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.
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.