Studying Radicalization in India: Extremism is eating away at the roots of the liberal, Sufi Islam

By Abhinav Pandya

Lately, as an independent observer, I have been noticing several changes in hinterlands of India. Sleepy and laid-back towns like Udaipur have witnessed huge protests and agitation in the favor of Rohingyas, not out of rational and enlightened concerns of internationalism but out of the feeling of being an inalienable part of Ummah i.e. global Islamic brotherhood. The Persian “Khuda Hafiz” and the holy “Ramzaan” are gradually giving way to Arabic “Allah Hafiz” and “Ramadaan” as the wave of Wahabi proselytization sweeps across the country. ISIS recruiters have been caught in cities like Jaipur, Ajmer and the several youngsters from relatively prosperous states like Kerala, Karnataka and metro cities like Hyderabad have come under the sway of ISIS’ ideology and joined the caliphate. In small cities like Udaipur, there have been violent clashes between the Deobandi groups and Barelwi-Sunni Muslims. In one of such incidents, a Deobandi Muslim’s dead body was exhumed from the Barelwi graveyard and sent back to his relatives.  In the border areas of Rajasthan several new foreign-funded mosques have sprung up and Deobandi preachers can be seen engaged in intense proselytization.

India is at the crossroads. Its Muslim community which has so far remained resilient to the global spread of Jihadi ideology is now showing signs of coming under its sway. Extremism is eating away at the roots of the liberal-Sufi traditions of Islam prevalent in South Asia. South Asian Islam, despite the numerous incidents of communal violence in the history, has a unique and distinct nature that has evolved over centuries of interaction with other faiths in a multicultural society of India. The tolerant and liberal Islam of South Asia has so far prevented any major rise of violent extremism in India. But, of late, the liberal and Sufi strains of Islam are facing an existential threat from the extremist ideologies like Wahabism/Salafism and Deobandism. Such ideologies are both domestic and foreign. The above-mentioned events are merely the symptoms of the malaise of radicalization that is much larger in magnitude and deep-rooted in nature. Earlier, in one of my essays, I had highlighted that the next stage of terrorism will be dominated my lone-wolves and grassroots radicals. And, it is quite visible now in the fact that territorial and military reverses suffered by ISIS in Syria and Iraq have not been accompanied by the proportionate decline in its ability to inspire lone-wolf attacks.  Although India has not witnessed any ISIS-styled terrorist attack by grassroots radicals or lone-wolves so far but the fact that our neighbors have, and their exposure to a highly aggressive and intense wave of radicalization is sufficient enough to raise alarm bells as we can’t remain immune to this phenomenon for long if we don’t take timely action. And, the long-term consequences of such grassroots level radicalization and extremism will be much more dangerous than the terrorist acts committed by the proxies sponsored by our neighbors. It will spell a death-knell to our harmonious social fabric, secular ethos and our over-all political culture where ideas like secularism and liberal democracy are at least intact in theory.

The general perception among the intellectuals and intelligence community is that the real threat lies in the challenge from Wahabbi radicalization financed and propped by the Saudi money. Most of the relevant stakeholders that include our academic experts in geopolitics and security studies tend to ignore the role played by the domestic extremist creeds like Deobandis,  Ahle Hadith and Tableeghi  Jamaat.  Recently, I had a chance to deliver a lecture on terror financing at a premier research institute of strategic studies. Almost all the academicians and one very senior former intelligence official took objection to my bracketing of Deobandis and Wahabis in one category. They raised objections like what’s wrong if the Muslims of Kerala want to dress up like Arabs or if a large number of mosques are coming up even with foreign funding. Further, they argued that Deobandis have never said anything against India and have never indulged in any terrorist activity or seditious activity so it is absolutely unjustifiable to bracket Wahhabis and Deobandis in one group. I personally feel that all the above-mentioned objections are due to an insufficient understanding of the phenomenon of radicalization in concept. In fact, the level of awareness about these issues is so poor that very senior police, foreign-service and administrative officials do not even know the basic differences between Deobandis and barelvis. The intelligence officials at the district level are mostly unaware of the pan-Islamic forces spreading Jihadi ideology.

