Spreading the holy word—and fuelling Islamic extremism - Macleans.ca

Spreading the holy word—and fuelling Islamic extremism

Salafi preachers travel the globe preaching the ‘true’ Islam. Their converts are fertile ground for jihadists.


G. Paul Burnett The New York Times/ Getty Images/ Tim Wimborne Reuters

Canada’s Muslim community is reeling again after the arrests of three of its own last week in another alleged homegrown terrorist plot. In particular, the case of the dancing doctor, Khurram Syed Sher, has raised some serious questions, not only for those who practise Islam but for those who make their living from identifying threats to Canada’s security. How does an educated, Canadian-born Muslim and Canadian Idol aspirant with all the apparent hallmarks of moderation allegedly turn to violent jihad?

That question has become central to the discourse on the future of jihad, in Canada and among Muslims around the world. Canadians, who have already witnessed the case of the Toronto 18, are not alone in their concern over the radicalization of young Muslims previously considered immune to violent ideologies. In Pakistan, a spate of attacks over the past year has focused attention on a growing trend of radicalization among educated young people. One attack, in December 2009 near the capital of Islamabad, on a mosque frequented by Pakistani military officers, led to the arrest of a group of middle-class Pakistanis who had studied at some of the top universities in the country, and hailed from families with addresses in the posh, tree-lined laneways of Islamabad. They certainly did not fit the typical militant trope: the madrasa-educated fanatic out to cleanse the world of the infidel.

Five months later, another terrorist plot in New York City’s Times Square focused the world’s attention again on this new brand of violent jihadist. Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old baby-faced plotter of that failed bombing attempt, was the son of a Pakistani military officer, Western-educated and in every outward expression the embodiment of the well-adjusted, westernized Muslim.

Why are young people falling prey to radical ideology? Some, like Toronto Star commentator Haroon Siddiqui, argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the problem. “Stop being in denial that there is no connection between the wars we wage and the terrorist mayhem that they trigger, there and here,” he recently wrote. Others blame the Internet, where radical ideology is fast becoming mainstream fare.

Both points of view are valid—to a degree—but fail to address the key issue facing Muslims in the 21st century: what does Islam mean and how does a person express his or her faith? On that front, fundamentalists are winning the battle.

In Pakistan, their uncontested rise is rapidly changing the religious landscape to one ossified by a puritan ideology, fixated on the form of Islam practised in the seventh century. At the forefront is the Tablighi Jamaat, a network of proselytizers and religious activists who travel throughout the country—and the world—teaching the Salafi branch of Islam, the reductionist version of the religion practised by virtually all jihadist groups in the world. The Tablighis themselves claim an ideological pedigree from a slightly less radical form of fundamentalist orthodoxy. But since Sept. 11, 2001, their ideology has shifted closer to the Salafis, to a point where they are generally seen as being within the Salafi fold. And for both, Islam’s crisis is the consequence of a weakness of faith, poisoned by secular democracy. The cure is a return to the original form of the religion, cleansed of innovations that have misguided the faithful. “The greatest enemies of Islam,” says Ilyas Khan, a preacher at the Tablighi preaching centre in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s war-ravaged northwest, “are Muslims themselves.”

Whether preached by the Tablighis, who are self-professed pacifists, or Salafi groups that openly espouse violence, that message is spreading fast in Pakistan, where war and natural disasters like the current flooding have forced tens of thousands into refugee camps run by Salafi groups. “They are the only ones helping people in Swat,” says Anwar Shah in Madyan, a town devastated by the floods. “The government has done nothing, but the religious groups have been there since the beginning. They are winning over the local people.”

According to some local administrators, the influence of the groups poses a significant threat to the future of Pakistan. “It’s not just that they come here to help the people,” says one government official in Mingora, Swat’s main city, requesting anonymity due to fears of reprisals. “They set up schools where they teach their kind of Islam. They become a permanent presence, and they convert people for years.”

In Canada, Tablighis have become a major force in the Islamic reform movement. Virtually every mosque in Toronto has at one time or another hosted members of the group, often travelling from Pakistan to preach and convert Canadian Muslims to the “true Islam.” How much of their influence affected men like Sher remains unclear, but some evidence has emerged that their brand of fundamentalism may have played at least an ideological role. According to a CBC report, the wife of the group’s alleged mastermind, Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh, suddenly began wearing the niqab, the face veil that reveals only the eyes, two years ago after a visit to Toronto. Prior to that, she wore only the hijab, or headscarf. A third accused member of the group, Misbahuddin Ahmed, allegedly went on a trip to an undisclosed location for several weeks 16 months ago—returning with a full beard and a more fundamental Islamic outlook. In and of themselves, the transformations mean little vis-à-vis violent jihad.

