Reports about Indian Muslims joining the wars in middle east are exaggerated. They are more angered by domestic trends.
By Seema Guha
Recent reports of Indian Muslims queuing up to go to Iraq—Sunnis to join the new jehadi army of the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Shias to halt the triumphant march of the ISIL to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf—has sent alarm bells ringing through the security establishment in New Delhi.
Will Muslims of India now become a part of the global jehad, which has sent scores of young people from Europe, Africa and the US flocking to Afghanistan (in the early days) and now to Syria and Iraq?
If people go in sufficiently large numbers and return home to indoctrinate others, it could well pose a major future threat to India. The scepter of mass suicide bombers in this country is a danger too horrible to contemplate. Suicide bombings, once the copyright of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, are now being widely used by Islamic terror groups.
The news that four young men from Maharashtra may have joined the ISIL, came to light when the parents of one of the boys reported it to the authorities. The four had left for Iraq on May 23, as part of a 22-member group of pilgrims. On May 25, they hired a taxi to Fallujah and disappeared. The parents of Arif Fayyaz Majeed, one of the boys, allege that they have joined the ISIL. The concerned parents later travelled from Kalyan (Maharashtra) to Delhi earlier this month and met home minister Rajnath Singh. They want the government’s help to get back their son and want action against those responsible for radicalizing the young men. The names of the others of the group are Fahad Tanvir Sheikh, Aman Naim Tandel and Shaheen Farouqi Tanki. All three are from Thane (Maharashtra).
“If there is concrete evidence of Indian Muslims getting involved in the global jehad, it is a matter of grave concern,” says Talmiz Ahmad, India’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Oman. He is now based in Dubai and closely follows developments in the Arabian Peninsula.
Ahmad is not certain that there is enough evidence to back the newspaper reports. Much of what is being said is from accounts given by the parents of Majeed. The reports so far are “vague”. One of the reasons that the parents believe the boy could be with the ISIL, is because of a reference in a letter to “Allah’s land”. But for a young man growing up in a Sunni household, Allah’s land would not be ISIL, but the holy city of Mecca. There could be the other interpretation that because the ISIL is now in control of large swathes of territory, the liberated region is considered as Allah’s land. Nothing is really clear if these four boys are really with the ISIL, or if there are more Indians who have made their way to the area. Chances are that it would be difficult for anyone to travel to the area at the moment.
However a visiting Syrian dignitary, an aide of President Bashar al-Assad, told Indian journalists two years ago that Indians were fighting on the side of the Al Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups, on a mission to overthrow President Bashar Assad. “This is a lie,” Ahmad declares.
There has also been the disquieting report of a terror group Ansar ul Tawhid-ul Hind, claiming that one of their men Anwer Bhaktal has been martyred while fighting in Afghanistan. Bhaktal was based in Dubai and is said to be a relative of the Indian Mujahideen founder Riyaz Bhatkal. He has been helping IM from Dubai since 2008.
Apart from the radicalization of a handful of Sunni youth, there is also large-scale concern among Shias in India about the advance of the ISIL forces in Iraq. They fear the Shia shrines in Najaf and Karbala would be destroyed if the ISIL hordes overrun the Iraqi army. Najaf has the shrine of Imam Ali, the son-in law of the Prophet revered by Shias, while Karbala is revered because it has the mosque devoted to Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson. Both these towns are places of pilgrimage for Shia Muslims worldwide.
In Lucknow, which has among the largest Shia populations in India, one of the influential clerics, Kalbe Jawad, patron of Anjuman-e-Haideri, made waves when he declared that he would be going to Iraq with volunteers to protect the holy shrines. While the concern is genuine, the rest is bluster. The government of India has already announced a travel ban to Iraq following the security situation there. The cleric also changed his views while speaking to India Legal: “No, no we are not going there to fight. We want to be there to help the people affected by the fighting.’’
Jawad however adds that when a notice was issued for volunteers to go and protect the holy shrines, nearly a lakh of people sent in their names. “Let us see how many of them will finally turn up. As of now no one can travel to Iraq,” the cleric says. Talmiz Ahmad says that the Iraqis have enough volunteers of their own, as well as sympathisers from Iran, to make up the numbers.
While it is natural for Indian security agencies to be aware of the dangers posed by radicalization of Muslim youth, it is also necessary to view things in perceptive. Of the roughly over 168 million Indian Muslims, just a handful have so far tried to be part of the global jehadi movement. The figures of course could be a little more, because it is difficult to track down every person. Most ISIL foreign fighters are Chechens and Arabs from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
As a rule Muslims of this country have been largely insulated from the massive upheavals that have shaken the Islamic world. During the jehad in Afghanistan, first against the Russians and then the Americans, though nearly 100,000 Muslim volunteers from all over the world rushed there, Indian Muslims kept aloof. Whether it was the Taliban or the Al Qaeda, Indians were not really part of the movement. The Arab spring too did not have much of an impact on Indian Muslims, though like everybody else the educated Muslim community too keenly followed the events unfolding in Tunis, Egypt, Bahrain and the rest of the Muslim world.
Professor Mushirul Hasan, historian and former vice chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, warns against over-reaction to a handful of Indian Sunnis and Shias heading to Iraq. “For some it will be a stick to beat the community. But we must be aware that Indian Muslims have not ever expressed strong feelings over either Iraq, Israel-Palestine or any other such issues which concern the rest of the Islamic world. In fact, Indian Muslims hardly ever speak out even about fellow Muslims in Kashmir…. We have to be careful.”
However, the Sunni-Shia conflict across the Muslim world may also have a ripple effect in the subcontinent. Sunnis in Pakistan are constantly targeted by the Pakistan Taliban. Indian Sunnis and Shias have long had a testy relation. There are often clashes during the Muharram procession in Lucknow. Politically too, this time around in UP, many Sunni Muslims said that the Shias were possibly the only Muslims ready to vote for the Narendra Modi-led BJP.
The emergence of hardline Wahabi Islam in the last few decades across India and Pakistan has much to do with Saudi funding of mosques and madrasas in the subcontinent. Flushed with oil wealth, the Saudis, who profess a severe interpretation of Islam, are making sure that poor Muslims in South Asia are fully indoctrinated.
It is time for governments in the region to monitor the madrasas and keep an eye on what is taught in these schools meant exclusively for poor Muslims.
Long-time politician Arif Mohammad Khan blames India’s political parties for much of the problems faced by the community. He believes that in their effort to woo the Muslim electorate, the politicians have encouraged the traditional backward leaders of the community. “I am surprised that just a handful of Indian Muslims have so far joined the jehadist forces. Considering the kind of education they receive in madrasas, the kind of retrograde elements who represent the Indian Muslim community in it could have been much worse.”
Muslim youth in India have been radicalized not so much by the ideology of global jehad, but the injustice they have experienced domestically. The Mumbai riots that followed the Babri Masjid demolition (December 1992-January 1993) and the Gujarat riots of 2002 have succeeded in alienating a large number of young Muslims. Considering that the Srikrishna Commission Report that went into the causes of Mumbai riots has gathered dust also perturbs the thinking Muslim. Even more, the knee jerk reaction of India’s investigative agencies in blaming Muslim youth for everything and often putting them behind bars on false charges, does not bode well for the future.
Unless Indian Muslims are given their rights and not just wooed as vote banks, the chances of more young people being radicalized is real.