Nicholas Schmidle in Slate on the Bangla Ijtema

April 18, 2007

I’ve been kind of skimming this series – not paying much attention, and I might have mised this entirely had Umm Zaid not mentioned it. As travel writing it’s not bad. The first obvious criticism is that everyone knows that the Tablighi Jamaat is not a missionary organization in the sense that they aim to convert non-Muslims. They are trying to spread their message to (not-good-enough) Muslims. Which is not to say that it would be possible for a non-Muslim to have more than a minute of private conversation with a Tablighi without being pitched to – just that it’s not the stated goal of the organization.
He quotes Amanpour as saying people are worried about the Jamaat’s growing influence, and then blames her for saying it’s the secrecy of this incredibly open organization which worries people. He’s definitely hitting on something – the Tablighi Jamaat’s insidiousness lies in the simplicity and seeming innocuousness of their methods. Everything is done by word of mouth. On their official platforms they never say anything objectionable (at least not to any modestly pious Muslim.) They do have a relatively privacy-obsessed hierarchy, but as a group they do nothing but send people around the world in little groups for motivational speaking. The problems – and they are numerous and of various types – come from the effects of Jamaat participation on the participants. I’ve written at length on this elsewhere, and am not in the mood to discuss it right now. If I do a separate post on the subject, I will, insha’ Allah, update this one.
As an aside, of all of the commentators one could use for a single, vague, decontextualized soundbite about the Tablighi Jamaat, Chritiane Amanpur is certainly a weird choice. Personally I would have chosen last year’s unexplained comment by an American military spokesman at Guantanamo including “Jama’ah Tabligh” in a list of terrorist or terrorist-supporting organizations. (Which is somewhat accurate, but very far from the policy of, say, the State Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the administrators of countless prisons an other institutions which enable and endorse Tablighi activity all the time.)
Dispatches from Bangladesh. – By Nicholas Schmidle – Slate Magazine

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