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Preachers Face Arrest

Islamic preachers deny claims that they are spreading political dissent.
By Danish Karokhel

Wandering Islamic preachers are being arrested because government officials suspect them of subversion.


The independent preachers, not connected to any mosque, say their only mission is spreading the word of Islam and that they are being unjustly persecuted. They are members of the international group Tabligh, which boasts 3 million members working in 150 countries. In Afghanistan, many Tablighi are from Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.


“We are upset because we are not allowed to follow the way of our prophets,” said Mawlavi Khalilullah, an Afghan instructor of Tablighi preachers in Kabul. “We want the principles of Islam to be applied in people’s daily lives. We are not related to any group or party.”


The Tablighi groups visit homes and university campuses, inviting people to come to mosques at prayer times and hear their preaching. They believe that following the basic religious principles will solve earthly problems.


“If the government becomes religious, it will be able to provide more facilities for the nation and it will be able to solve our problems,” said Khalilullah. “If the government becomes religious, the number of the crimes will decrease. We are working only for this and we don’t have any political purpose.”


Officials are divided over the real purpose of the preachers.


Ghulam Rabbani Adib, chief administrator of laws in the justice ministry, said, “Preachers should not be imprisoned. They are not political. They are very good people. The worst people are the ones who are getting rid of preaching.”


But intelligence officials say that the preachers have a subversive mission.


“Every religious activity of Pakistanis has a political purpose,” said Mawlavi Iqbal Shah, head of the court of the General Intelligence Department (which answers only to President Karzai). “These Pakistanis were the people who were fighting against the Northern Alliances. Their preaching is very political. Preaching is not compulsory in Islam. The imams are preaching in mosques, so we don’t need more preachers.”


Tablighi Jumat (Preacher Groups) is a worldwide movement whose stated aim is to invite Muslims who have strayed from Islam to return to what they consider the most basic and important principles.


The organisation, founded by Mawlana Mohammad Ilyas in India around the turn of the century, declares itself non-political. It grew slowly and began to spread outside of India in the 1950s, and by 1980 it claimed adherents in 90 countries, including the US and Canada.


The centre of Tablighi group is in Basti Nizammudin of India, but every year its biggest gathering, which attracts more than 3 million people, is held in the Raiwand area of Lahore, Pakistan. At the annual gathering, groups are formed and assigned to countries around the world.


Eleven Tablighi preachers are currently being held in Kabul jail, and one Tablighi leader said that a 12th cleric had died in custody. But prison officials would not allow an IWPR reporter to interview the prisoners, and warned him to “stay away from these issues”.


The imprisoned group, from Karak district in northwest Pakistan, came to Kunduz province during the Taleban era and preached there for about five months. They were arrested soon after the fall of the Taleban.


The mix of religion and politics over 23 years of civil war in Afghanistan and the intervention by Pakistani fighters has created a kind of guilt-by-association for Tablighi preachers, many of whom are Pakistani, members said.


In the months after the overthrow of the Taleban last December, anyone who appeared to be hard line about Islam or connected to Pakistan was considered subversive, and groups of Tablighi were swept up in police round-ups.


“No one is doing anything for their release,” said Nisar Ahmad, who is the head of a Kabul Tablighi group. “Pakistan is trying to free people who fought alongside Taleban, but no one is doing anything for the (Tablighi). The UN too is quiet about it… The government of Afghanistan should have known that they are not related to any political organisation, because no one is trying to release them.”


In early October, Kabul police arrested a 28-member group of preachers at the Mosque of Pakhta Froshi in Kabul. Mawlavi Qalamuddin, the president of Afghan preachers group, was among those arrested.


“These preachers were arrested in a humiliating way,” said Naqibullah, who has visited the prisoners. “Qalamuddin, who is one of the top preachers, was slapped on the face by police officers.”


The group was held in prison for a week. After his release, Qalamuddin went to Jalalabad and Khost to preach because the group doesn’t face any opposition in those places, Naqibullah said.


A group of 12 preachers from Polytechnic Institute and another preacher from the University of Kabul was arrested by police in November at Al-Kowetol-Khair Mosque on the university campus, but then released after a day in custody.


Rahmatullah, a medical student who was arrested, said the police warned them to stay away from the campus, “After that, we stopped operating in Kabul. At the moment, we are afraid of preaching here.”


Another Tablighi, Mohammad Anwer, said preachers at Kandahar University had also been arrested during Ramadan last month. Workers were setting up a satellite dish to bring news to the university, but the preachers warned that the broadcasts would feature anti-Islamic movies and music.


“The preacher students wanted to stop the dishes being set up, and when the chancellor heard of this he ordered that any student who wanted to preach will be expelled from the university,” Anwer said. University officials could not be reached for comment.


Danish Karokhel is an IWPR editor/reporter