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Pakistan's Islamic preachers: Gateway to radicalization?

Since 9/11, Pakistan's Islamic preachers have gotten far less international scrutiny than in militant groups. But the social and religious conservatism they preach could be an even more radicalizing force.

By Owais TohidCorrespondent / September 14, 2011

A Pakistani man (c.) reads verses of the Quran, during Laylat al-Qadr, the 27th day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in a Mosque in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Aug. 27. Since 9/11, Pakistan's Islamic preachers have gotten far less international scrutiny than in militant groups.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP

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Karachi, Pakistan

Hawkers park their carts next to the latest-model cars of business tycoons as thousands of men rush into the Madni Mosque in Karachi city.

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Inside, the atmosphere is electrifying: prayers, redemption, and celebrity sightings, as commoners get transformed into global Islamic preachers – all in the name of “Muslim victories.”

A crowd of some 40,000 worshipers is instructed by the mosque’s cleric to “spread the message among Muslims in every street, in every city.”

This is the weekly congregation of Tablighi Jamaat.

The religious movement of proselytizers is an offshoot of the Deobandi sect, which takes a literal approach to Islam.

The use of the hijab (veil), the act of growing beards, and the wearing of ankle-length trousers – all symbols of conservative Islam – are increasingly the norm here. Boutiques have mushroomed for fashionable veils, and Islamic-only bookshops are flourishing in posh neighborhoods.

All of this would be fine, say analysts, but Pakistanis who choose not to follow such strict requirements feel suffocated, and many believe that the trend of converting more and more Islamic preachers will only further push society into radicalism – and ultimately lead to more silent support of militant groups.

Since 9/11, Pakistan’s militant groups have been under scrutiny internationally. But it’s the accelerating social and religious conservatism that is more socially corrosive, providing the gateway to radicalization, say some observers.

“Especially after 9/11, there is increasing extremism in terrorism-hit Pakistan. These preachers, by radicalizing various layers of the society, will ignite it – so these groups and their activities should be put under the counterterrorism [microscope] rather than ignoring them as nonpolitical and nonmilitant preachers,” says Arif Jamal, author of “Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir.”

All ages participate – men with long beards or short beards, caps or turbans, shoulder bags or backpacks. Teenage boys, eyes wide, listen to the narrations of experienced preachers of their mission travels to America, England, and Africa.

In July, Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik reportedly called the missionary center of Raiwand, the headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat near Lahore, the “breeding ground of extremism” and terrorism in Pakistan, and said it had a major role in brainwashing Pakistanis. According to police reports, he said, many terrorists under arrest in Pakistan had attended the congregations with Tablighi Jamaat.

The statement triggered sharp criticism from top politicians, including former caretaker Prime Minister Chaudhary Shujat and current Chief Minister of Punjab Province Shahbaz Sharif.

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