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God’s own Khilafat? Why Kerala is a hotspot for ISIS in India

An ISIS member from Kerala said Narendra Modi winning was a ‘blessing in disguise’.

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More than forty-five cases of pro-ISIS activities, ranging from online propaganda to travelling abroad with the intention of joining Islamic State, have been recorded in Kerala, more than any other state in India.

Kerala has a large diasporic community, starting from the 1950s and 1960s when Malayalis from the state started to migrate to the Middle East illegally in dhows (small boats). Fast-forward all these decades, and nearly three million of Kerala’s citizens work in the Middle East, and this relationship with the region has brought the state both fortunes and political complexities. According to some, this migration for labour and the financial upticks that come with it have kept Kerala grounded, and away from troubles of communalism and so on. ‘At any point in time, the Gulf countries provided jobs to nearly 10 per cent of Kerala’s working population. Without the Gulf migration, high levels of unemployment and poverty would have made Kerala a hotbed of terrorism, communalism and social tensions,’ Professor Irudaya Rajan was quoted as saying a few years ago, during the peak years of pro-ISIS migration to the region from the state.

Kerala’s northern parts, which are predominantly Muslim, have been in the news for the number of pro-ISIS activities recorded both officially as per court documents and unofficially as far as media reports go. Dozens of people, including in some cases women and children, made their way to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to join ISIS and during this period, many also made it back to Kerala and successfully assimilated into normal life.

Also read: Jihadi groups in balkanised Syria have found the perfect place to train for global attacks

Kerala’s regions such as the coastal areas of Kannur saw significant spikes between 2014 and 2016 in youths travelling in attempts to join the so-called Islamic State.

In April 2017, the USA dropped a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (known as MOAB, or the ‘Mother Of All Bombs’) in the rugged and mountainous regions of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province targeting ISIS Khorasan Province (ISKP) and its fighters also caught a few Indians from Kerala. Earlier, drone strikes against ISKP in the same month had also killed some people from Kerala, according to calls received by family members to inform them of their deaths.

One of the first questions that comes up here is, why Afghanistan? Two reasons. First, ISKP and the ecosystem that people like Armar tried to develop here from Afghanistan, as discussed earlier, still existed at some level. Much of these decisions of movement were made on convenience, and whether the radicalized travellers knew others in those areas. The total number of Indians reportedly killed in the April 2017 bombing raid is thirteen, which included a doctor and school employee, along with a two-year-old child and wives who were pregnant. Many of these people from Kerala are in fact from a similar region, in and around Kannur, and adjoining northern parts of the state. It is hard to underplay the big role the Middle East, its financial centres, job markets and by association, politics, perform in Kerala.

However, as far as ISIS and its ideological marketing in the state is concerned, the fact that there is little to no data available of Indians living in the Middle East who may have been radicalized or may have joined ISIS from there itself creates a grey area. The distinction, and perhaps the challenge as well, that Kerala creates compared to, say, Kashmir or other parts of the country is that radicalization offline may be a bigger concern than online.

Abdul Rashid Abdullah is one example of a preacher who was directly radicalizing people in Kerala and pushing them to join the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Abdullah was, like in many cases that have come up around ISIS, an educated man. Abdullah, an engineer, left his private sector job and took up preaching a hardened line of Islam after the death of his firstborn. He started teaching the Quran based on these tenets, which aligned very well with Islamic State’s ideological bent. Ijas Abdul Rahman, a doctor in his mid-thirties, and his younger brother, Shiyas Abdul Rahman, in his mid-twenties, grew closer and closer to the ideology of ISIS through Abdullah’s teachings, and left for Afghanistan, family in tow.

