst the TJ which was utilised by the Pakistani ISI and the US in Afghanistan, Kashmir and even in the Balkan’s. The susceptibility to jihadism because of the “fanaticism” and “Pakistani version of Islam” is an emotional characteristic within the Pakistani psyche which the US through the Pakistani ISI have become adept at manipulating for policy goals. It is thus the wider political dynamic within which TJ has operated which is likely to be causing concerns for the Central Asian regimes.
In contrast HT does not follow a militaristic methodology to bring about change and hence has no history with jihadism or violence against the regimes but more pertinently the involvement of its members with state crafted policy. In essence this is the paradox of HT, radical but non-violent. Attempts by US think tanks to insinuate a link between HT and terrorism in order to frame it under the war on terror have conclusively failed.
The history and contemporary activity of TJ in Pakistan and its use by the intelligence services alludes to a potential whereby TJ members can and have been involved in recruiting for jihadism. Hence, the US through the double edged sword of the Pakistani TJ has the capacity to destabilise the Central Asian regimes. The potential nature of this threat to its own situation seems to be lurking in the back of the regimes minds in Central Asia.
According to Igor: “Although Tablighi members claim that they converse only about God, we are not certain that they are not agitating our youth to go to Iraq and Pakistan for battle,"(Eurasia.net)
Noman Hanif is lecturer in Radical Islam, International Terrorism and Energy Security at Birkbeck, University of London
Copyright © nomanhanif 2007