The coronavirus outbreak at the Tablighi Jamat headquarters in New Delhi has taken a predictable turn. Around 400 people now spread over many states who gathered there earlier this month have tested positive for the virus, and at least seven people have died. Not to relitigate the argument but there is definitely an element of selective justice at play here.

While the Delhi government has filed an FIR against the head of the Islamic organisation and other members for organising a gathering, other religious gatherings held at the same time should also come in for examination. The Tablighi Jamat seems to be a convenient scapegoat for our political leadership and bureaucrats to divert attention from their colossal mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis.

At the same time, the Tablighi Jamat leadership is not without blame. Even when the Central officials themselves announced on March 13 that Covid 19 was not a health emergency in India, Maulana Saad, ameer of the Jamat, should have reassessed operations at the Markaz or centre in light of the global situation.

Like an airport

First of all, there are always foreign nationals at the Markaz and some of them would have arrived after the outbreak started spreading globally. Granted, the government of India failed to communicate the severity of the disease, to conduct testing and order preventative measures early. As the leader of an international organisation, Saad should have considered the potential impact of the virus on his own flock. From his bayaans or discourses, it seems he saw the global health crisis as the divine consequence of individual spiritual failing.

Secondly, ijtema (gathering) or no ijtema, the Markaz always has had people going in and out. It acts like an airport terminal. People come in from around the country and the world arrive there before doing on to other places. In the Tablighi system, all adherents are encouraged to take their message of spiritual revivalism to other Muslims. As such, the contagious nature of virus should have served as a warning and the disastrous possibility of the Markaz becoming a conduit of infections.

Perhaps, there was too much faith in the divine as the cause and solution of the outbreak. Perhaps they were overwhelmed by the fast-moving crisis. However, in an organisation that looks up to the leadership for guidance and follows them blindly, one can’t help but feel sorry for the poor Muslims that contacted the virus at the Markaz.

While questioning leadership is not part of the Tablighi modus operandi and ikhtilaaf (disagreement) is avoided at all cost within the organisation, building a leadership structure that encourages questioning is critical in any organisation. Even if Markaz leaders want only to ever draw from Islamic history, early Islamic history offers numerous instances of individuals questioning their leaders.

A man from Delhi's Nizamuddin awaiting to be taken to a quarantine centre. Credit: PTI

Thirdly, even though they act like one, the Tablighi Jamat is no longer the embattled upstart it was when it was founded in 1926. It is a global organisation with global reach – probably the biggest Muslim global organisation, with hundreds of millions of adherents. It should start acting like one. There are Muslim professionals – men and women – in its ranks who could help with digital communication that is critical in this day and age.

Despite its size, any semblance of digital communication is completely absent. So much so, that it is difficult to find its official website on the internet. Crisis communication has been outsourced to a bunch of sympathetic media-types. There is an immediate need to build and shore up crisis management and ensure there is a media response team in place for all manner of emergencies.

The Jamat cannot operate in vacuum. It avoids political participation at a group level, while TV and other media are considered harmful, if not outright evil. However, the Jamat leadership should take note that if you’re not on the table then you’re on the menu. The random phone recordings of Saad and a scanned copy of the Markaz statement that circulated hours after the fact are not going to cut it in today’s India. The reality is that Muslim organisations in India will always be under the scanner and they have to be extra vigilant. Unfortunately, the Tablighi Jamat is woefully unprepared for the challenge.

Confronting the crisis

At a minimum, Jamat leadership should build and showcase a functional website, so that millions of people who are looking up Tablighi Jamat right now can find authentic information and filter out the noise on Twitter, TV and biased media sources. Also, they should prioritise social distancing guidance in accordance with public health experts and communicate that to its membership. Lastly, they should coordinate an appropriate media response that provides a credible counter-narrative to the currently skewed storyline.

I write all this not as a critic but someone who thinks Jamat is a force of good at an individual level for those who seek that path. As the first person from my very anti-Tablighi family to be associated with the Tablighi Jamat during my college days, my words come from a place of good faith.

I am no longer associated with the Jamat and have not been for a long time now. Still, I hope the Jamat and its sympathisers will pay heed to some of the suggestions. As the Jamat itself believes, anything is possible, but you have to start with the first step.

Mohib Ahmad is a digital marketer currently based in Austin, Texas. He Twitter handle is @mohibahmad.