A few years ago, when I was walking through the narrow alleys of Male, the capital of Maldives, I couldn’t avoid noticing two distinct Indian connections — the presence of Hindi soap operas and a bearded Islamic evangelist that I was hardly familiar with. I could see him on TV at many DVD shops, which also had stockpiled Hindi soap operas dubbed in Dhivehi, the local language.
Later on, a Maldivian friend, who then was my colleague, had told me that among all the TV series, one named "Prerna" (the Indian title was Kasautii Zindagii Kay) was a superhit and the lead actor, Shweta Tiwari (they in fact called her by the name of the character she played) was a household name.
And there was one more person who was as popular, particularly among the youth — Zakir Naik — the bearded man that I saw on TV in the island. It was also the time when Islamism was beginning to spread in the tiny population of the country. Coincidentally, hardliners had begun to tighten their grip on the country’s politics.
After the recent Bangladesh terror attacks, Zakir Naik reportedly has been accused of being an inspiration for the killer squad. Media reports look at him as an evangelist of Zalafism, the radical version of Islam being bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, a practice that seeks to take believers several centuries back in time. A practice that negates the evolution of humankind, any form of progressive thinking, and modern ideas of governance and human rights.
So, the big debate in India now is the influence of Zakir Naik in radicalising Muslims at home and its neighbourhood. Reports said that his name has also been linked to the Hyderabad module which was recently busted by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), and the Bangladesh government has asked India to look for evidence of his influence on the terrorists on their soil.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the cradles of Islamist terror funded by external agencies, we have seen how religious radicalisation acts as the first step towards creating Islamist terror. First fundamentalise their faith, and then arm them; the products from this assembly line then fast-breed themselves even as they launch into their preprogrammed course of destruction. Terror trails in other parts of the world also show the same design and execution.
So, the crucial point is radicalising the youth. That's what people such as Naik have been allegedly doing, and that’s what needs to be mercilessly shut down.
It may be purely coincidental — almost at the same time as Zakir Naik's influence was alleged for the terror in Dhaka, a video of Abdul Nazer Madani, an Islamic orator and political leader from Kerala, resurfaced on social media. There's no authentication of the date of the speech, but it certainly is post-2013 because of the references he makes in the speech.
In the name of retribution, people who disrespect the prophet, what he delivers in this speech is pure venom and justification of terror. He says that there’s absolutely no compromise with people who don’t respect the prophet. He goes on to refer to the case of a College professor whose arm was chopped off by Islamists in in Kerala. He willy-nilly justifies this terrorist act and uses highly offensive language against the professor. To justify his position, he even cites a “historical” incident in which a father was beheaded by his son for challenging the prophet. The tone, tenor and the direct message in this speech is unambiguous - it’s a direct call for terror.
Interestingly, when a trial court recently sent eight men to jail for the same chopping incident, they were demonstratively remorseless - their pose for photos with broad smiles shocked the state.
Ironically, this is a man who the state stood by — political parties, civil society and human rights activists — when he was in Coimbatore jail for his alleged role in the blasts in the city in 1998. He was released in 2007 for lack of evidence, but had to go back to jail, this time in Karnataka, for his alleged role in the 2008 Bangalore blasts. He is still in jail pending trail. The latest video doing the rounds cocks a snook at the people who stood by him.
Zakir Naik may find an instant audience among the unemployed, poor Muslim youth across India because they have been marginalised for generations, but trying to radicalise the Muslims in Kerala is a far more sinister idea because they are an integral part of mainstream society with absolutely no reason to complain.
About 27 percent of the state’s population is Muslim, and according to a 1996 report by the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (a left wing organisation that promotes science and rational practices), they are better off than the majority Hindus on many social development indicators such as housing, landholding and sanitation while standing neck to neck with the latter on per capita income. In terms of remittances from the Middle East, a major source of household income for most of the state, Muslims account for 34.5 per cent compared to 10.4 per cent of Hindus.
Moreover, Muslims are politically very strong. The Indian Union Muslim League is the second most influential block in the Congress-led United Democratic Front, and it retains key ministries every time the UDF comes to power. Some of the biggest businesses in Kerala and best educational institutions are owned by Muslims and they dominate the socio-cultural scene as well.
Preaching hatred against others and fomenting trouble, or rather terror, among them is therefore a sinister agenda. It has no raison d’être in the state and can be seen only as part of a global Islamist project.
In the 1990s, when I first heard Madani speeches on compact discs (with no Youtube, they were circulated widely through CDs), I was really concerned at the way a portly, overzealous man was playing up macabre stories of Muslim persecution in Afghanistan and Bosnia and exhorting people to align behind their faith. He was artificially importing insecurity into the Muslims in a state, where they were socio-economically and politically well-placed.
The damage has been far-reaching. For instance, the most common name in Islamist terrorism in Kerala, an alleged LeT operative, Thadiantavide Nazeer, who is currently in jail, reportedly got involved with militancy through ISS, an organisation established by Madani. Changing dress codes, increasing intolerance against reformist practices and other cultures, and the even rising incidence of moral policing point to disturbing pressure of radical thought on families and individuals.
Historically, this is how projects to fundamentalise faith begins. The ultimate result is terror on the street as we see today.
Human rights and fair recourse to justice are important, but before that channels of fundamentalisaiton have to be shut down with zero tolerance. If the present law doesn’t permit radicals making inflammatory and terror speeches to be put in jail, reform it.