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Indian liberal Muslims need to watch out for a dangerous strain of Islam terrorising S. Asia

Leaders of the Muslim community in India have the primary duty to confront and defeat the malign Wahhabi-Salafi influence on Indian Muslims.

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The recent terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka by a group of radicalised, extremist Muslims have reinforced the need for both the Indian Muslim community and the Indian government to forge effective strategies to prevent similar radicalisation of a segment of Indian Muslim youth who are in danger of falling prey to the monstrous ideology that inspired the Sri Lankan carnage.

The fact revealed by the Sri Lankan army chief that the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday attacks visited Kerala, Kashmir, and Bengaluru before committing the atrocity in order to either train or network in India makes this all the more imperative.

Indian Muslims need to give up the attitude prevalent among a segment of the Indian Muslim community of self-delusionary denial based on the premise that “others” have committed the crimes and deliberately put the blame on Muslims to malign the community. I have come across this stance on several occasions ranging from the 9/11 attacks in New York to the brutal beheadings carried out on camera by members of the ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This attitude is based on a refusal to introspect and seriously analyse the root causes that lead a very small group of Muslims to commit such horrific acts.

A part of the motivation for terrorist acts undoubtedly comes in the form of reaction to majoritarian ideologies, Hindutva in the case of India and Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism in the case of Sri Lanka, which promote a high sense of insecurity among the Muslim minorities in the two countries. However, this does not mean that the Indian Muslim community should minimise the importance of the principal factor that has become embedded within South Asian Muslim societies that promotes radicalisation. This is the adoption of extremist religious ideology by a segment of Muslims in the subcontinent that leads the indoctrinated to commit acts of terror. This factor, it has become clear, played a crucial role in motivating the Sri Lankan terrorists and can no longer be swept under the carpet.

Also read: Are Indian Muslims more religious than other communities?

Dangerous strains

The generic terms used for this nefarious ideology that promotes radicalism are Salafism and Wahhabism, which are often used interchangeably. The two pillars of this ideology are an extreme puritanical outlook and a craving to return to the mythical early days of Islam, when it is assumed religion was not ‘corrupted’ by external influences. These tendencies inculcate not only insularity among their adherents but also hostility both towards people of other faiths and towards the very large majority of Muslims who do not subscribe to the ideology. Consequently, this ideology undermines the prospect of Muslims in India and Sri Lanka integrating fully into the multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies in which they live and acting as full citizens.

The followers of this cult, for it is nothing better than a cult, consider themselves to be the only ‘true’ Muslims and believe other Muslims are highly misguided or even beyond the pale of Islam. It is this distorted approach that underlies the bombing of Sufi shrines and the killing of members of the Shia community as witnessed in Pakistan. It also drives some devotees of this ideology to commit acts of terror against non-Muslims as witnessed recently in Sri Lanka and brutalise other Muslims as was the case in Iraq and Syria in territories controlled by the ISIS.

Although the group that engages in such acts of terror is extremely small, it is the product of a mindset that is shared by a larger number of Muslims. One cannot resolve the problem of terrorism undertaken by this very small group of Muslims without eradicating this ideology that divides people into the ‘pure’ and the ‘impure’ both between Muslims and non-Muslims and among Muslims themselves.

Also read: Sri Lanka’s Easter bombings have Indian links & pose a serious security threat

The Gulf entry

This insidious ideological infiltration among Indian and other South Asian Muslims started from the late 1970s onward. It was the result of several inter-related variables but the most important of these was the vast increase in employment opportunities in the energy-rich Gulf countries following the oil boom of the 1970s. This resulted in many Indians of all faiths temporarily locating to these countries in search of higher earnings and better economic prospects. While a large number of Indians belonging to other faiths also moved to the Gulf in search of lucrative jobs, the religio-cultural impact of the encounter with the fundamentalist Salafi/Wahhabi form of Islam followed in these countries, especially Saudi Arabia, on a section of Indian Muslim emigrants was qualitatively different because of shared religious affiliation.

Several of these temporary Muslim migrants returned to India enamoured with the obscurantist ethos of these oil-rich countries because of their phenomenal wealth combined with the fact that they spoke Arabic, the language of Islam’s holy book, and dressed in their tribal attire that many Indian Muslims mistook for the dress code of the Prophet’s era. Indian Muslims do not realise that the attire of the tribes of Nejd, the home of the Saudi elite, and that of other Gulf tribes living in eastern Arabia is very different from the clothing worn by the Prophet’s original followers who hailed from the Hijaz in western Arabia. They also do not fathom the fact that merely speaking in Arabic does not mean that Arabs understand the essence of the Holy Quran since it is written in classical not colloquial Arabic.

