The issue of the radicalisation of Indian Muslims is one that has been gaining momentum for a while now. While some continue to swim in the 'this only happens in other country' sea of denial, others are beginning to grasp the gravity of the situation and suggesting ways to counter it. In an exclusive four-part series on radicalisation in India, Tufail Ahmad examines a variety of conditions and scenarios that have made it possible to radicalise youths in Maharashtra, Hyderabad, Kerala and indeed, India as a whole. You can read the first part of the series titled 'Radicalisation of Muslim youths in India', the second part titled 'Radicalisation of Muslim youths in Maharashtra' and the third part titled 'Radicalisation of Muslim youths in Hyderabad' here. The fourth and concluding part follows:
Along with Maharashtra and the Hyderabad region, Kerala has attracted attention for the radicalisation of Muslim youths in favour of the Islamic State, or IS. In early July, 25 youths from Kerala left for Syria. It was inn July 2010, that indigenous Islamists chopped off the hand of Professor TJ Joseph for setting a question paper that was deemed to be blasphemous in context of Prophet Muhammad. Significantly, the attack was collectively carried out, not by a single person. Eighteen Muslims were acquitted, five are missing, but 13 members of the Popular Front of India (PFI) were convicted in May 2015. The theological reason for chopping off Joseph's hand is exactly the same for which two brothers from Al-Qaeda, Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine last year.
On a recent trip to Kerala, this writer was surprised by two expressions used by Keralites: Sunni Muslims and Mujahid Muslims. The Keralites view "Sunni Muslims" to be peaceful, the regular guy-next-door types. Internationally, the expression "Mujahid Muslims" will be understood as jihadis out to establish an IS-like state. But, in Kerala the Mujahid Muslims are seen as puritans engaged in unarmed conflicts with Hindus. The key organisation representing them is Kerala Nadwat-ul-Mujahideen (KNM) whose members describe themselves as reformist. Many non-Muslim journalists refer to them as reformist. However, the term "reformist" is contentious because of the two reasons: One, the KNM is a Salafi group influenced by Egyptian and Saudi theologians; two, all Islamic groups such as the revivalist Tablighi Jamaat describe themselves as reformist.
It is often argued that Islam in Kerala is peaceful because, in sharp contrast to the historical experience of north India where it arrived in the company of Muslim invaders, in Kerala it arrived in the era of Prophet Muhammad by means of trade. But, more than anywhere else, it is in Kerala that we see Islam's original model divided into two periods: First, the Meccan period during which Prophet Muhammad and his followers lived and preached peacefully in Mecca as they were in the minority and could not fight; second, the Medina period during which the prophet led raids from his base in Medina on the caravans of non-Muslim traders going to Syria and fought numerous wars against non-Muslims, and enforced Islam by demolishing the mosques built by munafiqeen (the hypocrites among Muslims).
In Kerala, Muslims were not the first to arrive from West Asia.
Long before the birth of Islam, there was a tradition of Arab traders arriving by ships from West Asia, assisted by the hospitable flow of the monsoon. Of them, Jews and Christians were naturally the first, followed by Muslims. Over the subsequent centuries, the Jewish population did not rise, but Christians and Muslims grew in population and influence, as is the case today. However, the first conflicts involving Islam began in Kerala after the arrival of the Portuguese led by Vasco da Gama in 1498 CE, who brought Islam-versus-Christianity idea from Europe. For reasons of trade and Hinduism's co-existence, the Hindus had supported Muslims until then and during conflicts with Europeans.
This can be described as the peaceful Meccan period in Kerala where Muslims were numerically insignificant. Two Muslim rulers who effectively ended the Meccan period of Islam in Kerala are: Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. In Kerala today, radicalisation can be noticed in the areas attacked by these father-son Muslim rulers. Hyder Ali invaded Malabar region in 1771 and Tipu Sultan in 1789. GK Suresh Babu, a senior journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram, points out that Hyder Ali was invited after Muslims ran into a conflict to build a dome on a mosque, a practice allowed at the time only for three Hindu temples, and Tipu Sultan was harsher as he forced Hindus to eat beef and converted them to Islam. The causes of their invasions could be varied, but Hyder and Tipu seeded the Hindu-Muslim conflicts, thereby introducing what can be described as the Medina period in the life of Kerala's Islam.
Mujib Rahman, a teacher based in Kozhikode who has been associated with the KNM, refuses to accept that the 25 Muslims who left Kerala last July went to join the IS in Syria. He points out that Keralite Muslims have been going to Yemen for a long period of time. Indeed, it is true that the Mujahid Muslims have been going to Yemen and Sri Lanka to practice puritan Islam, but the theological reason is troublesome, which is that India is not a Daru-ul-Islam (House of Islam) and therefore Muslims should move to Muslim lands. This is the theological idea due to which Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Maulana Abdul Bari, among others, delivered a fatwa (Islamic decree) that Indian Muslims should move to Afghanistan, which came to be known as the Hijrat Movement, an offshoot of the Khilafat Movement.
But it doesn't appear that the 25 Muslims left Kerala just to practice puritan Islam.
As per immigration records, there is evidence that some of these Muslims, who were known to each other, travelled to Afghanistan and Iran from where they intended to move to Syria. The fact that they followed the Tehran route could be for the following reasons: one, Iran-India relations are strong at this time and there is no likelihood of Iranian officials doubting the motives of Indians arriving there; two, visiting Indians can say they are Shia pilgrims headed to religious places in Iraq; three, there were women in the group which makes it difficult for Iranian immigration to suspect; four, the Iranian territory has indeed been used by Al-Qaeda and IS jihadis to travel to and from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the years after the 11 September, 2001 attacks.
On 12 August, Islamic cleric Mohammed Haneef was arrested from Peringathoor in the Kannur district for radicalising these youths. Some cases of radicalisation among Keralite Muslims are:a youth from Kovalam was recruited to fight in Jammu and Kashmir, where four Keralites were killed in 2008; at least two Keralites working in Qatar joined the IS; some youths returned to Kerala after being detected in the UAE, while at least four were deported; one journalist migrated to join the IS in Syria. On 6 August, it came to light that one IS recruiter indoctrinated 40 Keralite Muslims. A look at the pre-IS radicalisation indicates that Kerala's Islamists want to carry out attacks not within the state but outside Kerala, notably the 1998 Coimbatore blasts and the Bengaluru blasts of 2008.
For now, may the debate on peaceful Islam in Kerala rest in peace.
Here are the other parts of the series:
Former BBC journalist Tufail Ahmad is a contributing editor at Firstpost, and executive director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. He tweets @tufailelif