Kerala IS recruits: Not radicalisation of Islam but Islamisation of radicalism

For most, it has been a shock to discover that five of the 15 missing Kerala Muslims, feared to have joined the atavistic army of the Islamic State (IS), are Hindu and Christian converts to Islam. But for those who have read French academician Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, the perturbing news from Kerala would only seem to confirm his theory.
Roy has put forward what is now popularly known as the “third way” of understanding the rush among the European youth to join the IS. His theory postulates that what the world is witnessing today is not the “radicalisation of Islam but the Islamisation of radicalism.” It is a generational revolt dressed as Islamic radicalism, of which Salafism is the most toxic manifestation.

 Kerala IS recruits: Not radicalisation of Islam but Islamisation of radicalism

A view of the departure terminal of Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. Reuters

Salafism, very simply put, wants to restore the ‘pure form’ of Islam that is supposed to have existed during the first three generations of Muslims. And because it rejects the Islam as lived and practiced in different societies, Salafism implicitly rejects the world of today.

Roy’s postulate is that radicalism of the youth precedes the drive to kill in the name of Allah. People of certain age-group are attracted to the backward-looking Salafism because of the impulse of nihilism in them. This impulse emanates from their rejection of society, for which there are several reasons. They prefer Salafism, and not another ideology, because it is the “strongest narrative” in the market that enables them best to live out their radicalism.

In a piece written for the influential Foreign Policy magazine, Roy argues:

“It serves no purpose to offer them a ‘moderate Islam’; it is the radicalism that attracts them in the first place. Salafism is not only a matter of sermonizing financed by Saudi Arabia – it is also the product that suits these youth, who are at odds with society.”

Could Roy’s theory explain the impulse behind 50-odd Indian Muslims to join the IS? Could it help understand better why Kerala’s Hindu and Christian converts to Islam chose to enter the IS?
These questions need to be asked even though we know Muslim terror groups invoke their interpretations of Islam and its violent history to justify their misdeeds. We also know they have an elaborate mechanism, both in real and virtual world, to lure people to join them. It is also true that the West’s invasion and domination of West Asia has fueled understandable anger among them.
Traditionally, however, it was thought relatively uneducated, poor Muslims or madrassa alumni, weaned on a rich diet of orthodox Islam, were largely susceptible to the call of their religion being in danger. But this stereotype has been shattered for a while, as rich, educated Muslims make a beeline for the IS, not only in France, but, as seen this week, in Kerala as well.

To understand this phenomenon, we need to return to Roy, who propounded his theory after scouring the data on French IS recruits. He discerned two oddities which had been largely missed earlier.

One, the French IS recruits did not consist of first-generation migrants, regardless of whether they came 30-40 years ago or in the last few years, nor the third-generation migrants, that is, grandchildren of those who came to France first. French IS recruits were predominantly drawn from second-generation migrants, those who were either born in France or went there as infant. They inhabit the cultural grey zone, so to speak, neither conforming to the modern French nor comfortable with their Islamic identity.

Two, Roy also found that nearly 25 per cent of French IS recruits were what he calls “native” converts. They were whites, culturally attuned to their society, could not have encountered racism, and since they mostly belonged to rural France, their identification with the Muslim community could have been at best incipient.

This means the converts, at least, were not rendered unfit to live in secular western societies because of their Islamic beliefs and values – which is what the school subscribing to the clash of civilisations theory insists upon. Nor, as Roy says, in the few years of having lived as Muslim, they could have developed such identification with the community to bristle against the injustices in Palestine or Bosnia or America’s invasion and control of West Asia.

In the Foreign Policy piece, Roy spells out the basic attributes of those who joined the IS. None had participated in political movement or undertaken efforts to support Palestine. None took up community service: delivering meals for the end of roza or fasting, for example. None undertook serious religious study, not even of the nature of jihad.

AjazIndeed, media profiles of perpetrators of attacks in Europe show they were regular kids who frequented bars, smoked weed, flirted with girls, did not observe religious rituals… until, one day, they were reborn as Muslim, undergoing dramatic personality changes. These profiles, as Roy contends, indicate a constructing of the new self – which helps maladjusted youths to negotiate their frustrations and alienation.

