Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Tablighi Jamaat and Hui Muslims

Footage posted in 2015 shows Chinese Muslims, who appear to be members of Tablighi Jamaat (in white robes)holding a prayer in a Chinese-style mosqueThe skullcapped worshippers to the right are believed to be Hui Muslims. Image credit: Umal Al-Dawa Youtube Account

Literally translated as “society for spreading faith,” Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) is a transnational movement closely tied to the Deobandi interpretation of the Sunni Islamic teachings. It is often seen as an ultraorthodox sect, and some media outlets have erroneously reported that TJ calls on Muslims to travel the world to convert non-believers. Founded in India in 1926, TJ encourages all members to form small groups to proselytize both in- and outside of mosques.  

TJ’s proselytizing method differs from the mainstream practice in that it is revivalist and insular. Rather than focus on non-Muslims, TJ adherents encourage other Muslims to adopt more orthodox lifestyles akin to those of Muhammad and the first Muslim adherents, and to focus proselytizing on current believers and Muslims of lapsed faith. Branding itself as a pietistic movement that eschews politics, TJ is active in over 150 countries, according to a study published in 2010 by Pew Research Center. TJ has an estimated 25 to 80 million participants around the globe, with the majority living in South Asia. 

Although TJ openly rejects violence as a means for evangelism, it is banned by Russia and a number of Middle East nations due to its suspected connections to militancy and terrorism. TJ, however, continues to operate legally in much of Europe. While a French intelligence official remarked that TJ provided “fertile ground for breeding terrorism,” other European anti-terrorism officials said there is insufficient proof to substantiate the claim. The United Kingdom has become a center of TJ activities with the arrival of South Asian immigrants since the 1960s. In the United States, officials have been unable to prove that TJ is a terrorist group although the then-assistant director of the FBI said in 2003 that “al-Qaida used them for recruiting.” Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has placed the 50,000 TJ participants in the country under close surveillance. 

The Chinese government sees TJ as a matter of serious concern and employs similar rhetoric to discredit the sect. That said, because of its diffuse nature and scarcity of public information, little is known about how TJ operates and the extent of its influence in China. Researching this subject is also difficult because varying transliterations are in use, including taibilike (台比力克), zhema’erti (哲麻尔体), zhemati (哲麻提), and chuzhemati (出哲麻提). In government sources, TJ is also called Da’wah Preaching Society (dawa xuanjiaotuan 达瓦宣教团). The name is occasionally shortened as Da’wah (达瓦), dawaer (达瓦尔), or dawa (达洼), all of which stem from an Arabic word used in the Quran to describe Allah’s call to proselytize. Some scholars have also said that in China and elsewhere, Da’wah refers to a range of educational and social welfare activities catering to Muslims in need.  

The participation of Hui Muslims in TJ has attracted some scholarly interest. Among the first English literature on this topic is “Hui Muslims: The Milieu of Radicalization and Extremism,” a chapter of Ethnic Identity and National Conflict in China, but it only mentions in passing that TJ increases the risk of radicalization among Hui. There are also a few Chinese-language studies about TJ, but none of them go beyond providing basic facts about its history, practices, and overseas activities.  

Alexander Stewart

Anthropology scholar Alexander Stewart conducted an in-depth study on this little-known subject. His 2018 article titled “Tabligh Jama’at in China: Sacred self, worldly nation, transnational imaginary” focuses on Hui participation in TJ in Xining, Qinghai. Stewart pointed out the sensitivity of the subject matter, citing anecdotal remarks from a graduate student who was told by mainland professors to avoid touching on it. Stewart indicated that many TJ participants in Xining “wear the loose, white, South Asian-style clothing common to the movement…” Unlike TJ participants outside of China, they do not gather in exclusively dedicated mosques or institutes. They have distinctive ritualized behaviour and proselytizing methods: they lead study sessions and travel occasionally in groups of four to ten people to preach all over China. “Instead of violently opposing the Han-dominated atheist state like some extremists among Uyghur splittists in Xinjiang,” TJ stresses the unity of all Muslims, transcending the many Islamic sectarian divides. Another reason why TJ appeals to Hui is because the sect provides an escape for those dissatisfied with state-appointed imams who prioritize patriotism over religious orthodoxy. 