But they are signature changes one sees in people who have spent time with the Tablighis.

The Tablighis argue that they are apolitical, pietist Muslims who condemn the violent actions of their jihadist counterparts. Some observers remain skeptical. The FBI claims it has found that al-Qaeda has used the Tablighi Jamaat as a recruiting tool; Richard Reid, the U.S. citizen who in 2003 attempted to blow up a flight by detonating explosives hidden in his shoe, was a member but apparently left because the movement was not violent enough for his tastes. The bombings of nightclubs in Bali in 2002 were reportedly planned in southern Thailand, where the Tablighis run a network of mosques.

Others, however, including some of the world’s foremost experts on Islam, reject the connection between Tablighis and terrorism, arguing instead that the movement is strictly reformist and pacifist. “There was no link between the pietist Salafi groups I worked with and radicalization into terrorist violence,” says Noah Salomon, a researcher at the University of Chicago Divinity School who has studied the Salafi movement in Sudan. “The Salafis I worked with made the most firm anti-violent intervention I heard in Sudan.”

The uncertainty over what role the Tablighi movement plays in Islamic radicalization has become a contentious issue in recent years. The fact that the group rejects bloodshed makes them, in some ways, untouchable. But their promotion of the same ideology that jihadists follow, with its rigid rejection of any other form of Islamic practice, marks them out as extremists in their own right—and ones whose message could easily be twisted into violence.

In fact, while it is difficult to sift through the array of Salafist groups, some are clearly preaching jihad. In her essay, “Salafism in Pakistan,” contained in a new collection, Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, Mariam Abou Zahab notes that Salafist madrasas in Pakistan have grown fourfold since 1988, with the total number of students reaching 3,000 by 2006. “Their success in ‘converting’ Muslims from different schools of thought has indeed been phenomenal,” writes Zahab, a professor of history and political sociology at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales in Paris and an expert on Pakistani jihadist groups.

“The aim is to use modern technology to spread the message of jihad and prepare children from a young age to become mujahedeen.” Textbooks used in these schools glorify the martyr killed in the pursuit of jihad, she adds, and encourage children to sacrifice their lives for “the great nuclear power that Pakistan has become.”

The overarching message of Global Salafism is that while the Salafi movement is by no means a monolithic entity, recent history demonstrates how even pietist Salafi movements can quickly turn violent if left to their own devices. Essays list such transformations in Indonesia, Egypt and North Africa. “An apolitical Salafism associated with pietism,” writes the book’s editor, Roel Meijer, in his essay “Commanding right and forbidding wrong as a principle of social action,” “can snap and tip over into an activist, even revolutionary, movement at the crucial point when subservience is transformed into revolt.”

Indeed, the Tablighis themselves do not reject the idea of jihad. “We don’t believe this is the right time for it,” says Nauman Naeem, a 27-year-old Tabligh preacher at a mosque on the University of Peshawar campus. “The Islamic community is too divided and weak. Why do you think Muslims haven’t been able to expel the foreigners from Iraq and Afghanistan? In the time of the Prophet, a handful of Muslims defeated entire armies. Why? Because they were true Muslims. God was with them. Once Muslims return to the true Islam, when they become one, will they achieve victory.”

Tablighis thus focus their attention on “correcting” Muslim practice and doctrine. Part of that involves isolation from non-Muslims. “We tell our brothers and sisters living in secular societies that mixing with non-Muslims makes them weak Muslims,” says Naeem. “We tell them to separate, to build their own schools and spend their time with other Muslims. This is the only way to battle the forces of secularism.” Until that process is complete, jihad must wait for its proper time.

But having been brought around to the “correct” Islam, many young people don’t want to wait. The fight, they are told by jihadists, is now. And an increasing number are answering the call.

The transformation of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad from a young man eager to adopt a Western lifestyle to a man ready to sacrifice his life for Islam offers a telling glimpse into how the process works. An angry Muslim searching for solutions to Islam’s crisis turns to Salafi forums on the Web, where there are few moderate alternatives. He finds the answers he wants. Muslims themselves are to blame, he is told, for letting their faith slip. He is told to shun the infidels, and focus all his thoughts on his obligations to God.

