Tag Archives: Islam

Who are the Deobandis?

While researching for one of my previous blog posts titled “The Issue of Foreign-Funded Mosques in Europe”, I came across an article by Innes Bowen that posed the question “So which Islamic schools of thought run Britain’s mosques today?” Bowen’s response countered some of the assumptions about the influence of Saudi Arabia that I had had up until that point. “The influence of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi movement is often cited” she writes. “But the Wahhabis — or Salafis as they prefer to be called — control just 6 per cent of mosques”.

Instead of focusing on Saudi Arabia, Bowen’s article puts the spotlight on the Deobandis, a sub-sect of Sunni Islam that controls more than 600 of Britain’s 1350 mosques. One sentence that particularly caught my eye – and that was particularly relevant to my blog post – was the concluding line of the article: “It is, perhaps, time to stop blaming foreigners. Illiberal Islam is thoroughly British these days.” Until reading Bowen’s article I had never even heard of the Deobandis so I thought it might be interesting to research them and write a blog post about my findings.

The Deobandi school of thought first arose in colonial-era India as a revivalist movement against the British and as a reaction against the perceived corruption of Islam caused by the British occupation. In 1857 a mutiny against the British was crushed and, according to one article I read, “Muslims in British India were the primary targets during the ensuing British crackdown because the revolt was fought under the leadership of the Muslim Mughal emperor”. This resulted in the migration of Muslim clerics to various places in an effort to “preserve their religious life and culture”.

One particular place that attracted several clerics was the town of Deoband in Uttar Pradesh in northern India. These clerics established the Darul Uloom seminary (or madrassa) in Deoband in 1866. By 1967, the school was producing 3,191 graduates and today has over 100,000 students. The Deobandi movement began to spread as scholars migrated to Pakistan following the separation of India in 1947.


The Darul Uloom Deoband in India

Photo credit: By Bakrbinaziz (Own work) [ CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) ], via Wikimedia Commons

Eventually, the movement found its way to the UK when migrants from India and Pakistan were encouraged to move to Britain to provide labour in the post-war recovery. In just five years between 1961 and 1966, the Pakistani community in England grew from around 25,000 to 120,000. According to a report on the Pakistani Community in England, there was no “automatic loyalty” to the various Islamic movements that arrived in the UK along with these migrants, and a fierce rivalry between Deobandi movements, such as Tablighi Jamaat, and the Pakastani Sufis (known as Barelvis) ensued for the control of mosques. The Deobandis focused their efforts on building educational institutions, which has led to the current situation where 80 percent of British-trained imams are Deobandi.

The first Deobandi school in England was the Darul Uloom Al-Arabiyyah Al-Islamiyyah, established on the outskirts of Manchester in Bury in 1975. Other institutions such as Jameah Uloomul Quran in Leicester and Jami’at Ta’lim al-Islam followed in 1977 and 1981 respectively. More recently, there has been controversy about plans to construct a £100 million “mega-mosque” in East London, which were eventually rejected in 2015.

Deobandis in Britain are often accused of not being willing to integrate into society and of not conforming to British values. Sometimes the accusations go further and suggest that Deobandi mosques are radicalising British Muslims.

While researching the Deobandis in Britain, I soon found myself reading about numerous controversies surrounding the sect. For example, in 2007 a Deobandi school in the northern town of Dewsbury was revealed to be under investigation for “promoting an extreme form of Islam”. The school was accused of exposing children to anti-Jewish propaganda and teaching students “not to adopt British customs”, watch television, or participate in mixed-gender activities. Most worryingly of all, material distributed by the school encouraged Muslims “to ‘expend… even life’ for ‘Allah’s just order’”.

I also found stories linking Deobandi clerics to the distribution of extremist literature in British prisons and threatening behaviour towards other sects and anyone who opposes them. For example, according to the BBC, a Deobandi Muslim from the Midlands “had been threatened with excommunication and violence for raising concerns about, among other issues, the propagation of sectarian hatred”.

A particularly useful source of information was a two-part BBC radio programme about the Deobandis that was broadcast in April of this year. In the programme, academic Phillip Lewis described the “Deobandi villages” that can be found within northern English cities. He talked of a “closed world to non-Muslims”, adding that these Deobandi enclaves are also ”often a closed world to other Muslims who aren’t Deobandis”.

The programme revealed how Masood Azhar, now the leader of a violent Islamist group in Pakistan and wanted by the Indian authorities for a terrorist attack carried out on a military base, had been welcomed with open arms at numerous Deobandi institutions in the UK in 1993. He toured the UK, visiting over 40 mosques to preach about jihad. He is reported to have told young people that they “should prepare for jihad without any delay. They should get jihadist training from wherever they can”. He is accused by Innes Bowen of being the “first to spread the seeds of modern jihadist militancy in Britain” and providing training camp facilities and logistical support to British Muslims to carry out terrorist attacks in the UK.