In an interview to Quartz, Roy remarked, “In France… they are in revolt against everything their parents represent. They reproach them for not have passed on ‘good’ Islam, for having become Westernized, for accepting their life as migrants slipping down the social ladder, and for not having revolted.” But this still leaves the question: Why do they turn to Islam to revolt? Roy argues, “They are reclaiming, on their own terms, an identity that, in their eyes, their parents have debased. They are ‘more Muslim than the Muslims’ and, in particular, than their parents.”
Salafism provides them a religious code divorced from the culture of the larger society – French – and that of their own community in France. They lived their lives on the margins, where as radical or born-again Muslim they still remain – except that they are now no longer disempowered. They can take to the gun, unleash violence, which enables them to think, rather erroneously, that they can bring social change. It provides a meaning to their lives and makes them feel they are no longer losers.

But why do converts choose to express their revolt through the IS? Roy answers: “They choose Islam because it is the only thing on the market of radical rebellion.” The attraction earlier for radical rebels was the quest to overthrow Capitalism, or to fight in the Spanish Civil War, both for and against Fascism, or the desire to take revenge against the generation of their parents who collaborated with the Nazis, as was the case with Baader Meinhof revolutionaries in the Germany of the 1970s.

Obviously, to apply Roy’s theory to, say, Kerala Muslim IS recruits is ostensibly perilous. Kerala’s social milieu is different from France’s, not least the wide chasm in their economic development. Yet, grinding poverty and illiteracy couldn’t have been factors that drove its Muslims to radicalism of the IS variety. Kerala is among the more progressive states of India; it has had 100 percent literacy for a while; the alienation among Muslims there, in comparison to their counterparts in the North, is insignificant. Let alone Kerala, the Muslims who have joined the IS elsewhere from India are mostly middle class and educated. A good many of them were studying in technical institutes before they disappeared, much in the manner of French nationals who overnight became IS foot-soldiers.

However, an account which The Times of India published of Annu Mathew, whose cousin was among the missing Kerala Muslims, bears a strong resemblance to Roy’s description of the French IS recruit. Of her cousin, Mathew writes that she experimented with fashion, spent hours making cupcakes, loved western music, introduced her to the singer Bryan Adam’s Summer of 69, and was “crazy about everything Japanese – from cartoons to shows to cuisine”, spending days to master the use of chopsticks.

Mathew writes her cousin went over to Mumbai as she had bagged a job with a multinational there. “It was with mixed feelings that I saw off my cousin at the airport over a year ago… But the cheery girl I bade goodbye never returned,” Mathew writes. Her cousin came back as a serious, withdrawn girl a few months later – then converted to Islam, married a convert who too had been Christian earlier, and disappeared, presumably to fight for IS.

All the Roy-ian tropes are present in Mathew’s account – a fun-loving person suddenly undergoing a transformation, rejecting her cultural inheritance, and giving up on her westernized way of life.
Roy has also pointed to the phenomenon of siblings together joining the IS. Are we seeing a version of the same phenomenon in Kerala, where among the 15 missing were five couples?

Interestingly, Mathew echoes the narrative regarding the boys who attacked the posh café Holey Artisan Baker in Dhaka earlier this month. They too belonged to wealthy families, had a good education, studied in international schools, were fun-loving and popular, and even went abroad for higher education. But they returned home transformed, dour and strict in their observance of religious rituals.

Other narratives pertaining to Indians who disappeared and joined IS seem to also prove Roy right. In almost all cases, their relatives expressed shock and incomprehension at their decisions. Abdul Rahim, whose two sons and their wives were among the 15 missing Kerala Muslims, told the Indian Express that if they had indeed joined the IS, he would “consider them as dead.” His sons had palpably failed to imbibe their father’s values or, perhaps, outright rejected it.

Rahim’s remark suggests a generational gap, a generational revolt, which is likely to have an Indian flavour. Is it that the young have lost their moorings in a society undergoing rapid transformation which prove culturally dislocating? Is it why we are witnessing militant religious activities of greater intensity, driving Indians to join the IS or form vigilante anti-cow slaughter groups that are willing to resort to violence?

Obviously, this isn’t to discount the significance of the role preachers have in luring the young to play out their dystopian fantasy. They have always been amidst us. But what requires a more concentrated focus is why some individuals cross the line dividing civility from barbarity.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.

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Updated Date: Jul 12, 2016 16:13:15 IST