Shahzad detaches himself from the world around him. He becomes more extreme in the expression of his religious beliefs—much like Misbahuddin Ahmed allegedly did following his mysterious trip. Friends and colleagues in his hometown in Connecticut have related how the young man became distant in the weeks and months before he tried to set off his crude bomb, how he started following the strict rules of Salafi doctrine. But it was not enough. Like Richard Reid, he wanted to do more; quietism failed to quench his desire for action. He was then drawn into the world of the jihadist Salafis, in his case following the teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki, himself a former pietist Salafi preacher turned jihadist. He actively sought out experienced terrorists who could help him, much like Canada’s Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh is alleged to have done. Shahzad found his backers in the Pakistani Taliban. Not long after, he carried out his attempted attack.

The transformation is in many ways typical: a confused young Muslim turns to the ultra-conservative Salafis. Some may preach violence, others may be self-professed pietists like the Tablighis. But they pursue their mission with aggressive zeal.

Moderates have done little to counter their influence, leaving the door open for more transformations and, potentially, more violent jihadists.


Spreading the holy word—and fuelling Islamic extremism

  1. Interesting article. Thank you. Elements of it bring to mind the wave of success communists had in attracting a range of disaffected youth who were looking for an avenue or cause the channel their discomfort with society.

    Other parts trouble me: if these groups are blending a defensible front while creating the necessary conditions for a final push into a violent version of Islam, it sounds like an insidiously successful form of grooming.

    In order to counter the mechanisms being used to groom, western society will be tempted to treat these groups differently from other religious groups based solely on the religion being taught and a suspicion that this grooming is going on. If we do that, we contradict our own values and belief in equality before the law and due process.

    • Speaking about communism, why are Mcleans, Globe and Mail, Sun Newspapers and most Canadian Media did not mention Castro's interview regarding communism not working at all for Cuba? The silence is just plain weird.

  2. Islamic extremism is a real and present danger to the world. The religion has apparently been hijacked by the radical extremists and they are not facing any credible opposition from the majority of the muslims. There are a few moderate muslims trying to tell the world that Islam is a religion of peace, but that is only half truth because a religion is as good as the people practicing it. Similarly the teachings of Koran, the holy book, are as good as their interpretation made by the majority of the muslims religious leaders.

    There are several islamic teachings in Koran that are potentially dangerous to the non-muslims, for example there is clear instruction in Koran to get the world rid of the Kafirs ( infidels ), which means to kill or convert the people of other faith.
    History is replete with incidents of the muslims invading non-muslim lands with Koran in one hand and sword in other.

    Now that the true and violent face of the muslims have been exposed all over the world, the intrinsically violent teachings of Islam are being interpreted in a new and civilized light by a section of the moderate muslims, in order to placate the world.

    Truth is, the Muslims are largely intolerant to other faiths, specially when they are in a majority. For example there are several muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, where the people of other faith are not allowed to practice their faith. The same muslims, when in Europe or North America, would fight for rights and freedom that they would deny to people of other faith in their own countries.

    True test of Islam and the muslims will be, when they can treat the religious minorities with respect in their own land.

    • How can muslims reject what is written in their book? They cannot reject "extemist" muslims, because they are simply muslims who have acted out based on what is commanded of them. "Moderate" muslims simply haven't acted out, but they have the command to do so, and it is only up to them as to when (and yes, indeed if) they act on it.

      But it is there for them to act whenever they please.

    • The notion that Islam has been hijacked is interesting because it is precisely the argument made by violent Mohammedans against non-violent Mohammedans. Likewise the category error of calling Islam a religion. Islam is an ideology complete with economic, social, political and religious laws, which are the sharia. This is why Mohammedans say there is only Islam. Even non-violent Mohammedans give allegiance to the sharia. All that separates the non-violent from the violent is the means through which the sharia is erected as the law of the land.

  3. I'm glad to see more mainstream media debunking the meme of the "poor" "disenchanted" "immigrant" Muslim extremist. Still, in the search for "root causes," few, if any, and this article is no exception, focus on the common source of all Islamic extremism: Islam.

    The concluding paragraph notes moderates have done little to counter the influence of supposed extremists, but does not delve into why that is the case. As others have pointed out long before now and in much greater detail, the reason moderates do not counter "extremists" is that they cannot. The quran and haditha and the very history of Mohammed himself provide all the justification required for violent jihad. In the end it all comes down to interpretation and the moderates have no theological coup de grace with which to counter those who interpret the texts and ascribe to violence.