The fascination with the reactionary ethos of the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, is publicly exhibited in India above all by the adoption by a section of Indian Muslim women often under patriarchal pressure of an ultraconservative dress code, including the niqab or full face covering popular in Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries. Some Muslim men have also adopted the long robes worn by the Gulf Arabs in the mistaken belief that it demonstrates their piety and their adherence to the sunnat (tradition) of the Prophet.

But this display of presumed orthodoxy and devoutness constitutes merely the tip of the iceberg. The impact of Wahhabi/Salafi Islam on the mindset of a segment of returnees, who also passed on their preferences to a much larger group of relatives and acquaintances already impressed by the formers’ newly acquired prosperity, has been more profound. Islamic beliefs and practices among some Indian Muslims began to approximate the harsh Wahhabi dogma from the 1980s onward. This dogma stands in stark contrast to the indigenous version of Islam in India based on the liberal Hanafi school of jurisprudence heavily overlaid with Sufi beliefs and practices. Sufism, infused with syncretism and toleration of all religions, has provided natural defences against extremist attitudes among Indian Muslims. The ideological infiltration of Wahhabism/Salafism has eroded some of these defences and made a section of Muslims vulnerable to extremist ideas. This is what lies at the base of the terrorist orientation of a microscopic minority of South Asian Muslims; for although all extremists are not terrorists, the latter, more often than not, are products of extremist ideologies.

Also read: What’s different about the Sri Lanka attacks? The rise of third party terrorism

Pre-emptive measures

Opinion leaders and religious scholars from within the Muslim community in India have the primary duty to confront and defeat the malign Wahhabi-Salafi influence on Indian Muslims in order to preserve the liberal and syncretic nature of Indian Islam, thus preempting the spread of extremist ideology among Muslim youth.

Doctrines alien to Indian Islam imported from the most socially backward and culturally barren part of the Muslim world have to be purged. We have seen the disastrous impact of these imported doctrines in Sri Lanka; we must not allow this to be repeated in India. This is a warning the Indian Muslim community must take very seriously in order to prevent a segment of Muslim youth from falling into the trap of extremist propaganda passed off in the garb of ‘true’ religion.

Nevertheless, the impact of the growth of Hindutva on the Indian Muslim psyche can be countered only by the policies and actions of the governing elites at the Centre and in the states. Only they can take concrete steps, such as quick and impartial action against those responsible for creating mayhem in the name of religion whether in the form of lynching or in some other form, to reassure Muslims that the state will not shirk its responsibility of providing them physical security and ensuring that they are treated with fairness and dignity.

Such a strategy on the part of state elites complemented by speedy action by Muslim scholars and opinion leaders to counter the Wahhabi ideology can act as the best antidote to the percolation of radical ideas among the Muslim youth.  The first will remove their sense of alienation from the Indian state; the second will help them return to their roots of syncretism and humanism that have traditionally formed the essence of Indian Islam.

The author is the University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, Washington DC. Views are personal.

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  1. The sad & bitter irony of it all ! The victims of the Srilanka blasts were mainly srilankan christians, who had never harmed the srilankan muslims. The blowback of the blasts was on the Pakistani Ahmedi & Shia Hazara refugees, who had escaped from Pakistan due to persecution by precisely the same mindset that had carried out these blasts.

  2. This article is mostly nonsense.
    It blames everything on “salafi” or wahhabi muslims. However, extremism has always been there in “sufi” orders as well. In fact, there is islamofascist attitudes among many sufi etc. Including forced conversion practices, apostatizing, niqab, etc.
    I can tell you most arabs are much nicer people than “indian muslims”. They are also more open to criticism of islam in private than “indian muslims”.
    The forced conversions of hindu teenage girls in pakistan is not done by salafi or wahhabi, but rather it is done by the sufi bharchondi dargah and others like those sufis.

  3. Quote from the article : “A part of the motivation for terrorist acts undoubtedly comes in the form of reaction to majoritarian ideologies, Hindutva in the case of India and Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism in the case of Sri Lanka, which promote a high sense of insecurity among the Muslim minorities in the two countries.” Unquote.
    OMG ! Nothing can be further from truth.
    1) Muslim terrorist bombed churches and attacked foreigners in hotels – not Sri Lankan Budhists.
    2) Aggressive Hinditwa is a reaction to suppressed anger/ frustration over centuries of Muslim atrocities in India and decades of Muslim appeasement by Indian democratically elected Govts on account of vote bank politics. Am I right ?
    3) High sense of insecurity breeds terrorism ? wrong. By that logic, Hindus of Pakistan & Bangladesh or Black Americans in US or Christians in India or Sri Lanka should have become terrorist long ago.
    So reasons for Muslim terrorism (i do not want to use the word Islam or Jihad) must be something else. Md. Ayoob should know better.