Also mentioned in the programme, was Aimen Dean, a former member of al-Qaeda, who had switched allegiance and was subsequently recruited by MI5. In his role as an informant, he pretended that he was still with al-Qaeda and discovered that “even after 9/11 many mosques were still stubborn in their support of the Taliban because of the Deobandi solidarity”.

The programme received a considerable backlash from British Deobandis. One blogger points out that many Deobandis actually do promote British values. He highlights the fact that the largest Deobandi school in the UK has been rated “outstanding” by Ofsted inspectors and praised for promoting “fundamental British values, such as democracy, rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs”.

Another blogger argues that the label “Deobandi” is basically meaningless: “I guarantee you, had the reporter bothered to go to a ‘Deobandi’ mosque and asked a worshipper – “Are you a Deobandi?”  The response would probably have been, “No – I am a Surti” or “Bharuchi”. The majority of the stated 600,000 so-called ‘Deobandis’ in the UK do not even know that they would be classified as ‘Deobandis’.”

As I continued digging deeper into this subject, it became increasingly clear that the Deobandis are far from a homogenous group. For example, although the Taliban is considered to be a Deobandi offshoot, the original seminary in India issued a fatwa against terrorism, with rector Habibur Rehman stating that “Islam rejects all kinds of unjust violence, breach of peace, bloodshed, murder and plunder and does not allow it in any form”.

Something that is often overlooked in some of the more scare-mongering articles that I read is the influence that the Wahhabi/Salafist ideology has had on the Deobandi movement.

It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars to spread Wahhabism around the world, in particular in the area along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is the “Saudi-isation” of Pakistan that has given rise to the Taliban in the region.

The Saudi’s also capitalised on the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in order to spread their influence, as explained here:  

According to a World Bank report, enrollment in Deobandi seminaries increased after 1979, coinciding with the start of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. Pashtuns played a major role in the Afghan jihad, and a large number of these fighters were drawn from Deobandi seminaries. In addition to American and Saudi money helping to support the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia infused Deobandi seminaries with Wahhabi ideology. The Saudis targeted Deobandi Islam because it was the most popular Islamic school in the Pashtun belt.”

Backed by Saudi money, it is this Wahhabi-infused form of Deobandi Islam that has been gaining strength around the world in recent decades, including in Britain. In the UK, this is demonstrated by the fact that some of the extremist material discovered in British prisons mentioned above was printed in Saudi Arabia.

So is illiberal Islam “thoroughly British these days” as Innes Bowen claims? Well, there are clearly issues concerning conservative Islamic beliefs and integration in Britain that need to be dealt with, including within the Deobandi community. However, the Wahhabi ideology being propagated by Saudi Arabia – not Deobandism – is what leads to radicalisation and is the real threat to the world. It is when Deobandism becomes infected with Wahhabism that it becomes truly dangerous, as has been the case with the Taliban.

With the rise of radical groups and terrorist attacks occurring on European soil, we seem desperate to pin the blame for all the problems on a particular group, and the Deobandis make for an easy scapegoat. Maybe I’m guilty of doing the same with the Saudis, but the more I read the more I can’t help seeing the grubby marks left behind everywhere by sticky Wahhabi fingers.


The Issue of Foreign-Funded Mosques in Europe

This week the burkini ban that has been implemented in a few French towns has been making headlines, in particular after armed police officers made a Muslim woman remove part of her clothing on a beach in Nice. However, this is not the only policy that has been proposed recently by French authorities following a summer of jihadist terror.

On 28th July, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated that he was “open to the idea that – for a period yet to be determined – there should be no financing from abroad for the construction of mosques”. There are fears within the country that the influence of funding from foreign countries, such as Saudi Arabia, is radicalising French Muslims. According to the World News Journal, “between 100 and 150 new mosques are at various stages of planning and construction across France” since 2011, and “US government sources suspect that much of the funding is actually funneled from Saudi sources through difficult-to-track chains of bank accounts and person-to-person cash transfers”.

Tension has been growing around the sources of funding for mosques in France. For example, in Nice – where 84 people were killed in July by a Tunisian lorry driver – a Saudi-funded mosque finally opened this summer following a 15-year dispute. The construction of the mosque had been fiercely contested by former mayor Christian Estrosi who has accused the Saudi owner of “advocating sharia” and wanting to “destroy all of the churches on the Arabian peninsula”.