    This is why, I contend, wishing Islam will somehow revert to a peaceful religion instead of a violent ideology after centuries of violent jihad is a fool's errand, a grand delusion. The only means to forever ending violent Islamic jihad is to remake Islam and that is never going to happen. This war has been going on for centuries and we're just in the middle of the next battle.

  4. With these comments I would like to express my admiration for the courage mustered by Mr. Adnan Khan in his very informative article about Islamic extremism, and the puritanical preaching's of Tablighis and Salafists advocating the Jihadi version of Islam in Muslim countries and Muslim communities spread all over the globe.Mr. Khan points out that the Muslim community of Toronto did not remain immune to the radical messages of the extremist movements mentioned above, and “Virtually every mosque in Toronto has at one time or another hosted members of the group, often travelling from Pakistan to preach and convert Canadian Muslims to the True Islam”. Of course “True Islam” means blind adherence to the will of Allah, clearly expressed in the Koran via the seal of the prophets Mohammad, who every Muslim should emulate to impose by force the will of Allah on every infidel who rejected the perfect Deen/Religion-Islam.
    In February 2007, I wrote an article published in the forum of The Canadian Coalition For Democracy http://canadiancoalition.com/forum/messages/21320
    warning Canadians in general, and Canadian law enforcement agencies in particular about the hatred casually promoted by radical Islamic fundamentalist preachers, during Friday sermons, in every mosque from coast to coast in Canada. At the time, my article was dismissed as the work of an Islamophobic Russian trying to settle the score on the humiliation imposed by Chechen Islamic fundementalists on the mighty Russian army. Today, almost three years later we have a Muslim journalist repeating the same warnings. I hope this time Canadians and Canadian law enforcement agencies will read my article again at the following link http://gatesofvienna.blogspot.com/2010/08/koran-h
    and take the appropriate steps to deport every preacher who promotes hatred on the Canadian soil, and shut down every mosque where radicalism is promoted, a solution adopted by The Hamburg Police Force who shut down The Taiba mosque (August 09,2010), the mosque that was frequented by three of the September 11 hijackers, because the so called place of worship was promoting hatred and Jihadi messages against Germans.

  5. Typical right-wing Maclean's propaganda aimed at the objective of proving that there is simply NO form of Islam which is acceptable or palatable to the West. I invite any one of you experts to actually attend a lesson/sermon by a Tablighi scholar or preacher. I have attended many dozens of such events and never heard violent jihad against civilians being preached. Violent jihad against American or British occupation forces— nope, haven't heard that either, although I wouldn't be surprised if Deobandi/Tablighi groups or aligned groups are preaching that in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. And of course, Iraq and Afghanistan throws the notion of "isolated Christian extremists" into the toilet; our primarily Christian and Christian evangelical-sympathizing government plus the conservative administration to the south have spear-headed a violent crusade against Iraq and Afghanistan. A few Muslim bombs in response cannot compare to the millions of tonnes of bombs and ammunition that have been dropped by our so-called "civilized" societies on Muslim villages, towns, and cities.

    As convenient as it might be for aggressive, violent, and imperialist world forces operating under the guise of civilization to have Islam reform and rid itself of violent jihad, it is not going to happen.

    Sucks, doesn't it?

  6. Standing ovation for Naeem Khan, well said.

  7. Absolute poppycock. Such ineffable twaddle. A reputable magazine like Maclean's would do well to make a better choice as to who writes such articles. The above piece is nothing but fear mongering nonsense from the pen of someone who has obviously not done his homework.
    Any violently extremist Islamist radical who reads this trash will split his sides laughing – I guarantee it. The Tablighi Jamaat has as much in common with Salafism as the Ku Klux Klan has with Opus Dei. The two are ideologically poles apart. In fact the TJ is often scorned by extremists as a bunch of weak, naive fools whose main contribution to Islam is having yearly picnics in India and Pakistan.
    In actual fact, it happens to be a grass-roots movement dedicated to reviving enthusiasm among Muslim masses for prayer, fasting, charity and fundamentals of civic behaviour such as courtesy, respect for the elderly, kindness to all living creatures, that are actually embodied in the teachings of Islam. The founder of the movement, Ilyas Kandhlawi, was a practicing Sufi of the Chistiya order. I have attended several of their talks and sessions and the topics they touch on are far from radicalism and sectarian hate mongering. A reliable acquaintance who is a regular member of the organization once told me that at the height of the 9/11 crisis regular prayers were being offered for the guidance of George W Bush (among other world leaders) at the Tablighi headquarters in Pakistan!
    The gentleman quoted out of context as saying that Muslims are the worst enemies of Islam meant that often Muslims give a bad name to Islam by committing acts of terror and doing other crazy things that project a negative image of Islam to other communities, and this is a common theme among Tablighi circles. I know because I've spoken with many of them.
    I invite all readers to read and ponder over the following article by Joginder Sikand regarding this issue:

