Pakistani Group, Suspected by West of Jihadist Ties, Holds Conclave Despite Ban


Men leaving the convention of Tabligh Jamaat in Pakistan Sunday said the group was apolitical, although militants might be drawn to it for their own purposes. Credit Akhtar Soomro for The New York Times
RAIWIND, Pakistan, Nov. 18 — For six days they came: hundreds of thousands of Pakistani men squashed onto a barren rice field, dressed in baggy trousers, crocheted caps on their heads, sandals on their feet and long beards a common feature.

They prayed five times a day, listened to preachers, ate by the flicker of oil lamps and slept, cheek by jowl, on the hard ground.

By Sunday night, the annual convention of the Pakistan-based group Tabligh Jamaat, the largest gathering of Muslims outside Mecca, had come to an end without incident. That, in itself, was remarkable this year: amid the current political crisis, the government had banned all large gatherings and had broken up several others by force.

It was also remarkable because the group, though it publicizes a benign strain of revivalist Islam and is held in wide esteem in many parts of the world, is suspected by Western intelligence agencies to be a recruiting ground for jihadists. The agencies say that among those who have passed through the group were three Western men who have been convicted on terrorism-related charges: John Walker Lindh, Richard Reid and Jose Padilla.

Despite those accusations — and despite the Pakistani government’s declaration of emergency rule in order to deal with, in part, Islamic militants — there never appeared to be any question of raiding the convention.

Supporters of the group say that is because it is fundamentally apolitical. It is often referred to by educated Pakistanis as a soft and gentle crowd who preach a kind of Islam-made-simple. It does not condone violence, and if it attracts attention from jihadist recruiters that may be only because the group has brought so many young men to Islam, its adherents insist.

Founded in India in the 1920s, Tabligh Jamaat blossomed as a revivalist Muslim group in Pakistan and played a prominent role in the growing Islamization of the Pakistani Army in the 1980s.

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After the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, counterterrorism officials began paying close attention to it after it came to light that some of its sympathizers fought alongside the Taliban against American forces there, said Zahid Hussain, a Pakistani expert on Islamic militants.

The group has followers across Asia and Africa, and a smaller presence in the United States. In Europe, its headquarters is in the British Midlands town of Dewsbury, where two of the suicide bombers in the 2005 London transit attacks attended Tabligh Jamaat lectures, according to British intelligence. The group is also the sponsor of the large mosque planned in London adjacent to the main site of the 2012 Olympic Games.

“The militants have increasingly used Tabligh to recruit people,” said Mr. Hussain, author of “Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam.”

Tabligh Jamaat acted as a “honey pot” for recruiters of Pakistani jihadist groups, a Western diplomat based in Pakistan said. There was little doubt, he said, that as many as a half dozen such groups — including two banned under Pakistani law, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Taiba — would try to make contacts at the annual meeting.

But the many government officials, past and present, from lowly clerks to senior cabinet members, who belong to Tabligh Jamaat either did not know or chose not to make a fuss about the attention of the extremists, the diplomat said.

Among the members are the former head of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, who was in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, and agreed the next day to become America’s ally in fighting terrorism.

The group is highly secretive, and forbids journalists and photographers to attend its sessions, a stricture enforced at the gathering here on Sunday by plainclothes guards armed with bamboo batons. Women are members of Tabligh Jamaat, but they are in much fewer numbers than men, and they are not welcomed at the annual gathering.

The group’s methods were pieced together through interviews with members in Pakistan and abroad, and on the edges of the gathering on Sunday as men, their bedding on their backs, left the giant tents where they had listened to the preachers.

The group’s main thrust is to encourage sympathizers to spread the word of Islam by fanning out across the globe on missionary trips, said Asim Makhdoom, an imam at the Kubra Mosque in Lahore. Groups of usually 10 to 15 people volunteer their time and money for up to 40 days, or sometimes a year, to spread the Tabligh Jamaat version of Islam in their countries or, more ambitiously, abroad.

They are told to travel on public transportation, and to bed down in mosques for no more than three days at a time so they do not become a burden, Mr. Makhdoom said. “If a group is on a pilgrimage for 10 days, they stay in one place for three days maximum,” Mr. Makhdoom said. “They have to finance themselves. They don’t ask for donations.”

Several men who attended the convention said the sermons had fired them up to go on more pilgrimages.

“Through proselytizing we can bring the message of the prophet to the people,” said Said Ghulam, 40, who had driven seven hours from his home in South Waziristan to attend the meeting. He runs his property business for three months of the year, and the rest of the time he devotes to Tabligh Jamaat.

He has been taking part in the annual gathering since 1992, and has gone on a four-month pilgrimage across the country and many other shorter journeys.

A civil servant, Habib Rehman, 39, who described his work as a government “secret,” said he had been a member of Tabligh Jamaat for 20 years. The highlight, he said, was a yearlong mission to Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Wrapped in a brown blanket to ward off the morning chill, flecks of gray creeping into his black beard, Mr. Rehman said he had participated in 40-day pilgrimages every year since he joined.

“I spent $2,000 from my own pocket on the Liberia mission,” he said. “We believe that if the life of a believer is exemplary then others will follow.”

Mr. Rehman said he was aware that members of extremist groups were attracted to Tabligh Jamaat meetings. “We don’t like this,” he said. “They are not in Islam. Our scholars check for them.”

In one instance, a member of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi had come to Tabligh Jamaat “to satisfy his soul,” Mr. Rehman said. “He had killed two people and he wanted to purify himself. We told him what he had done was not a good thing.”

Pakistani followers of Tabligh Jamaat assert that the group’s straightforward teaching is well suited to the nation’s low literacy level.

Many Islamic movements are elitist, often arguing over doctrinal differences, said Arif Zaman, a member of the group and a professor in statistics with a postgraduate degree from Stanford University. Under its big umbrella, Tabligh Jamaat offered a “simple message that an illiterate person can transmit,” he said.

“Given how simple the message is, it’s surprising how people who are not illiterate can be inspired,” he added.

This year, for the first time, the group’s convention was split into two three-day sessions, running last weekend and this weekend. The star preachers were from India, with links back to the founders, Mr. Zaman said.

One of them, Ahmad Lat, in his 70s, reminded his audience that proselytizing for 10 days or six weeks “didn’t get you a certificate.”

“The idea is you live your whole life differently,” Mr. Zaman said of the message from Mr. Lat.

Another educated member, Najam Zaidi, an importer of industrial parts, said: “We have no new message. Our survival is to go back to the basics. We have to reach out and teach that God is going to reward us in the next world.”

That was why, he explained, that General Ahmed, once the director of Pakistan’s most powerful and ruthless intelligence agency and now boasting a flowing white beard, had become “altogether a changed personality” since joining the group.

A version of this article appears in print on , on page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: Pakistani Group, Suspected by West of Jihadist Ties, Holds Conclave Despite Ban. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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