Saudi funding fans ultra-conservative Islam in India; the political, ideological response to it remains meek
Saudi Arabia’s brand of Islam that it has successfully marketed to millions across Asia, Africa and now Europe through generous financial payoffs and donations, has impacted younger population of Muslims in parts of India for last few years
By Sunil Raman
For years, the growing following and influence of ultra-conservative Islamist ideology in parts of Europe including Belgium, France and even Scandinavian countries has been talked and written about. Sometimes attacks on small scale were ignored as petty crimes or for reasons of political correctness, these were pushed under the carpet as Europe tried hard to project its image as a multi-cultural and multi-religious project where people of all faiths were free to follow and propagate their religious beliefs.
Until the 7 July, 2005 London attacks, Britain loved to show its openness to ideas and people even if they as UK residents preached hatred and opposition to Westminster style of democracy. A radical Egyptian cleric Abu Hamza was treated virtually as a state guest as he preached radical doctrine to Muslims in London and UK. Many in India will remember the freedom given to Khalistani Sikh organisations and Tamil Tigers by British authorities. Radical groups were allowed to spread hatred in the name of freedom and free speech.
If the London attacks forced British authorities to wake up to the threat posed by such groups and the ideas they propagated, the November 2015 attacks in Paris seem to have woken up mainstream political parties in Europe to such a threat. Suddenly, Belgium is viewed as a weak link and liberal democracies have realised the danger of giving “unfettered” freedom to Islamic groups.
Flirtation with Saudi Arabia saw the rise of fancy mosques across the continent where many clerics preached a return to “pure Islamic ideals” as espoused in the Quran. Puritanical Wahabi ideology was and continues to be propagated from many of these mosques across the world, where clerics are not only sowing seeds of hatred against liberal democracies but also against Shia Muslims.
The last few years witnessed Salafis grow and spread with great speed across the globe as well. Their brand of Islam that considers all ideas and practices of Muslims that are not in conjunction with the Holy Book as heretical has taken root across the continent, among a growing population of young Muslims who are being told day in and day out that they must return to their roots.
Salafis are more conservative and do not accept many of the beliefs of Sunni Muslims, and they are more aggressively opposed to any cultural influence impacting Muslim practices. They are greater opponents of mysticism, and reject ideas of saints and their shrines as unacceptable. This makes South Asian Islam as nothing short of heretical. Men and women must not mix with non-Muslims, give up any form of worship such as visits to Sufi shrines and abjure any act that could be construed as un-Islamic.
Saudi Arabia’s brand of Islam that it has successfully marketed to millions across Asia, Africa and now Europe through generous financial payoffs and donations, has impacted younger population of Muslims in parts of India for last few years.
India has also over the years seen more and more Muslims, particularly the younger population, get attracted to preachings of ultra-conservative clerics. This is not to say that they are supporters of radical groups like the Islamic State and Taliban. But, the change in the complexion of discourse within sections of Muslim population, their responses and growing assertion of some people that there is need to abandon centuries old brand of South Asian Islam are a natural consequence of years of government indifference, some complicity and failure to recognise what/how Saudi money was actually contributing to a change in the way many Muslims think.
A few months ago Oman flagged concern about growing radicalisation of thousands of Muslim workers from India in the Gulf country.
The growing pressure of Wahabis to push their conservative ideology has disturbed sections of Sunnis in India and a few months ago some of its leaders sought government intervention to check its spread.
The Sunni Wakf Board fears that Wahabis could take over a majority of shrines and 'dargahs' of Sunnis allowing terror groups like IS inroads into the country. Wahabi clerics and preachers have had little difficulty in getting visas to address and influence congregations across the country.
Salafis in Bengaluru
In the last few years Salafis have managed to take root in large parts of the country including Benguluru which boasts of 42-odd Salafi mosques that preach ideas that are repugnant to centuries-old Islamic traditions in India. That it was not easy to set up Salafi mosques due to opposition from existing Islamic groups in Bengaluru is well acknowledged by the Salafi trust on its official website. “There were physical fights, social boycott, warnings and torture for the above members for bringing the Salafi methodology in their locality” before they managed to build Salafi mosques, states its official website.
Initial opposition later dissolved and they managed to expand their influence in the city and among its young population,
I recall meeting a young Muslim in Benguluru some years ago who was forthright in his criticism of his mother and sister’s “un-Islamic” acts of visiting Sufi shrines and praying at mazars of saints. He also minced no words to state his opposition to Shias terming them as non-Muslims. This young educated man was a regular at a Salafi mosque in Koramangala area, home to wealthy people such as Infosys and Wipro chiefs.
Kerala has for many years seen a subtle shift in the way women dress up, use of headscarves, and even design for new mosques. In fact, preachers from Muslim Brotherhood have had access to Kerala in last several years where institutions like the Islamic Mission Trust have used foreign funding to set up educational and social institutions to widen their reach and influence.
Salafi organisations like Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen have been around since 1950s but post-1992's Babri Masjid demolition and the turn of the new century, they have witnessed growth and radicalisation of minds that is a matter of concern.
Al-Jamiya Al-Islamia in Malappuram (north Kerala) with well-defined objectives to provide leadership for teaching, training and research in Arabic Language and Literature has emerged as a new institution that preaches conservative Islam. Saudi Arabia pledged millions of Saudi Riyals to them ostensibly for constructing an arts and science college building. In 2003, it became a university “and a dream come true” when a celebrated international scholar Sheikh Yusuful Qardawi declared it a university. Qardawi, now in exile in Qatar, belongs to Muslim Brotherhood. According to international websites he is known for his militant religious rulings and political commentary in support of acts of terrorism and repression of women.
It also pledged one million Saudi Riyal to the construction of a nursing college. A similar amount was also pledged to Palghat Mujahideen Arabic College Committee in Kerala for the purpose of extending an existing medical college and the Karuma hospital building.
In eastern Uttar Pradesh, Saudi Riyals were donated to establish a madrasa building and a vocational centre for girls in Mirzapur and Siddharth Nagar. Schools and colleges with Arabic names prominently stick out across western UP today. Attempts to also link Muslim identity with Saudi Arabia, reminiscent of what happened in Pakistan, need to be addressed politically and ideologically.
UP, Kerala and Karnataka examples merely illustrate how ultra-conservative ideas alien to Muslims in India are now getting greater attention and following among sections of Muslims because of inadequate political understanding and response. Political parties in India that claim to be flag-bearers of secularism need to look beyond short term electoral gains to formulate a response to Wahabis and Salafis gaining mindspace among sections of world’s third largest Muslim population.
The writer is a former BBC journalist
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