In fact, while I was researching for this article, I could not find one evidence-based quality paper on the missionary activities of Deobandis and Wahabis. Except for a few brief and superficial articles by Brookings, Carnegie, and Hindu (a newspaper), I could not find any in-depth study on radicalization in India.  Few right-leaning online magazines did publish a couple of articles with some facts but again the veracity of the facts is in doubt and the authors lacked academic expertise and advanced research skills in the field of terrorism and counter-terrorism. At Mumbai airport, in a casual conversation, a very senior ATS official told me about the rampant radicalization going on at the ground level and the protection it received in the name of protecting religious and cultural freedom of the minorities. He said that any concrete action in such matters always gets mired in politics and ultimately the officer has to bear the brunt. Further, he informed that the state does not even have the requisite skills and infrastructure to detect such trends and take effective action against them. Later, when I raised the matter with senior intelligence officials in Delhi, many of them agreed about the gravity of the problem. They said that because of the politically sensitive nature of the problem and in the lack of any national-level strategy and program to address radicalization most of the time they leave it to the state police to deal with such matters in a pragmatic and politically manageable way that they deem fit.

Before one even thinks of any effective strategy to address the challenges from extremist ideologies, it becomes imperative to understand the true meanings and the implications of their teachings. Just like other religions, Islam has also undergone several waves of reform movements and Wahabism and Deobandism represent such reform movements in Islam. But unlike, other religions the reform movements in Islam have generally been anti-evolutionary i.e. their objective was to bring back the puritan and orthodox form of Islam. Wahabism and in essence Deobandis also wanted to bring back the Islam which prevailed in 7th century Arabia i.e. during the time of Prophet and the reign of the first four caliphs which is often referred to as the golden age of Islam.

First and foremost, I would like to mention that the focus of this article is radicalization with respect to Islamism or Islamic extremism or the acts of terror in the name of Islam. Just like terrorism, there is a huge debate on the definition of radicalization. Getting into the complicated and abstract academic debates on the definition of radicalization is beyond the scope of this article.  But for the purposes and interests of the policy-making in the world of security and intelligence, it could be understood as a process where a text like Quran is interpreted in a literal sense resulting in an exclusivist, hateful and intolerant mindset towards non-Muslims and those Muslims who do not subscribe to the literal interpretation of the text. Radicalization is a phenomenon which generally leads to violent extremism or jihadi terrorism. And, radicalization prepares the fertile ground for producing extremists.

By no stretch of imagination or logic, I intend to convey the idea that all Wahabis or Deobandis are terrorists. I am discussing the two as ideologies and missionary projects whose end result is radicalization and preparing an extremist, exclusivist and intolerant mindset.  Thus, any prudent counterterrorism strategy would want the menace to be nipped in the bud, and for that, it will target those nurseries where radicalization takes place and the “software”, i.e. the “ideological nukes” of terrorism. I would like to mention it clearly that the counterterrorism strategy being advised is not even against the lay Wahhabi Muslims or Deobandi followers. A majority of them and their religious institutions formally condemn the acts of terror. In fact, the first clue of Ahmedabad serial blasts of 2008 was provided to the police by a Wahhabi. But the fact that they emphasize upon the literal interpretations of the text and especially those scriptural injunctions on Jihad which if interpreted literally have all the potential to wreak havoc and fire the engine of  Jihadi terrorism, merits serious attention. Further, they condemn the syncretic and liberal Islamic strains like Sufism as apostasy and un-Islamic behavior which draws the Barelvi Sufi followers into their fold of rigid and austere Islam and results in eroding the secular base of our social existence.

Primarily, it must be clear that Wahabis, Salafis, Ahle-Hadith, and Deobandis are simply different names. In spirit and the message they propagate, they are essentially the same. The differences are minor and could be of degrees but the trajectory is same. Those who think that since Deobandis do not explicitly incite any anti-national sentiments and they adopted a nationalist stand during partition, they must be dealt in a sympathetic manner, are either highly mistaken or engaging in wishful thinking. It seems that they do not understand the ideology. Their main objection to the creation of Pakistan was not on nationalistic grounds but, rather on religious grounds. Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madni, Jamaat Ulema-i-Hind chief argued in a conference in Delhi in 1945 that confining Muslims and Islam-based governance in a small area is basically shrinking the space for the expansion of Islam i.e. eroding the demographic base for missionary and conversion activities. They argued that in undivided India, Deobandis will have the opportunity to make entire country Dar-ul-Islam where carving a small Pakistan will restrict their activities to a small geographical area, depriving them of the major chunk of the landmass and population base for their missionary activities.