Stewart noted that the legal status of TJ in China is ambiguous. In his article, Stewart cites one criminal case which strongly suggests that TJ participants are at risk of imprisonment in Xinjiang. The case was concluded in Gulja County in September 2013 and involved a Hui farmer sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.” The charge stemmed from his participation in TJ and illegally proselytizing in Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia, and Qinghai. In the judgment, the court designated Da’wah as an “overseas religious infiltration organization… unanimously boycotted by China’s traditional Islamic groups.” 

Dui Hua's Research

The Hui farmer case cited by Stewart was not an isolated instance. Politically driven accusations against TJ are dominant in official narratives. In 1999, Kashgar Yearbook recounted finding “reactionary propaganda” from hostile forces that included TJ. In that year, police broke up 11 secret TJ gatherings and confiscated about 2,000 copies of “reactionary” books, 80,000 copies of illegal religious publications, and thousands of reactionary and religious cassette tapes. Kashgar and other Xinjiang localities have also branded TJ as a source of “sabotage and infiltration” and religious extremism despite a lack of evidence to substantiate the claims. In Xinjiang, TJ is also categorized as one of the sanfei (三非, i.e. three illegal) cases, which include people who take part in illegal religious activities, produce illegal religious publications, and propagate illegal religion online. 

Government gazettes sometimes give piecemeal figures of police raids that hint at the extent of influence of TJ. In 2004, Kashgar police reportedly investigated 220 participants in the whole prefecture. In 2010, police outlawed five gatherings involving 76 people. The sources, however, did not state whether the TJ participants were Uyghurs, Hui, or members of other Muslim minorities. 

Dui Hua’s research into court judgments uncovered several criminal cases in connection to TJ, all of which involved Hui Muslims. None of them were accused of terrorism or convicted of terrorism-related crimes. Allegations against them all centered on “illegally proselyting” or “illegally teaching illegal Islamic classes.” For instance, Ma Decang (马德仓) was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment on December 12, 2014, in Turpan City, for the same offense of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” because he was not authorized by the state to teach the Quran in mosques and his home. As a leader of a local TJ group, he received non-local TJ visitors in his home, where he held prayers and arranged proselytizing missions to Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, Ningxia, and Sichuan.  

Available sources also suggest that some TJ participants travelled abroad to preach. As recently as April 2020, news media reported that six Chinese nationals were among the 960 TJ members who were blacklisted and their tourist visas cancelled by India’s Union Home Ministry as the deepening coronavirus sparked border closures and strict lockdowns. 

In China, even making arrangements for TJ participants to travel overseas can be seen as a criminal act. On May 19, 2015, Jin Dehuai (金德怀) received an even lengthier seven years’ prison sentence in Xinjiang, again for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.” The judgment stated that Jin arranged Bangladesh visas for other TJ participants. In 2013, Jin himself paid a 40-day visit to Bangladesh, where he met with other TJ participants from China. Additionally, Jin was accused of organizing multiple “jamaat’” gatherings and Islamic classes in his home in Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture.  

Another reason for the severity of Jin’s sentence is that he reoffended. In 2009, Jin was sentenced to one year and six months for the same offense as he was found guilty of teaching the Quran to over two dozen Hui and Uyghur children aged three to 16. The religious classes Jin provided were said to have inflicted harm on the children’s health because they were confined in several small apartments that “restricted their free movement,” according to the judgment. 

From “reactionary” to “infiltration, extremism and terrorism,” the different accusations put forward by the Chinese government against TJ appear to suggest that local officials in Xinjiang do not share the same understanding on how to pursue the sect. There were also cases where TJ participants were instead charged with Article 300 of the Criminal Law “organizing/using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” The application of this offense is unusual because TJ is not an officially recognized cult organization such as Falun Gong or Almighty God.  

