New York: Once, on a chilly, windy and snowy evening of Ithaca, my economics Professor lectured us on the importance of asking the right questions. Sometimes even the genius minds and leaders with their gargantuan efforts fail in the lack of asking right questions and beginning with the right definitions. Today in the midst of the entire world questioning India’s tolerance, for real or fabricated reasons, and the resultant fears of the Indian Muslim minority getting radicalized, in the milieu of a global Jihadist movement of ISIS, I feel that the most pertinent question to ask is,
“Why ISIS or Daesh is not going to make much headway with Indian Muslims?”
This question is important because today the humanity faces a major threat from an extremely brutal and cannibalistic extremist organization led by a misguided religious leadership, running amok to destroy not just human lives, but the entire heritage of human civilization in the fields of arts, religion, literature, culture, science, philosophy, architecture, education and philosophy over the recorded and unrecorded history of last five thousand years. It poses a real threat with its sophisticated military technology, communication strategy based on the deft use of social media and global reach in terms of propaganda and terror.
Today when one witnesses the Muslim youth raised in liberal, democratic and multicultural Europe, falling prey to Jihadi ideology, the fear which scares all of us is that what happens, if India’s huge Muslim population which is comparatively more religious and less educated as compared to the Muslims of Europe, falls prey to ISIS’s online propaganda and join its rank and cadre. To date, to everyone’s surprise, in spite of having a huge and fairly religious Muslim population, one hardly finds many Indians joining Daesh. This becomes even more, puzzling when one finds that India has had a bitter history of communal riots and is presently headed by a Prime Minister, who allegedly has a polarizing image and controversial past, for partly real and largely, political reasons.
When PM Modi says that Indian Muslims will not join global Jihadi extremism, then I feel that it isn’t something coming from an iron-willed PM who is spearheading global counter-terrorism efforts, but from a spiritual master born and brought up in Indian legacy of mysticism, and who knows and understands his people. In this essay, I have explored the answers to the aforementioned question, and interestingly most of the answers come from India’s civilizational roots of harmony, tolerance, mysticism, and diversity.
The fact that Islam is not a monolithic religion is displayed with its superb brilliance in the socio-cultural evolution of Islam in the Indian subcontinent. The majority of the Muslims in India have historically followed the Sufi strain of Islam, which is liberal and spiritual i.e. it is not keen on the outer trappings of Islam but focused on the inner essentials of Islam. This brings it closer to the quintessence of Hindu schools of mysticism like Vedanta, which are primarily devoted to the virtues of self-realization, peace, and compassion. Over the centuries of co-existence and cultural intermingling, there emerged a mixed and mosaic-like Hindu-Muslim culture in Indo-Gangetic, plains which is popularly known as Ganga-Jamni Tahzeeb. Sufi saints like Mahboob-e-Ilahi Auliya of Delhi and Chishti of Ajmer came to be worshiped with equal reverence by Hindus and Muslims alike for their simplicity, mystic powers and the role played in spreading compassion and harmony. In Rajasthan, one can find several local Hindu deities like Pabuji, Gogapeer, and Ramapeer worshiped with sincere devotion by the Muslim populace also. This is something which will be heretical in an absolute sense for Wahabi school of Islam. This culture gave birth to unique and interesting social developments. For example, in Mev(Rajasthan) community, one can still find Jogis who are by faith Muslims but by profession, singers of Ramayana and devotional songs of lord Shiva. Even in crime, one could see this composite culture. The notorious cult of thugs of the 18th century had Hindus and Muslims both as their members and they worshiped their cult goddess Kali with the red mark on their foreheads.
Indian Muslims are religious and obeying, but due to the influence of Sufism and a generic otherworldly-spiritual-sort-of-pessimistic -nature of the culture and religion in Indian subcontinent, the appeal for ISIS kind of violent adventurism which justifies itself on the literal and out of context reading of the scriptural injunctions written in the socio-political milieu of 7th century Arabia, is almost absent in India. Even the domestic Deobandi and Barelvi schools of Islam, which are rigid and fundamentalist as compared to Sufism, have not been able to penetrate the rural interiors of India even to date. Their influence is felt among the superficial and elitist scholarly circles of Islamic scholars in Delhi and UP, not beyond that. And, to top it all even these rigid schools of Islam have rejected the ISIS style global jihad in theory and practice and have on several occasions made their nationalist sentiments and staunch opposition to terrorist violence, more than clear.
