Kerala should be worried about its missing youths and possible Islamic State links

Although the disappearance of 20 Muslims and their speculated association with the Islamic State have shocked Kerala over the last two days, it’s not the first time that people from the state have been involved in Islamist conflict elsewhere. In 2008, five Malayali Muslim youth went all the way to Kashmir to fight alongside the separatists and four of them were shot dead by Indian forces.

If it’s Kashmir in 2008, it’s only natural that it’s IS in 2016 because Islamism has been growing in the state since the 1990s. The common ideal is international Islam, as against the state’s age-old local Islam, and the allegiance is to what’s purported to be the purest form and practice — something that the Islamists believe belong to the Prophet’s land and the Prophetic era. It’s part of their blind trust in global kinship, an exclusive transnational state of radical Islam and the rein of Sharia law.

 Kerala should be worried about its missing youths and possible Islamic State links

Representational image. AFP

In practical terms, the problem that was first noticed in 2008 seems to have become bigger because the numbers this time are bigger, the “recruits” are from different parts of the state, and the trails they have left behind are similar. What makes the situation more complex is that five of them were neo-converts: three girls and two men. Till about a year ago, two of those girls were Hindus and one was Christian; while two of the Muslim men, who married and converted them, were Christians earlier

On Saturday, it was absolute cacophony in the state’s media with people trying to figure out what exactly happened even as the parents of two of the missing girls confessed on TV that their daughters had been converted through marriage, they had become deeply involved in the radical practice of the religion, and have now disappeared.

They also said that the girls with their husbands have gone to Sri Lanka for religious activities and have since been untraceable. Parents and relatives of the other disappeared men and women also said that they suspect that their children might have joined Islamist groups outside the country. At least two of them said that they had received WhatsApp messages saying that their sons had reached an Islamist country which is run on Sharia.

Although this development is disturbing, it can still be considered a statistical outlier given that one-third of Kerala’s population is Muslim. However, what cannot be overlooked is the increasing signs of radical Islam, the influence of Middle East-based Islamist groups and the possibility of a recruitment ring. Senior journalist and socio-political commentator O Abdulla, who otherwise defends conservative Islamic practices in the state, minced no words on Monday when he said on TV that the beards of many Muslim men in the state were getting longer and their trousers were getting shorter at the ankles. He said that the state should seriously observe these telltale signs of the religion getting radicalised. He also wanted the Muslims in the state to know that the theology of the Islamic State had nothing to do with Islam.

The problem is rather deep-rooted because of Kerala’s Middle East connection and the flow of money. Well-known British social scientist Professor Katy Gardner had studied this phenomenon in Bangladesh. In her chapter in the book Muslim Diversity: Local Islam in Global Contexts, she examined how migrants could get influenced by centralised and universal Islam “out there” in opposition to local Islams and how the inclusive and liberal world of pirs and Sufi cults could give way to orthodoxy.

She noted that the migrants she studied were influenced by the Islam in the Middle East more than what they practised back home.“Not only is the locale of opportunity and material enrichment increasingly placed outside the desh, but so too is the locale of spirituality.” She argued how returnee migrants were engaged in more orthodox and dogmatic Islam which actually challenged their native, traditional practices. “Their allegiance is located in a new geography of Islam where the centre of spirituality is perceived to be the Middle East.”

This is the problem with many Muslims in Kerala too — the geography of their Islam has changed, which is now located in the Middle East. Their rituals, attitude towards other regions and beliefs, and dress code today carry clear Arab-influences.

The sad irony is that the rising Islamism in Kerala has no localised socio-economic or political context because Muslims in the state are neither marginalised nor poor. Most of the three million migrants to the GCC countries from Kerala are in Saudi Arabia and majority of them are Muslims. They remit more money than what the Christians or Hindus do and the religious orthodoxy that they bring back is a collateral damage — the “social remittance” that the state has been unable to block.

The reasons could be many. As researches have found out, in their ghettoised lives the migrants tend to become more religiously inward looking as they try to reinforce their identity (this is not exclusive to Muslims, but is also true with Christians and Hindus too) and hence become vulnerable to radical influences. They freely come into contact with purveyors of the new international Islam and groups that recruit people to the Islamic State and terror networks. Middle East is also the place for Wahhabi and Salafi funds and anti-Indian operatives. It’s a tricky location that can export both radical Islam and the money to foster it.

Many local commentators such as historian MGS Narayanan, who some think is pro-BJP, alleges that a lot of Middle Eastern remittances fuel Muslim extremism in Kerala. It’s hard to verify because the sources of income from the Middle East are impossible to track.

Undeniably, Kerala is vulnerable. If the people who have disappeared have indeed joined the IS, it’s an extraordinary turning point that calls for an extraordinary response. The reversal of the tide of radical Islam and the dismantling of its networks are not easy, but there’s no way out. What we see now is part of the price we are paying for our inaction in the 1990s.

Updated Date: Jul 10, 2016 14:51:42 IST