Also read: How al-Qaida outpaced ISIS in Bangladesh by tuning into youth anger & conservatism

Abdullah almost justified these movements from Kerala. ‘Today, it is impossible to wage offensive jihad in India. First, we have to consolidate the Caliphate, and then expand its frontiers,’ he told a reporter from his hideout in Afghanistan in 2017. ‘We have lots of people in India, and we tell them: wait, we’re coming. The Islamic State is growing far faster than you can imagine. The aim is for the whole world to be ruled by the law of Allah, so he alone is worshipped, not false gods,’ he said.

And so, like some other cases, Abdullah too evoked the political dispensation in India of the nationalist pro-Hindu BJP government of Prime Minister Modi. Abdullah called the election of Modi as a blessing in disguise, highlighting the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist tenor as a background to justify his own, and others’ radicalization.

‘This is because while, in some parts of India, Muslims face visible oppression, in many others, they really do not recognise the reality of their oppression. The hypocrite scholars misguide them. The Modi government is planning to change the constitution and once that happens, the real oppression will begin,’ he said.

The rise of the nationalist Hindu discourse in Indian politics has not gone unnoticed in the pro-ISIS discussions online. Right-wing Hindu organizations such as the RSS and and VHP are often discussed as examples of why an Islamic state for Muslims is necessary, to protect themselves and the religion. In 2015, when VHP’s leader Ashok Singhal died from a heart attack, pro-ISIS handles on Telegram, allegedly from India, celebrated his death. ‘Good news!’ one user commented. These channels also discussed about creating secure and safe zones for Muslims as they expect further strengthening of the pro-Hindu environment in the country in the time to come. While these are sporadic mentions on social media platforms, these cannot be ignored as one-offs. It ultimately, as we have seen in the examples illustrated before, takes one person to be sold a story well enough for him or her to commit an act of terror against a particular community or state.

Ultimately, theologically, ISIS propagators see one of their tasks as installing monotheism, meaning there is only one religion, that of Islam, and all others are either to be wiped out or converted to Islam. This interpretation is a driving factor of radicalization, and it is specifically dangerous in countries such as those in South Asia where secularism and globalism are precariously balanced on thin floors of religions, creeds, castes and communities living with each other. This provides an ideal canvas for organizations to create a wedge in the social fabrics of states such as India, and even Sri Lanka.

According to reports, the mastermind of the Sri Lanka terror strikes also spent time in southern India. Much of the radicalization taking place in southern India, specifically in areas such as northern Kerala, has a lot to do with the historical and current ties with the Middle East itself. These ties are not superficial, but go into the ethos of Islam, specifically Sunni Islam, as it is preached, practised, observed and distributed according to the ethos of how assimilation of Indian Muslims within the Gulf has taken place over the decades.

Also read: Why using ‘terrorism’ as pretext for communication blockade in Kashmir isn’t right

The ties between Islam and the people of Kerala in fact predate Islam itself, with trade between the two regions via the Arabian Sea being a prominent fixture for thousands of years. This two-way trade brought the idea of Islam to northern parts of Kerala, which embraced the same over time with locals giving land for mosques for the incoming traders. This embrace of Islam by the locals of the region was contested by both Hindus and later on the colonialists, from the Portuguese to the British. All this led to the Muslims of this region to even support Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League. These historical events helped develop a general Muslim-solidarity between the Gulf and this region, which has only been integrated much more intricately with the daily life of these parts of southern India.

Two major takeaways from the above studies of India, its pro-ISIS cases, and the people who fell for the marketing of the caliphate help provide some answers not as counterterrorism methods but to understand the ecosystem that ISIS wants to tap into better.

This excerpt from The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia by Kabir Taneja has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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  1. Wow look at the haters, blaming Islam and our holy Book with zero knowledge and information and not having ever read it once and having never understood it. Look at the same illogical thinking, comparing the Afghans and Mughals to Islam, when many of these radical hateful Indians want a battle. This is why these people cause Riots, violence and civil war. It is enough to show that no matter who good a Muslim is to them, these brainwashed zealous Nationalists will never be happy.

