By Abhinav Pandya
Ithaca, New York: Once, on a chilly, windy and snowy evening, my economics professor lectured us on the importance of asking the right questions. Failing to do so can trip up the brightest of minds, the greatest of leaders.
Today, in the midst of the entire world questioning India’s tolerance, for real or fabricated reasons, and the resultant fears Indian Muslims getting radicalised in the milieu of a global Jihadist movement, I feel that the most pertinent question to ask is:Can ISIS or Daesh make much headway with Indian Muslims?
This question is important because humanity today faces a major threat from an extremely brutal extremist organisation with a global reach that seeks not just to destroy human life but indeed the entire heritage of human civilisation.
Today when one witnesses Muslim youths raised in liberal, democratic and multicultural Europe falling prey to Jihadi ideology, it arouses fears that the same or worse may happen in India – after all, we have a huge Muslim population and they also on average are less educated and more religious than their brethren in Europe. Yet, accounts of Indians joining ISIS are few and far between. It’s even more puzzling since India is no stranger to communal unrest and is headed by a Prime Minister who for various reasons is viewed as a polarising figure.
When PM Modi says that Indian Muslims will not join global Jihadi extremism in any significant numbers, I believe that more than a strong prime minister he is speaking as a wise leader who understands his people. In my own explorations of the subject, I have also found that the Indian Muslim’s reluctance to resort to extremism is grounded in India’s civilisational roots of harmony, tolerance, mysticism and diversity.
Sufism and cultural integration
The fact that Islam is not a monolithic religion is evident in its evolution in the Indian subcontinent. The majority of the Muslims in India have historically followed the Sufi strain of Islam, which is liberal and spiritual — it is not based on the outer trappings of Islam but focused on the inner essentials of the religion. This brings it closer to the quintessence of Hindu schools of mysticism like Vedanta, which are primarily devoted to the virtues of self-realisation, peace, and compassion. Over the centuries of co-existence and cultural intermingling, there emerged a mixed and mosaic-like Hindu-Muslim culture in the Indo-Gangetic (popularly known as Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb). Sufi saints like Mahboob-e-Ilahi Auliya of Delhi and Salim Chishti of Ajmer came to be worshiped with equal reverence by Hindus and Muslims alike for their simplicity, mystic powers and the role they 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 Muslims as well. This culture gave birth to unique social developments. For example, in Rajasthan’s Meo community one can still find jogis who are Muslims by faith but who sing devotional Hindu songs to make their living. This composite culture can be glimpsed even in the world of crime. Hindu and Muslim thugs in the 18th century worshipped their cult goddess Kali with the red mark on their foreheads.
Such cultural adaptations would be considered absolutely heretical by the Wahhabi school of Islam to which ISIS subscribes.
Indian Muslims are religious and devout, but due to the influence of Sufism and the general culture of spirituality and benign fatalism of the Indian subcontinent, the appeal of ISIS’s brand of violent adventurism which justifies itself on the literal and out of context reading of scriptural injunctions is highly limited in India. Even the domestic Deobandi and Barelvi schools of Islam, which are rigid and fundamentalist in comparison to Sufism, have not been able to penetrate the rural interiors of India. Their influence is felt among the scholarly circles of Islamic scholars in Delhi and UP, and not beyond that. And, to top it all even these rigid schools of Islam have rejected the ISIS style of global jihad and have on several occasions made clear their nationalist sentiments and staunch opposition to terroristic violence.
A stronger sense of community, family
Secondly, the fertile grounds of recruitment which ISIS finds in Europe are not present in India. Many of the ISIS cadres from Europe are drug-addicts, new converts and youth suffering from depression; many of them lack a social support system and have weak family ties and feel the effects of cultural deracination. They are looking for 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. Their former routines and low paying jobs with long hours no longer hold any appeal.
In India, the collectivist culture means that family and community ties continue to remain strong in general, protecting many youth from depression, alienation and substance abuse – in short, the vulnerabilities that might make an impressionable person susceptible to radicalisation in their search for meaning. Also, Indian Muslims, like many other communities, are often given no choice in the matter of marrying. They are wed young and landed with the responsibility of caring for a family, the appeal for any kind of radical adventure becomes minimal for purely practical, social and economic reasons.
A relatively supportive State
While Indian Muslims do report feelings of insecurity and economic and political marginalisation, they also have the same rights as anyone else under the Constitution, including the freedom to practice their religion. Even the ultra-right Hindutva organizations do not oppose the right of Muslims to practice their religion. Though, there have been instances like the Babri Masjid demolition, these are driven by political agendas and are 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: The Vajpayee Yearsquotes Sajjad Lone, son of the deceased Kashmiri separatist Abdul Gani Lone, as saying that it is more dangerous to engage with new Delhi than Islamabad because in case they don’t toe the line, India will at most imprison them while 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 of room for improvement, but Muslims are a strong political force in India. Even the so-called right wing parties cannot afford to propose the kinds of things Donald Trump has been in the US. 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 the recent Bihar elections.
Sectarian appeals have little scope
Sectarian appeals on the basis of the Shia-Sunni conflict will not have much appeal 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 much less significant. This is not to say that such conflicts do not exist at all, but they are not frequent.
The right wing factor
The presence of a strong Indian right wing keeps the radical and extremist factions of Muslim community engaged with them over domestic issues and they don’t find the idea of a global caliphate worth pursuing.
Less scope for online recruitment
There is not much scope in India for the online recruitment strategy followed by ISIS as internet/computer literacy in India among the lower middle classes and the poorer strata of society is not very high.
A note of caution
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 characterised by love and harmony alone. There have been phases of very violent struggles, and even the recent past and present have been marred by instances of communal violence. Of late, the Hindu right wing has also raised its pitch with movements like “love jihad” and “ghar wapsi” creating an atmosphere of communal tension. Needless to say, there are fears that these tensions could morph into a fertile ground for radicalisation and violent extremism. I have recently come across Deobandi preachers with green turbans in the small cities of India, preaching against Sufism as a heretical school. A study reported that about Rs 1700 crore has been poured into India to facilitate the takeover of the management of mosques by Wahhabi ideologues, which is certainly an alarming development.
However, 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 according to intelligence agencies. Those who return are also disillusioned because of their low position in the ISIS pecking order.
To conclude, any counter-terrorism strategy that we follow must be nuanced and reflect our cultural, historical, and social realities as outlined above. An approach based on trust, harmony, caution and smart intelligence will not only protect Indian youth from falling prey to the deadly terror machine that is ISIS, but also strengthen the foundations of our diversity, democracy and multiculturalism.