Riyad as-Salihin Hadiths, once available for sale in online bookstores, was said to be an illegal religious publication in the case of Ma Sheng in 2013. The image was originally from www.kongfz.com but is no longer on the site. 

In one case concluded in October 2010, the Gulja County People’s Court sentenced seven Hui TJ participants to three-four years’ imprisonment for “cult.” One of them is Ma Sheng (马胜), who was similarly accused of conducting illegal religious classes. Available sources stated that he taught several banned books, including Islamic Six Virtues and Riyad as-Salihin Hadiths. Publications of the same titles are downloadable free of charge from various online file sharing services.  

Beyond Xinjiang

The crackdown on Muslims that began with the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has spread to other regions. Dui Hua has also found criminal cases involving TJ participants in other provinces. Ningxia, home to a large concentration of Hui Muslims, is another center of Hui TJ participants. In 2014, public security in Litong District launched a district-wide crackdown on “cults”, breaking up five different Da’Wah gatherings and “dismissing” 48 participants. In 2015, Ningxia raided 48 instances of “Da’wah Work” involving 355 individuals throughout the province. In 2016, in Tongxin County alone, also in Ningxia, authorities reportedly stopped 125 Da’Wah participants from “illegally proselytizing.” 

An online judgment unearthed by Dui Hua indicated that a local court in Ningxia found Ma Zongcheng (马宗成) guilty of “gathering a crowd to disrupt a public place and traffic order” for taking part in TJ activities from 2009-2018 and gathering TJ members in his home from other parts of Ningxia, Gansu, and Henan. Ma was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and was released on December 23, 2019. 

A document issued by the Hohhot Islamic Association in August 2019 asks all mosques to deny entry of Da’wah imams in order to comply with the state policy to Sinicize religion. Initially posted on QQ, a web portal developed by Chinese tech giant Tencent, the image has been deleted. 

How TJ is officially designated in China remains ambiguous—does it really share a propensity towards extremism and terrorism, or is it another a peaceful group banned in China because of its effort to preach and conduct classes outside the state system? Instead of violent or other terrorism-related crimes, TJ members of Hui descent were mostly convicted of public order offenses, or sometimes “cult,” for illegally proselytizing or conducting Islamic classes.  

Media attention to Hui Muslims began relatively recently around 2018 when authorities across China started demolishing mosques perceived to be “un-Chinese,” shuttered Arabic language schools, and launched “anti-halal” crackdowns which affected tens of thousands of Hui entrepreneurs and restaurant owners. However, the cases demonstrated in this post show that a portion of Hui Muslims, particularly participants of TJ, faced repression even before Chinese president Xi Jinping announced his plan to Sinicize religion. First mentioned at the Central United Front Work Conference in May 2015, Sinicization brought about major bureaucratic restructuring that put state organs in charge of religious affairs directly under the CCP’s United Front Work Department, with the primary objective to safeguard CCP’s power. At a Central Religious Work Conference in April 2016, Xi directed his Sinicization remark in part at Hui Muslims for their troubling extension of “Islamization” of Chinese society

Today, the clampdown on Islam has become more widespread, and some Hui Muslims are known to have been swept into re-education camps alongside Uyghurs. More research is needed to evaluate how Sinicization has accelerated the clampdown on Hui participants of TJ, whose beliefs, practices, and overseas connections are at odds with increasingly xenophobic body politic under Xi. 

In addition to Uyghurs and Hui, the Sinicization of Islam has taken aim at additional minority groups. In September 2020, reports of a crackdown on the Utsul Muslims, a population of around 10,000 living in Hainan, emerged. New restrictions ban traditional Islamic dress, including the hijab and a traditional long skirt worn by female practitioners, from schools in Utsul neighborhoods. The ban is allegedly part of a wider prohibition against any traditional ethnic garments in schools, even though it only affects the Utsuls. In addition to the ban on traditional dress, other measures to be implemented include increased surveillance of residents in Muslim neighborhoods, restrictions on the sizes of mosques, and the removal of Arabic script and architectural features from mosques and other buildings.