    • Mate the attack was a response to Christchurch incident. Also, hindutva isn’t a response to centuries of rule by mughals but an irrational response to centuries old history. If hindutva was related to foreign rule, it would include christians as well, from the East India company’s rule and loot of the nation. Defending this theory is just a lazy way of saying that it’s better that your indigenous Kings loot your people than some foreign rulers, even though mughals hardly exported the wealth. Hindutva is as irrational as native Americans killing or calling for cleansing of the settlers just bc their ancestors committed a genocide. And also, most Indian Muslims are natives and not immigrants so the “reaction” is stupid. Why should a Muslim pay for what the mughals did? Or christians for what England did? You’ll never be able to justify hindutva

  4. I do not understand the problems. Keep it simple, stupids. Follow the examples of countries like China, Russia, Japan, etc. Let everybody practice their own religion., keeping the traditional culture of the country intact. no compromise with national security, no appeasement based on religion, race, caste whatsoever. no abuse of another religion.

    • I guess you haven’t heard about the uighurs? Or how the Soviets actually forced atheism on people, and burned religious texts? There’s a difference bw a state having being atheistic and a secular one. Too naive to think ignoring religious issues would solve the problem. There’s no appeasement in India. Minorities need to be taken care of, compensating for their strength in numbers. That’s why the reservation system was made. If it didn’t exist, the people with no means, wouldn’t have developed but faded into oblivion.

  5. Sadly the agenda for India’s largest minority is driven ‘kufr’ ‘jehad’ and ‘mullahs’ who seem to preach violence against the non believers for perceived grievances often quoting the Holy Koran and the edicts of an ideology of the 5th century. Generously funded by KSA they preach the most vitriolic gospel of Salafi ism. Unfortunately there’s no leadership in India with courage to stand up against these elements. Attacking the ban on triple talaaq and nikah halala, refusing to say Bharat Mata ki Jai, respect Vande Mataram, proclaiming that Muslims ruled over Hindus for 400 years and supporting Madrassas instead of a liberal education they are intent on keeping the community poor, illiterate and backward. The Hindu backlash is a reaction to this and I don’t see this changing any time soon. More likely accelerating.

    • If you think refusal to say Bharat Mata ki Jai is in some way antinational, you’re a tool. One could be shouting that slogan while participating in bribery and related activities but you people only care about slogans and superficial stuff. India is based on a good constitution but people who know nothing about it have made India into some wasteland with so much savagery. I reiterate, when Hindus support a leadership which opposes extremist ideologies like
      those of the RSS, and people like Sadhvi, I will stand up against the salafis. Hindutva isn’t a backlash to it, but an independent fascist ideology.

      • Oh I see. So u will stand up for salafism. Cool. And u remain wealthy and happy. See how India protects even someone with extremist views. That’s the problem. In any other country you would not be so free to say this. What are you complaining about? Be happy even u r respected here

  6. Above all else, umma must realise that Allah’s guidance to Musalmans through Quran are contextual to Muhammad’s life and times and thus its Medina diktats have ceased to be of any relevance thereafter. So, the average Muslims, instead of relying on the faith-blinded Mullahs’ intent to bind them with these alienating Mecca suras, must learn to analyse the text of those ayats in the context of Muhammad’s the then need of not only to keep his limited flock together but also to religiously unitee and motivate his followers to conquer Mecca. Only an ‘Analytical Islam’, which Muhammad’s successors and the Mullahs after them dread for fear of losing their religious hold over umma, is the way out for the Musalmans and here’s a simple guide to approach Islam in a pragmatic manner

  7. There is also the need for modernisation of the Madrassa education system for improving employment opportunities for a section of Muslim youths who depend upon these institutions for their early education. Large number of these institutions has been funded by believers in Salafi-Wahabi philosophy from India as well as oil rich countries with obvious consequences.

  8. Rooting out the salafist ideology that is heavily funded by oil rich Saudis and others will prove to be very hard.
    The syncretic fabric of Indian Muslims has been changing gradually but surely for the worst.
    The radical Hindu right is just a catalyst.

    There is also no liberal Indian Muslim leader, neither religious nor political and so there is no mainstream Muslim thought process.

    Self preservation, minoritysm, fear of majority and (understandable) hatred of the BJP is the only common thread.

    • They have shown Arif Mohammad Khan the door, along with any remaining sanity, a long time ago.

    • There is, Owaisi. Opposing extremism of all kinds, he actually is well educated and more informed than the PM himself. His views on economy, mass psychology, patriotism, and development are progressive. Just bc you don’t watch him doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist. I do disagree with him on topics but I believe he’s among the few people in Indian politics who are actually qualified for their job. On the other hand, if someone made a comment about Indian Muslims being Pakistani, I’d expect every Indian to be ready to ostracize them.

      • Owaisi is a product of the heat school in Hyderabad. Not a madrasah. Allow fellow Muslims to get a liberal secular education – don’t herd them into study of theology only. Educated people like you must do their part too in ensuring that Indian Muslims are integrated with the mainstream.

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