Morality has always been the compass whose north points to the progress of civilization. The notions of good and evil, truth and false, desirable and reprehensible, sacred and profane, flow from an established set of moral and ethical codes. Religion, in one form or the other, controls and directs moral norms and precepts of goodness and truth. Prioritizing a social, individual or collective action or behavior and demoting and discouraging another is often the result of the entrenched moral code. If a society allows religion to be the yardstick of goodness and truth, then the people with the sole authority to interpret the principles, the derivations from the principles, and also the form and content of the religion, assume the role of guiding the society toward a moral goal; assuming the role of the moral guardians of the society for the clergy is the logical conclusion of such an arrangement.

One echelon of the clergy – that more than the others consider it their right to define morality by virtue of what they practice – is the section of the clergy concerned with proselytization. Their tongues are soft, they have revoked any claim to be a party in dissenting matters of religion, they apparently have taken austere lifestyles, and they consider themselves to be hermits devoted to furthering the cause of Godly-ordained morality rather than active agents in society. This notion of being ascetic perhaps better defines the proselytization section of clergy in Pakistan, the Tableeghi Jamaat . Their claim of being apolitical and harmless devotees to the cause of Islam and its moralizing mission and without any hidden or manifested agenda whatsoever, elevates them in the eyes of the ordinary man and gives credence to what they preach above sectarian and class lines.

This unchallenged authority has led the Tableeghis to affect the public perception of goodness in a way that is innocuous at present, and at times is a renunciation of worldly pleasures, but the institutionalization of such concepts of what constitutes goodness has long-term deleterious effects on the social and moral progress of the society. For one, what they preach is passivity. ‘Leave it to Allah’, is one common prescription for a social evil, injustice or a suffering. The remedy to the social decline and moral bankruptcy according to them lies in completely revoking the agency to act and convene God’s help through spending nights at a mosque.

The other more obnoxious effect is the stifling of creative thought or even of dissent. That Jamaat mostly consists of laymen who are able to rote a few Quranic verses and a few hadiths. They draw their authority to call people to faith and the right path and to correct the evils and wrongs of the society, from the top echelon of their Jamaat. Their reach does not go beyond a few seminal texts and, to the detriment of the people associated with them, they reproach any learning from beside these few texts. Learning of science and technological knowledge is allowed but only as appendage to right behavior and fanatic commitment to a strict regimen of their routine.

The extension of this argument leads to one destination: indoctrination of gullible and impressionable minds to misguided notions of moral norms and of socially retrogressive religiosity. In a time when exploring the tolerant and philosophical aspects and parts and traditions of religion is of paramount calling, condemning a large section of society to fundamentalist, rigid, ossified and decadent set of moral practice and social behavior is a tragedy. The fundamentalism and extremism of the terrorists is never condemned by them but rather a few find the experience with Tableeghi Jamaat as a first step towards deeper indoctrination in extremism. Reports point to instances where terrorists have used the Jamaat as its recruiting pool. Given the content and form of Tableeghi’s preaching, it is no wonder that tableegh often is the first step towards extremism and fundamentalism.

The pretentious charade of the Tableeghi Jamaat of being apolitical and unconcerned with larger social currents needs to be challenged and the role they play the in radicalization of society needs a wider debate. Their emphasis on a simplified, devoid of social responsibility, and fundamentalist set of moral precepts and norms is a greater challenge to the social progress of our society. The war on fundamentalism and extremism calls for an alternative to the current discourse on religion, the way that its interpretation has been monopolized by the clergy, and the threats posed to social progress and moral enlightenment by the potently radical section of the clergy.