STRATFOR’s Fred Burton and Scott Stewart inform that 14 Islamic radicals (12 Pakistanis, 1 Indian and 1 Bangladeshi) arrested in Barcelona, planning to bomb targets in the city belonged to Tablighi Jamaat (TJ). They further write in their article, “Tablighi Jamaat-An Indirect Line to Terrorism” that the TJ’s name has figured earlier in connection with terrorism plots like October 2002 Portland Seven, September 2002 Lackwanna Six cases in US, August 2006 plot to bomb airliners en route from London to US, July 7, 2005, London Underground bombings and July 2007 attempted bombings in London and Glasgow, Scotland. Having brought the above-mentioned facts, all the apologists of Deobandis must know that TJ literally meaning “group for preaching” was established in Mewat, India in 1927 and it stems from the Deobandi brand of  Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence. It is the largest global Muslim network with its activities in 150 countries and about 70 to 80 million followers. Its annual congregations held in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh attract largest numbers of Muslim devotees after Hajj. TJ has a very strong presence in the UK and lately, as confirmed by FBI its presence in the US is also increasing at a rapid pace with about 50,000 people associated with TJ missions and their mosques operating in Texas, California and New York.

At face value, TJ is an apolitical, peaceful and egalitarian movement that works at the grassroots level aiming to bring wayward Muslims to puritanical and orthodox practices of Islam. It asks its followers to engage first in internal Jihad for spiritual purity rather than desiring political power to establish an Islamic State and impose Sharia. However, STRATFOR briefs confirm that there are strong pieces of evidence of indirect connections between TJ and global/wider nexus of Deobandi extremist organizations like Taliban, anti-Shiite groups, and Kashmiri militants. Through such linkages, the cadres disgruntled with its apolitical stance get a chance to join jihadi terrorist organizations. The members of TJ’s military offshoot Jihad-bi-Al Saif were accused of plotting to kill Pakistan’s former PM Benazir Bhutto in 1995. When TJ cadres travel to Pakistan for training and religious congregations they are lured by terrorist organizations like AQ, Harkat-ul-Mujahiddin, Taliban, and Lashkar to join them. Superficially, TJ’s message may be peaceful and benign but ultimately it espouses the same conservative Islamic values which are adhered to by the above-mentioned militant organizations. Hence, TJ acts as a de facto conduit for terrorist organizations for recruitment. Besides this, TJ is also used by terrorist organizations as a cover for travel and recruitment.

Wahhabism And Salafism in India

The roots of Wahabbi history in India can be traced back to the days of British Raj. Charles Allen in his paper, “The Hidden Roots of Wahabbism in British India”, informs us that the man credited with importing Wahabbism in India is Syed Ahmad of Rai Barelii (1786-1831) who returned from Mecca in 1824 to wage a jihad against Sikhs to return the political power to Muslims. Further, in 1871,  Lord Mayo was assassinated by a Wahabbi in Andaman islands. Charles defines Wahabbism as the reformist theology first expounded by Muhammad Ibn Abd-al Wahab in 1740s in Najd and espoused by the local chieftain Muhabbad Ibd Saud. Later, it was applied by the royal houses of Al Saud (from which the name Saudi comes) and aa-as-Sheikh(descendants of Abd-al Wahab) in an interdependent alliance until 1920s when Wahabbism became the established religion of the state. The USP of wahabbism is its literalism and the seriousness with which they read and follow the religious texts. This makes them the most authentic throwbacks to the Islamic world of the 7th century and coming up with strong theological justifications it becomes difficult to counter the ideological narrative that they present to the Muslims.

Similarly, the quietist Salafis which offer a hardline alternative to IS (Islamic State) but they are just as uncompromising as IS. They are committed to expanding Dar-ul-Harb with the implementation of brutal practices like amputation of limbs and slavery- but at some future point. Their first priority of self-purification and religious observance and they believe that Salafis must stay away from politics and must not disrupt governments as chaos creates hurdles in the goals of self-purification. But, like TJ the conservative Islamic values they propagate nourish the fertile ground for the ISIS like extremist organizations hell-bent on the literal interpretation of the text and restoring each and every single thing of the socio-political and religious system that prevailed in 7th century Arabia.

Similarly, Deobandi cadres in India are strictly against worshipping Pirs and tombs and they strictly implement the Sharia in the matters of dress, worship, and hygiene. Hence, the above-mentioned ideologies may not be violent but they fire the forces of radicalization in a vigorous manner which majorly helps in creating foot soldiers of Jihad, including the lone-wolf attackers. In India, hundreds of Wahhabi and Deobandi mosques are mushrooming across the length and breadth of the country, loaded with foreign money. Deobandi and Wahhabi preachers have penetrated the highly remote areas of the country and this phenomenon has largely gone unnoticed. There are visible changes in the dress patterns with an increasingly large number of women wearing a burqa and taking on Hijab. In Kerala, one finds a process of Arabization that is reflected in language, signboards, culture, eating habits, belief systems and dress patterns.

