Opinion |

Does Saudi-funded Muslim Radicalization Threaten India?

India has become a proxy religious battlefield between Iran, which has made overtures to its Shia community for years, and Saudi Arabia, which then decided to pump in billions to promote Wahhabism, an alien and intolerant form of Islam

Abhinav Pandya
Abhinav Pandya
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Devotees pray at the Jama Masjid mosque in New Delhi, India, celebrating Eid al-Adha. Jan. 11, 2006
Devotees pray at the Jama Masjid mosque in New Delhi, India, celebrating Eid al-Adha. Jan. 11, 2006Credit: AP
Abhinav Pandya
Abhinav Pandya

In India's hinterlands, a new and worrying phenomenon is brewing.

Sleepy, laid-back cities are the focus of violent clashes between moderate and radical Muslim groups. ISIS recruiters have been caught in cities like Jaipur and Ajmer, and several youngsters from relatively prosperous states like Kerala, Karnataka and metro cities like Hyderabad have travelled to Syria to join ISIS. New foreign-funded mosques have sprung up in Rajasthan. Arabic phrases are beginning to replace traditional Persian-inflected Muslim greetings, from "Khuda Hafiz" and "Ramzaan" to "Allah Hafiz" and "Ramadan."

India is at the crossroads. Its 172 million strong Muslim community that has so far remained resilient to the global spread of jihadi ideology is now showing signs of coming under its sway. Since 2014, only 75 Indians have so far joined ISIS despite India having world’s second largest Muslim population.

Muslim women in Hyderabad, India. September 2007, some wearing a Saudi-influenced black hijab or niqab Credit: Wikimedia/Jamin Gray

But a wave of Saudi-funded hardline proselytization is sweeping across the country, and this extremism is eating away at South Asia’s indigenous and far more liberal, Sufi-based Barelvi traditions. This radicalization may be surfacing publicly now, but it has been building for years.

That means India needs to both dedicate more resources to studying the phenomenon of domestic radicalization, and to plan a far more sophisticated and thoughtful counter-radicalization program.

But there is a serious gap in research regarding Muslim radicalization in India. Except for a few brief articles by Brookings, the Carnegie Endowment and The Hindu, this dynamic has not attracted the academic, rather than right-wing demagogic, attention it deserves. But this is what we know.

The Barelvi tradition of Islam, founded by Ahmad Raza Khan (1856-1921) and which has 200 million followers in South Asia. Barelvis believe in personal devotion to Prophet Muhammad through intermediaries called dervishes (saints) and its distinct nature that has evolved over centuries of multicultural interaction with other faiths.

Wahhabism, Salafism and Deobandism, extremist and literalist schools of Islam on the march in India, consider it contaminated by folk practices alien to their purist interpretation of Islam.

In common with other religions, Islam has undergone several waves of reform movements, such as Wahhabism and Deobandism, but they have generally been reactionary - to "bring back" an authentic, puritan and orthodox form of Islam. Wahhabism and, in essence, Deobandism, aimed to bring back the Islam which prevailed in seventh-century Arabia during the time of Prophet Mohammed and the reign of the first four caliphs, often referred to as the Golden Age of Islam.

Their own roots in India are both indigenous and foreign. The Deobandi school was founded in a madrassa in the small town of Deoband in North India in 1867, but it was based on an older 18th century tradition and now constitutes 20% of India’s Sunni Muslims.

According to the Deobandi worldview, Muslim societies have deteriorated under the influence of amoral Western values; it is hostile to the concept that nation-states, rather than Islam, should be a source of loyalty for Muslims. Deobandi cadres in India are strictly opposed to the local custom of worshipping pirs (saints) and their tombs as objects of pilgrimage.

The general perception among India's intellectuals and intelligence community in is that the real threat lies in the challenge from outsiders - Wahhabi Muslims, whose proselytization efforts in India are financed and propped up by Saudi money.

But the indigenous Deobandis have increasingly come under the influence of the Wahhabi school. This is poorly understood, even by senior police, foreign-service and administrative officials, who aren't often even familiar with basic differences between Deobandis and Barelvis.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as they arrive for their meeting in New Delhi, India. Feb. 17, 2018Credit: Manish Swarup/AP

How did Wahhabism first come to India? Its roots can be traced back to the days of British Raj in the person of Syed Ahmad of Rai Barelii (1786-1831) who returned from Mecca in 1824 to wage a jihad against Sikhs and return political power to Muslims.

But the real acceleration of the Wahhabi presence in India is far more recent.

According to leaked cables, over the last decade and a half Saudi Arabia has become increasingly uncomfortable with the rising Shia influence in India and with Tehran’s overtures. They therefore decided to provide a religious and cultural contra - pumping in money to promote Wahhabism in India.

During a single two year period (2011-2013), according to an Indian Intelligence Bureau report, 25,000 Wahhabis visited India for missionary work; over that period they brought, in installments, $250 million to propagate Wahhabism, $460 million to set up madrasas and $300 million for miscellaneous costs, including alleged bribes to mosque authorities. Another key project is setting up four universities, at a cost of $1.2 billion. According to the cables, "The radical Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, which first set up base in Kashmir, is spearheading Wahhabi operations across India."

Christopher Jefferlot, in "The Saudi Connection," offers an overview of where Saudi proselytization is focused.

Muslim boys studying at the madrassah in Taj-ul-Masjid, Bhopal, IndiaCredit: Wikimedia/ Belimbing

Saudi-backed Salafis are gaining a stronghold in the southern Indian state of Kerala, he believes, noting that, "According to a Saudi embassy cable in Delhi, millions of riyals have been reserved" for local Islamic colleges, welfare organizations and political parties there. Sometimes the Saudis has taken over or co-opted existing Muslim groups.