  2. Wow look at the haters, blaming Islam and our holy Book with zero knowledge and information and not having ever read it once and having never understood it. Look at the same illogical thinking, comparing the Afghans and Mughals to Islam, when many of these radical hateful Indians want a battle. This is why these people cause Riots, violence and civil war. It is enough to show that no matter who good a Muslim is to them, these br ai n washed zealous Nationalists will never be happy.

  3. Is this news verified and fact checked? Completely illogical in my opinion… Because if it’s true, the first question is – where are the arrests ?

  4. Quran is the source of all the ideology that ISIS or any other terrorist outfits following and quran alone is responsible for the violence, not unemployment, not oppression of minorities, not poverty, not BJP, not Hindu-Muslim roits, not anything. Teaching of Quran and quran alone

  5. “Without the Gulf migration, high levels of unemployment and poverty would have made Kerala a hotbed of terrorism, communalism and social tensions,’ Professor Irudaya Rajan was quoted ”
    May I know what emperical evidence/ social study has been used to arrive at the positive correlation between Unemployment & Terrorism. To my there is none. If Unemployment & Poverty was leading cause of terrorism then Bihar & UP should have more ISIS recruitment than Kerala.
    Stop this apologist stance please.

  6. The danger lies in the fact that many people from Kerala, assuming wrongly that they are in many ways different from the rest of India or Indians. Social development data has been assiduously spun and fostered both in India and abroad.
    The economy of Kerala is largely buttressed by overseas deposits and grants from the Central government. A situation similar to Pakistan. In terms of bare-bones industry infrastructure Kerala is in extremely poor shape.
    The floods of 2017-18 is a case in point of a people convincing themselves that the rest of India and in particular the BJP government at the centre was out to get them. A common Jihadi ploy of playing the victim and use people’s empathy to grow and flourish.
    Northern Kerala and parts of the Malabar coast have been hotbeds of communalism since a while. The pre Independence Moplah riots were muted by the Congress in the name of precluding fissures from developing within the Indian polity. It did not help as a separate Muslim homeland was demanded and achieved.
    It needs to be understood that India is a secular democracy where common law as enunciated in our constitution will prevail. Those that want to change that system are encouraged to stand for elections and discuss their point of view in parliament. Should any other unlawful intervention be used, it needs to be met with force and given no quarter.

  7. Hindus better unite if we want to get this plague of our lands. When muslims are confronted with this, they will simply laugh off and say its not our teachings but be warned it is their teaching and their duty to convert us. So stay alert guys and dont be fooled into the false goodness that islam gives you cause it doesn’t. we have to take pride in Hinduism as it the religion that lies with india and has connected with our culture no matter what religion. Also protect our sisters and daughters from those lustful barbaric men. So stay prepared and not fall into their traps.

    • Kerala Hotspot of Isis recruitments? Get ur facts correct and update this article.UP has the highest Isis recruitments so far .Followed by TN

  8. Hindus have to shed their non violence and meek attitude. Through out history, hindus could not match the islamic invaders and their brutaliites and became submissive. Converted hindus beacme the real enemies of hindus. The lands where hinduism was practiced has been totally taken over by these barbarians. Till the advent of the Al qaeda and ISIS,hindus were in fools paradise that Islam was a religioon of peace and the brute sultans and mughals were blamed for distruction of hindus and not the religion. But with advent of ISIS etc and now the terror breeding punjabi muslims and slowly the bangal deshi muslims have become a danger to hindus.The tragedy of Hindus is that these converted hindus have finally become our enemies. Our own blood has got poisioned with islam. Hence with heavyt heart we are now forced to bid good bye to our own blood relatives. The time to fight decisive battles is nearing ,If what ever remaianing of hinduism does not recoganise this,then there will not be any Sanatana dharma left.The pride of being oldest religion and culture is about to end if hindus do not unite.

  9. Christians are also converting to ISLAM and later many gone for join ISIS this is because of arrogant nature of Catholic church.

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