Going back to the question (mentioned earlier in this essay)that a scholar raised in one of my talks,  I would like to answer that there is nothing wrong with people wearing dresses of their choices and building mosques. But, when a people living a particular region and following Sufi traditions suddenly stop worshipping Pirs/Dargahs and adopt austere practices of Islam in complete contrast to what they have been following traditionally, then it does indicate a process which merits our attention from the standpoint of national security. If the residents in a particular area are economically very poor and new mosques with lavish money flow are coming up then it is indeed a serious development for any intelligence personnel or for that matter any sociologist also. Some of these foreign ideologies like Wahabbism and Salafism etc. are extremely dangerous for communal harmony and peace and they often make inroads in the protective shield of human rights and democracy. Such ideologies, their channels of percolation and passage and their expressions in the form of behavioral changes need to be studied and timely intervention needs to be made to nip them in the bud.

Christopher Jefferlot in his article, “ The Saudi Connection”,  informs that Kerala is the state where Salafis are getting a strong foothold. He, further writes, “According to a Saudi embassy cable in Delhi, millions of riyals have been reserved for the Islamic Mission Trust of Malappuram (Kerala), the Islamic Welfare Trust and the Mujahideen Arabic College in Palakkad. Two Islamic organizations have benefited from Saudi financial support: The Popular Front of India and the Social Democratic Party of India. Their names do not reflect their religious overtone, but they are propagating a Salafi version of Islam”. He also opines that the pan-Islamism is more pronounced among the local reform movements like Kerala Nadvathul Mujahiddin formed and 1950 and developed through its connections with the Arab world. It is also quite surprising that the appeal of Salafi/Wahabbi ideologies is more among the educated ones so much so that the Sufi practices are regarded as ignorant and superstitious beliefs of rural Mapilla Muslims. The southern states like Kerala, Karnataka, and cities like Hyderabad where Muslims are comparatively better off politically, educationally and economically have supplied the majority of ISIS recruits from India. It is not just a mere coincidence but the result of the long history of the connections of the above-mentioned places with Arab world because of the huge Indian Muslim diaspora working in the gulf is from these southern states.

Wiki cables suggested that Saudi Arabia is uncomfortable with the rising Shia influence in India and the overtures of Tehran and in order to counter that Saudis are pumping money to promote Wahhabism in India. An Intelligence Bureau (IB) report says that the years 2011 to 2013 alone saw a record number of 25,000 Wahabis coming to India and conducting seminars in various parts of the country. They brought in Rs 1700 crores and utilized it to propagate the Wahabbi style of Islam. In Kerala, they have taken the control of 75 mosques. According to journalist Vicky Nanjappa’s report dated August 1, 2014, there are 1.8 million Wahabbi followers in India. Nanjappa wrote, quoting and IB report about Saudi funding that Rs 8 billion was earmarked for setting up four Wahabi universities, Rs.4 billion for building 40 mosques, Rs3 billion for Madrasas and a billion for the upkeep of existing mosques. He further, wrote that “The radical Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, which first set up base in Kashmir, is spearheading Wahhabi operations across India. Having persuaded around 400 mosques in Kashmir to follow its ideology, the Wahhabis have now targeted Maharashtra and Kerala. Although the Maharashtra government is in denial about the rise of Wahhabism in the state, Wahhabis control over 40 mosques in Maharashtra. Wahhabis have taken over at least 75 mosques in Kerala.”

Graeme Wood calls such ideologies like wahabi/ Salafi, “the pre-terrorists” among us. And, it is evident from the long process of radicalization which went unnoticed in places like Kosovo, Catalonia, and Pakistan. Today, Kosovo which hailed Bill Clinton as a liberator in 1999 has become a major supplier of foreign fighters to IS. Since 2000, Kosovo witnessed the intense wave of Wahhabi radicalization sponsored by petrodollars. Similarly, the background to the recent Barcelona attack was also the strong wave of Wahabi radicalization in Catalonia, and the outcomes of the decades of radicalization since Zia-ul-Haq’s regime in Pakistan needs least elaboration. Today, in Pakistan the foot soldiers of Lashkar and Jaish are joining IS in large numbers ruining the fortunes of the pro-establishment sub-contractors of Jihad like Hafiz Saed. And, the Caliphate is not something that comes out of a vacuum. It is an end-result of the long-drawn radicalization of which Wahhabism, Salafism, Deobandism etc. are nothing but different stages, differing only in the outer trappings but retaining same inner essentials.

Hence, its high time India acted to address the challenge of radicalization. It needs a well-coordinated and systematic approach with a sensible balance of centralization and decentralization involving different stakeholders from the intelligence community, civil society, law-enforcement machinery, academia and religious institutions. In this essay, I have tried to narrate the facts and present the problem of radicalization. In my next essay, I will discuss the strategy needed to address the challenges of radicalization and extremism. Source:

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