It's already noticeable in visiting Kerala that a process of Arabization among the Muslim population is already underway reflected in language, eating habits, belief systems and dress code; more women are wearing the hijab or even the niqab.

It may come as a surprise, but Salafi and Wahhabi ideologies in India appear to have won more appeal among the educated classes. Their austerity acts as a way of differentiating themselves from the "ignorant" and "superstitious" beliefs of rural Muslims.

That is part of the reason why India's southern states like Kerala, Karnataka and cities like Hyderabad - where Muslims are comparatively better off politically, educationally and economically - have supplied the majority of ISIS recruits from India, together with a long history of connections between these states' vast Indian Muslim diaspora and the Arab world, not least through working in the Gulf.

Kashmiri women pray at the Hazratbal shrine on Mehraj-u-Alam, believed to mark the ascension of the prophet Mohammed to heaven, in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir. April 14, 2018Credit: Dar Yasin/AP

Both Wahhabism and Deobandism, as ideologies and missionary projects, prepare the ground for radicalization. Radicalization – in which a text like the Quran is interpreted in a literal sense resulting in an exclusivist, hateful and intolerant mindset toward non-Muslims and those Muslims who dissent from this literalism - builds an extremist, exclusivist and intolerant mindset.

Radicalization does not automatically develop into violence or jihadi terrorism – but it is a required a priori step to prepare the ground. And there is clear evidence that intolerant strains of Islam function as a recruitment pool and conduit for violent activism.

It's worth rememberingthat we've already witnessed other regions where radicalization has taken place, quietly, over a long period of time, before erupting into the glare of public attention.

That happened in Kosovo (which, since 200, was the target of vigorous Saudi-funded Wahhabi proselytization, and has supplied numerous recruits for ISIS), Spain's Catalonia (the August 2017 Barcelona attack came after years of Wahhabi radicalization there) and Pakistan (where there are several jihadist groups whose foot soldiers have also joined ISIS in large numbers).

A Kashmiri Muslim woman prays as she stands by colored threads tied by devotees at the shrine of the Sufi saint Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani, or Dastageer Sahib. Srinagar, India, Aug. 6, 2011Credit: AP

Of course, it is essential to maintain the distinction between terror advocates and the majority of lay Wahhabi Muslims or Deobandi followers who themselves and their religious institutions formally condemn the acts of terror. For instance, a Wahhabi Muslim provided Indian police with the first lead to the perpetrators of a series of bomb blasts in Ahmedabad in 2008.

When I have raised the pressing issue of Saudi-funded radicalization issue with senior intelligence officials in Delhi, many agree about the gravity of the problem. They reply that because of its politically sensitive nature, and the lack of any national-level strategy and program to address Muslim radicalization, most of the time it is left to the state police to deal with such matters in a way that they deem fit, politically and pragmatically.

But it's clear that state police do not have the requisite skills and infrastructure to detect such trends and take effective action against them.

A properly-thought out counter-radicalization program for India also faces another obstacle: the prevailing sentiment in India’s mainstream academia and media that domestic Muslim radicalization has increased in reaction to the Modi government’s embrace of Hindu nationalism.

A Kashmiri Muslim woman recites the Quran during Ramadan inside the shrine of Sufi saint Hazrat Sheikh Hamza Makhdoom. Srinagar, India, Sept. 9, 2008Credit: AP

However, it's not clear that such a connection can be made. There have no major inter-communal riots, busting of terror sleeper cells or terrorist attacks within India since 2014, the year of Modi’s election. India's most lethal domestic terror attacks happened during the years of government by the Indian National Congress party.

There is no apparent correlation between the Indian states controlled by the Modi's BJP party and those which host a radicalizing trend. In Kerala’s communist regime, several activists with the Hindu nationalist RSS have been killed by Muslim extremists. The staunch anti-Modi regime of West Bengal has emerged as a hub of jihadi activities.

Modi’s government has adopted a nuanced, cautious approach to Muslim matters. His government is making efforts to re-invigorate the relatively liberal Sufi Islam to push back against more extremist alternatives, and has been careful to avoid making drastic policy changes or overtly anti-Muslim governmental decisions.

Delhi has maintained its support for Palestinian self-determination, and indeed voted at the UN against the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, despite warming ties with Israel.

Indian Muslims offer prayers on Eid al-Fitr at a mosque in the premises of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. June 26, 2017Credit: Pawan Sharma/AP

This is not to downplay the overtly communal rhetoric of various Hindu fundamentalist leaders. When this has led to the murder of Muslims, it's no wonder that Muslim clerics and communal politicians sound alarm-bells of a threat to their faith. But the portrayal of the Modi government as a "threat to Islam" has also been exaggerated for political effect by hitherto fringe Muslim communal leaders.

It is India’s large Muslim community itself that is the primary victim of this process of social and cultural radicalization, which holds back their economic and educational progress.

But a narrative of fear and victimization means when Indian Muslims face an increasing barrage of rigid and well-funded proselytizers who condemn their syncretic, liberal Muslim traditions as un-Islamic apostasy and behavior, they're more vulnerable.

That is a dynamic that could erode Indian society's secularist status quo, and constitute a deeper threat to India's society and body politic in the future.

Abhinav Pandya, a Cornell University graduate in public affairs, is a policy analyst specializing in counterterrorism, Indian foreign policy and Afghanistan-Pakistan geopolitics. He has written for the Vivekananda Foundation think tank, the Express Tribune (Pakistan), Huffington Post, Fair Observer (US), Indian Military Review, Policy Perspectives Foundation (India) and Quint. He is currently researching Wahhabi radicalization in India and is a consultant with Vidya Bhawan, Udaipur. Twitter: @abhinavpandya

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