  8. Hello Adnan, sorry for being rude if that is how it seemed from my reply. I dont know which Tableeghis you are talking about brother, but i know Tableeghis like i know my slippers from all the others in the mosque. There are atleast 4 Major mosques in Toronto who are Hardcore Tableeghis, Islamic foundation(Nugget and Markham), Dar Us salam(Thorncliffe pk dr.), Madina Masjid(Donlands and Danforth), Abu Bakr(Midland and Lawrence). These 4 have the biggest congregations in all of Toronto amongst all Tableeghi mosques; Infact Madina Masjid is the head quarter. I know all of their Imams, and if you have any doubts i am more then willing go with you and sit down with them have these questions about Madhab answered by them, on tape if you want it, or even undercover like the Dispatches did in UK, my money will be on the Tableeghis. I have not ever seen any imam in their mosque or speaker who is a non Hanafi. I think the only time we had one was Napolean from Outlaws of Tupac just recently. Infact if you want, you can have 2 people with you or how ever many you like and we can go to every tableeghi mosque and question any tableeghi you find on the things you mentioned. It really surprises me to know any tableeghi said such a thing. I have serious doubts over his tableeghiness.

    "madh'hahib themselves are innovations and there is only one valid fiqh – theirs, based on a literal interpretation of the Quran and the hadiths"

    Infact to the contrary we have had conferences like Path to piety and Youth Tarbiyah Conference held in Dar us Salam and Islamic foundation which are on record for 3 years to have condemned Non Madhabi approach and toast salafi logic. Their Audios are available for anyone to listen to, infact the last Youth Tarbiyah conference was very very anti Salafi, and scholars addressed questions posed by Salafis and answered them. Abdur Rehman ibn Yusuf, Moulana Bilal and Zahir Mehmood all from Uk were especially adamant on these topics.

  9. Correction"The killing of civilians is condemned by Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid The leader of the Taliban movement in many a sermons which are on record and I would be more then pleased to quote them."

  10. Salam,

    It would be nice if we can meet the next time you come to Toronto and discuss this in person. You can add me with the same name i used here on FB. I live in Toronto.

  11. The Tablihi jamat are not Salafi theyare more sufi inclined.
    Ilove Tablihijamat and try to goon weekend camps as often as possible.

    It is preciecly this kind of misinformation and scare tactics by themedia which cause so many to learn the truth aboutislam and convert. Just go to youtube and watch: 22 people convert toislam.

  12. ss

  13. I find this article terribly misleading preying on the ignorance of non-muslims with islamophobia to create more fear against anything to do with islam and muslims. Khan has never spent anytime with tablighis and has no idea of their peaceful message. for over a hundred years they have spent their own money and time around the world to promote islam as a religion for self rectification and peace  their gathering get millions of attendees all major investigation agencies have never found them of any wrongdoing and never have promoted violence or sympathised with any political group in any gathering. They have provided millions of otherwise frustrated muslims with a peaceful avenue to chanel their energies in self rectification. Sure they may be a few individuals who are new to the ideals of tabligh but publishing their view as the view of all tabligh brothers and sisters is a cheap attempt to promote hatred for peaceful islamic movements and creating a world of hate and mistrust full of violence which fame loving poeple like binladen and Adnan Khan only aspire to create.

  14. Mr. Adnan Khan,
    You should atleast pretend to do research if you are going to call yourself a jounalist. The Tablighi movement is a completely pacifist movement that emphasizes self reformation as the path to enlightenment. I very strongly doubt you have ever been to any Tablighi gathering, and this inflamatory and completely false piece of propoganda you have produced is an obvious attempt to instill fear of Muslims in people who will take you for your word. The fact of the matter is most of the terrorist who began in Tabligh found the movement too non-violent for their tastes and went looking for people who were more inclined to their false ideology of a violent Islam. The truth of the matter is the vast majority of Mulims are peaceful, law abiding citizens, and that is precisly the reason that Tabligh has drawn millions of followers.

    Frankly, I’m rather dissapointed that Maclean’s magazine, a megazine with a prestigious history and
    folowing, would publish this drivel without even doing any fact checking.

    Shame on you Mr. Khan, and  shame on Maclean’s magazine.