It would seem perfectly reasonable for any country to be concerned about the influence of Saudi Arabia on its Muslim population. For decades the kingdom has been spending billions of dollars in an attempt to spread its extremely conservative and intolerant ideology known as Wahhabism around the globe, resulting in the growth of extremist organisations worldwide. The strategy has included funding mosques and madrassas – particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan – as well as providing training and textbooks.

These tactics have also been used in European countries. A major example is Kosovo. The small Balkan country of just 2 million inhabitants has seen more people per capita travel to Syria to fight for ISIS than any other European nation. Traditionally, Kosovan Muslims follow the Hanafi school of Islam, described here in the New York Times as a “liberal version that is accepting of other religions”.  However, as that article explains, in the period following the bloody Balkan civil war, the Saudis arrived offering millions of dollars in aid. This money was used to build new mosques, train Kosovan imams in Saudi Arabia and disseminate Wahhabi literature, sowing the seeds of intolerance and political Islam within the local Muslim community.

Belgium is another country that has seen parts of its previously moderate Muslim community gradually radicalised by external forces. In the 1960s, the then-king of Belgium actually gifted the land and building that currently houses the Great Mosque of Brussels to the Saudi king Faisal in return for oil contracts. The ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology imported to Belgium from Saudi Arabia conflicts with the more tolerant version of Islam adhered to by immigrants who arrived from places like Morocco and Turkey in the 1960s and 70s. In combination with poor social conditions like those in the infamous neighbourhood of Molenbeek, the spread of Wahhabism has led to a small minority of residents being especially susceptible to radicalisation by groups like ISIS.

One European country has already banned foreign funding for the construction and running of mosques. In 2015, Austria passed its updated “law on Islam”, which the Austrian government believes should be a model for the rest of Europe. In addition to banning the external funding of mosques, the law also requires imams to speak German. However, the government attempted to strike a balance by strengthening protections for Austrian Muslims, allowing Muslims to take time off work to observe their holidays and extending other rights relating to Islamic graveyards and pastoral care in hospitals.

The Austrian law is both a reaction to the growing number of Austrian Muslims leaving to join jihadist movements abroad and an attempt to counter the influence of rivals Turkey and Saudi Arabia who have been competing to lead the Muslim community in Austria for decades.  “What we want is to reduce the political influence and control from abroad and we want to give Islam the chance to develop freely within our society and in line with our common European values” says Foreign Minister, Sebastian Kurz.

There are, however, potential problems with the Austrian ban on foreign funding. Firstly, the ban may alienate Muslims as it only applies to them and not to other religious groups. Secondly, limiting funding might mean that moderate mosques are unable to survive or have to turn to illegal sources of funding, possibly pushing them towards more radical sources of financing.

This is an issue that France will also have to deal with if it goes down this path. Being a deeply secular state, it cannot intervene to provide funding for religious institutions. To get around this, the creation of a new foundation to provide “total transparency” of funding is being discussed. The idea would be to finance French mosques with fees from the halal food sector. It seems doubtful, though, that this would be enough to cover the costs of running the country’s mosques.

One critic, Senator Nathalie Goulet, has denounced the plans to forbid foreign funding, describing the idea of the ban as “absurd and impossible”. She claims that the proposals are “based on the assumption that radicalisation takes place inside mosques, which is not true”. In her opinion, the best solution is to make funding transparent by ensuring they are transferred via a dedicated foundation.

It’s true that mosques are not the only place where radicalisation takes place. For example, France’s prisons have been described as “factories for radical Islamists”. Meanwhile, the success of radical groups recruiting online is a major concern. As a Jordanian intelligence official says, “Even if I shut down every mosque, every person who supported ISIS in Jordan, there would still be YouTube videos recruiting young men with gun fights that look like they came out of a Hollywood movie. There would still be Twitter where men tweet about how they are living in paradise with three wives and a house, and there would still be WhatsApp and Telegram and every other network for them to communicate personally with whoever they want”. Remarkably, ISIS has even used dating sites for recruitment purposes.

Without addressing these issues, as well as the underlying social and economic conditions that leave previously tolerant European Muslims susceptible to radicalisation, a ban on the foreign funding of mosques may prove an ineffective way to combat extremism. A blanket ban would eliminate funding from moderate sources and could potentially result in the further alienation of the local Muslim population if the ban is only applied to them and not to other religious groups.

Like the burkini ban, the elimination of foreign funds for mosques may be driven by a desire to be seen to be doing something, even if that something is ultimately counter-productive. A more successful strategy might be to build relationships with Muslim organisations, cooperate in identifying extremism and, as has already been happening in France, shutting down mosques where radical ideologies are being preached.

Photo credit: wstuppert via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA