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Varieties of Religious Experience in a Macedonian Village

September 27, 2006

By Christopher Deliso

Tucked down a side road in southwestern Macedonia’s lush countryside, just off the main road connecting Struga and Debar, Podgorci would seem an unlikely place for an exotic foreign religious sect to take root. In this globalized 21st century, however, the little village of stone and cement houses, chickens and cows, a mosque and a church, has become a central point for an unusual Islamic order, Pakistan’s Tablighi Jamaat (“Group of Preachers”).

The village’s ties to the movement, which adheres to a strict version of Islam, go back several years but are not yet particularly deep-rooted. The sect obliges members to spend days or even months traveling to preach Islam, but has only caught on in a few households in this and other Macedonian Muslim villages in the area.

However, the presence of any unusual religious worship, particularly Islamic in this era of the supposed “war on terror,’ has proven enough to get the attention of the authorities. Indeed, when a group of five Pakistani nationals and British-born Pakistanis landed at Skopje International Airport in June 2005, Macedonia’s DBK [Direkcija za Bezbednost i Kontrarazuznavanje, or Directorate for Security and Counterintelligence], was alerted and tracked the missionaries’ movements. An agent involved with the case stated for Balkanalysis.com that the group congregated around the Macedonian Muslim (Torbeshi) Struga-area villages of Podgorci, Labunista and Oktisi, though he did not know who had invited them to come. Furthermore, the short visit did not seem to have much of a radicalizing effect on the local population.

Nevertheless, the DBK was concerned because some of the local Tablighi Jamaat aficionados had demonstrated links with Bosnian Islamic fundamentalists in Italy and Austria, such as Mohammed Porca and Safet Kuduzovic, who are in turn related with Wahhabi movements in Bosnia and former mujahedin offshoots such as Active Islamic Youth. Two of the local leaders had also stayed for some time at Tablighi Jamaat’s European headquarters in Dewsbury, England. Here as elsewhere in Europe, Islamic fundamentalist movements seem particularly strong, in gritty and industrialized areas where opportunities are few and the opportunities for redemption are many.

Created in India in 1926, Tablighi Jamaat arose as a reaction to Hindu missionary activity among Muslims there. However, today Tablighi Jamaat’s missionary work has far surpassed that original goal, succeeding to such an extent that its annual conference in Raiwind, Pakistan is second only to the Hajj as a global Islamic event, with more than one million followers turning out.

Tablighi Jamaat claims to not be interested in politics. Yet its non-recognition of state authority and goal of spreading Islam worldwide conflict with this; as the Middle East Quarterly’s Alex Alexiev put it in a Winter 2005 article, “they may not become actively involved in internal politics or disputes over local issues, but, from a philosophical and transnational perspective, the Tablighi Jamaat’s millenarian philosophy is very political indeed.”

One former Tablighi Jamaat member, UCLA Islamic law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, gave further testimony about the group’s belief structure. Speaking for the New York Times, the professor put it this way: “you teach people to exclude themselves, that they don’t fit in, that the modern world is an aberration, an offense, some form of blasphemy…  By preparing people in this fashion, you are preparing them to be in a state of warfare against this world.”

Supporters are quick to point out that Tablighi Jamaat is at best an informal, though large group of enthusiastic Muslims who find a vocation in traveling to spread the word about their faith. However, certain of its members have been connected with terrorist activities in the United States and elsewhere. In 2003, deputy chief of the FBI’s international terrorism section Michael J. Heimbach stated that “we have a significant presence of Tablighi Jamaat in the United States, and we have found that Al Qaeda used them for recruiting, now and in the past,” reported the Times.

One of those thus recruited was the “American Taliban,” John Walker Lindh, who wound up in a Pakistani madrassah, and then mujahedin training camp, because of Tablighi Jamaat missionaries. Would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid frequented a Tablighi mosque. The so-called “20th hijacker” in the 9/11 plot, Zacarias Moussaoui was a “regular worshipper” at a Parisian Tablighi Jamaat mosque. Further, according to a Sunday Times article of August 20, 2006 (“The Radical with a Perfect Cover”), “investigators believe that all four of the July 7 London bombers worshipped at the British headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Mohammad Sidique Khan, ringleader of the bombers, lived near the mosque.”

There is a precedent. In its home base in Pakistan, Tablighi Jamaat was once used by the ISI intelligence service and military as a supplier of mujahedin, when the Americans were fueling the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad in the 1980’s. The group’s role was a “well guarded secret,” according to John K. Cooley in his comprehensive work, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism. Cooley notes, for example, how Tunisian prison inmates were “converted’ by Tablighi missionaries and shipped to Pakistan, where they were trained by the ISI in mujahedin camps (p. 85).

In Pakistan, Tablighi Jamaat was also closely affiliated with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, a militant group that sent fighters to the jihads in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Like Tablighi, the HUM was also based in Raiwind. It also sent fighters to Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir and the Philippines. It was blacklisted by the US government in 1997. According to the director of India’s Institute for Topical Studies, B. Raman, when 40 Pakistani army and ISI officers were arrested in 1995 for plotting to overthrow the government of then-Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and replace it with an Islamic state; many were found to be devotees of Tablighi Jamaat.

But the movement is indeed a worldwide phenomenon, and seeks to expand in Europe from its English sub-headquarters. In a revealing look inside the movement last month, the Guardian visited a revival-like gathering of Tabligh in Yorkshire. The newspaper’s Paul Lewis attests that the group “holds the tightly guarded meetings on an industrial estate close to the area where some of the suspects in last week’s terror raids were arrested… this week it emerged that at least seven of the 23 suspects under arrest on suspicion of involvement in the plot to blow up transatlantic airliners may have participated in Tablighi events.”

The summer arrests over that alleged plot put Tablighi Jamaat — and Dewsbury — on the map in a very unflattering way. Muslims involved were quick to criticize the British media, for example, the allegation by the Guardian that Tabligh is “influenced by a branch of Saudi Arabian Islam known as Wahhabism.”

The Guardian piece chronicled the course of an evening in which 3,000 young Muslims from numerous races, and listening to simultaneous translations in English or Arabic or Sinhala or Turkish or Somali. The event concluded with the preacher standing up in front of the enthusiastic throng to proclaim, “we must leave our houses, our businesses, our families, for a short period of time, and follow the path of Allah and practise the ways of the prophet, going from mosque to mosque… we shall go to India and Pakistan for four months to follow these [Islamic] ways.”

These accounts are very similar to previously attested stories from the Macedonian villages, as with the Labunista local who commented that the families of surprisingly affluent (though unemployed) Wahhabis “live well here while [the men] are off for months in Pakistan or Afghanistan.” In that case, there was no mention of Tablighi Jamaat and it is quite possible that the individual quoted was not aware of the movement, or the subtle difference between the Tabligh and the Wahhabis (aside from the white clothes of the former and the short-cut pants of the latter).

All of them are considered odd, different, and even outcasts in a closed Muslim village society that is still quite suspicious of “innovation,” whether Saudi or Pakistani. It has been the presence of outside funding for adopting a more rigorous worship and austere appearance (for both men and especially, women) that has buttressed such movements in the Balkans, more than any real theological or doctrinal issues.

Still, there are a few true believers. Yet Macedonia’s new devotees might perhaps seem naive when expressing their enthusiasm for the Tabligh movement. “It is a beautiful, peaceful religion,” said one Macedonian Muslim man in the village of Podgorci. Having never been outside of the country, and having had little exposure to the many choices of modern life, it was not surprising that the young man would be unaware that this particular variety of religious experience might eventually take him down more dangerous roads.

Nevertheless, for now the movement is small and is being treated, perhaps naively, perhaps not, as an imported oddity and nothing more. Local villagers in Podgorci not involved with the Tabligh stated that they noticed no radical speeches or activities from their Pakistani and British Pakistani guests of last year, who stayed with them a short while and then left. In Podgorci, as in Oktisi, the mosque stands near to an Orthodox church, and relations between the religious groups remain largely untroubled. However, one particularly zealous devotee recently disclosed that he would like to open a “Tablighi kindergarten” in the village- introducing Islam from an early age, something that would probably run counter to the law.

In the end, only time will tell whether the Tablighi Jamaat movement in Macedonia could prove divisive, or even dangerous.

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