The move by the Sri Lankan Government to order a group of 161 foreign Islamic clerics to leave the country by 31 January highlights the role of a global Islamic group that is challenging the more moderate indigenous form of Sufi Islam in Sri Lanka.
According to the Controller of Immigration and Emigration, Chulananda Perera, the clerics belonged to the Tablighi Jamaat group. They had entered the country on tourism visas in small batches, without officially applying for permission to preach. The clandestine nature of their arrival brings to light the activities of the largest Muslim proselytising organisation in the world. It is estimated to have between 80-150 million followers.
While the Tablighi Jamaat has not been directly linked to terrorism and is still allowed to practise in a number of countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, it does promote a stricter, more orthodox, view of Islam. The group has, however, avoided being subject to restrictions in most countries by having rules prohibiting involvement in politics and the promotion of violence.
Its apolitical nature does not, however, necessarily indicate moderate values. The group calls for the compulsory use of the hijab for all female followers. It heavily promotes the full face-covering niqab, as well as rules to enforce seclusion and segregation between the sexes. These values are in sharp contrast with the original Sufi traditions indigenous to Sri Lankan Muslims, which are mixed with Tamil and South Indian customs.
More troubling, however, has been the group’s role as a gateway between orthodox Islam and the most extreme forms of Islam, including Wahhabist movements and al-Qaida. It is as an orthodox alignment of values providing a recruitment path to more extremist groups that represents the main danger surrounding the movement. A recent example of this can been seen in the case of a Tablighi Jamaat imam, Mohamed Hammam, who will face a French deportation committee on 3 February for giving anti-Semitic sermons and advocating the killing of adulterous women.
While Tablighi Jamaat remains largely apolitical, it represents an interesting dilemma for policy makers. A 2009 article in The Guardian, ‘What is the Tablighi Jamaat?’, by Dr Jenny Taylor, implied that the organisation could be viewed as a safety valve giving young people with strong Islamic views the ability to express themselves and have a sense of community, without feeling the need to join more extremist groups. Yet the article also pointed out that extremist movements are currently actively recruiting from within its ranks. Richard Reed, the UK shoe bomber, as well as the US home-grown jihadist, John Walker Lindh, had been involved with the group prior to their recruitment into al-Qaida.
Sri Lanka’s move against the group was carefully nuanced, as it was also reported on 23 January that ‘both Secretary Gotabhya Rakapaksa and Minister Basil Rajapaksa agreed that the foreign Tablighi Jamaat members could re-apply for a religious visa to enter Sri Lanka’. Taking a balanced approach is important, as an outright ban on Tablighi Jamaat could be counterproductive. It could push already hardline Sri Lankan Muslims towards more radical groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Jamaat-e-Islami. It is clear, however, that the organisation needs to be monitored, at least as long as its reputation as a gateway into more radical movements remains. More importantly, governments in the Indian Ocean region that have existing moderate Sufi Islamic traditions, need to do more to promote and proselytise these values, or else they will be at risk of being supplanted by the values promoted by groups such as Tablighi Jamaat.
Future Directions InternationalAssociate
About the author: Jahnu Russell manages the international research team for Melbourne-based company Export Results and has extensive experience in undertaking market analysis projects, both in Australia and overseas. Mr Russell has experience in the organic, agricultural, manufacturing, food and energy industry sectors and has facilitated research and competitor analysis projects in USA, Canada, Europe, India, South-East Asia and the Middle East. He has a Bachelor of Business (Finance) and a Bachelor of Arts (Asian Studies). In 2005 he completed the Austrade Institute’s ‘Going International’ export advisors course and was a previous member of the Export Consultants Association of Australia (ECAL). He has an ongoing interest in strategic issues and the critical role of Australia’s trade relationships.