Secondly, the fertile grounds of recruitment which ISIS finds in Europe are not present in India. Many of the ISIS cadres from Europe are psychopaths, drug-addicts, new converts and youth suffering from depression because of an over-indulgent lifestyle of the west, lack of social support system and weak family ties and, cultural deracination. They are looking for a spiritual anchorage, a purpose and a meaning in life. Graeme Wood, in his essay, “What ISIS really Wants?” observes that for the youth of Europe, joining ISIS is a like a great discovery of purpose and meaning in life and they just hate going back to their monotonous life of 10-hour working day and standing outside Mcdonalds for food. In India’s case, society, in general, has very strong family and community ties which are a major factor in keeping the youth away from depression, drug and alcohol abuse and other kinds of emotional crises which could make them vulnerable to any radical sectarian ideology of Islam, in the need of immediate mental peace. Among Indian Muslims, like other communities, generally youngsters do not enjoy much autonomy in their decisions about marriage and they are married in the early 20s which bestow them with a stable family life and the responsibility to nurture it, and in such an environment appeal for any kind of radical adventure like ISIS becomes minimal for purely and practical, social and economic reasons.
Thirdly, among Indian Muslims, the feelings of insecurity, economic and political marginalization and religious suppression are very little. Indian constitution guarantees complete religious freedom, which the Muslims of India exercise. Even the ultra-right Hindutva organizations never opposed the religious freedoms of Muslims. Though, there have been instances like Babri Masjid demolition, but they are largely political and are of the nature of aberrations. Even in Kashmir, the operations of IB and RAW have preferred the track of dialogue over violence. Former RAW chief AS Dulat in his book, “Kashmir-Vajpayee Years” quotes Sajjad Lone, son of the deceased separatist Abdul Gani Lone, that it is dangerous to talk with Delhi than Pakistan because in case of not toeing the line, India will, at the maximum put them to jails, while the ISI will get them killed, as they did to Majid Dar, Abdul Gani lone and many others, for negotiating with Delhi. Politically, the Muslim community is strong and has a decent representation. There is a lot to be done, but at least, this cannot be denied that Muslims constitute a very strong political force in a democratic India and they are not indispensable. Even the so-called right wing parties of India cannot afford to say things like what Donald Trump would say in the USA. And, Muslims have time and again proved their faith in democracy and the power of their vote. Those who have amnesia might want to refer to the verdict of recent Bihar elections.
Of course, there is a lot to be done in terms of education, employment and political representation of the Muslim minority but one hardly finds any major dissatisfaction owing to it. Interestingly, these days one finds a large number of Kashmiri youth joining Indian Civil Services.
Fourthly, sectarian appeals on the basis of Shia-Sunni conflict will not have much appeals in a multi-cultural society like India, where Muslims flourish with a range of religious systems like Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity. In such a multiplicity, intra-faith conflicts of Shia-Sunni become a little insignificant. This is not to say that such conflicts do not exist at all, as there have been cases of such riots in India and the majority of Indian Muslims have similar views regarding Islamic sects like Shias, Ismailis, and Ahemadiyas, as their Muslim brothers in the Arab world, but, in practice the violent sectarian conflicts are not as frequent in India.
Fifthly, the presence of strong Indian right wing keeps the radical and extremist factions of Muslim community engaged with them over the domestic issues and they don’t find the ideas of global caliphate worth pursuing.
Lastly, the future of online recruitment strategy followed by ISIS is not very bright in India as still the internet/computer literacy in India among lower middle classes and the poor strata of society is not very high.
Having outlined the positives that we have in our fight against religious extremism, I would still like to exercise a note of caution in the end. The centuries of co-existence are not just characterized by love and harmony only. There have been phases of very violent struggles, and even the present is marred by the dark and tainted past of communal violence. Off late the Hindu right wing has also made its presence felt through its proclamations and movements like Ram temple, anti-love jehad, and anti-conversation campaign. All this adds to the already existing communal hatred. But what alarms is the fear of this communal violence translating into radicalization, and violent extremism, as there are outlets/organizations like ISIS present to cash upon the sentiments of hatred. Off late, I have come across the Deobandi preachers with green turbans in small cities of India, preaching against Sufism as a heretical school. A study reported that about 1800 crore has flown into India to facilitate the takeover of the management of Mosques by Wahabi ideologues, which is certainly an alarming development.
To conclude, I would say that still the positives outweigh the negatives, and it can be seen in the fact that to date hardly 25 to 30 Indians have joined ISIS as informed by the intelligence agencies and those who joined have come back with a complete detachment of any such lunatic adventure. Hence, any counter-terrorism strategy that we follow must be nuanced enough to reflect our cultural, historical, and social realities outlined above in the essay. A right approach based on trust, harmony, caution and smart intelligence cannot only prevent the Indian youth from falling prey to deadliest terror machine of human civilization, but also strengthen the foundations of our diversity, democracy and multiculturalism.