By Arun Janardhanan
July 17, 2016
When 21 people from Kerala went missing over the period of a month, the immediate concern was that they could have joined the IS, something that’s still to be confirmed. However, with visible signs of religiosity among a section of Kerala’s Muslims, many worry if the disappearance of the 21 is another sign of radicalisation.
A five-kilometre drive from Nilambur town in Kerala’s Malappuram district is the Salafi Commune, a 3-acre land partitioned into 21 residential plots, a school and a Masjid. When the disappearance of 21 Muslims from Kerala led to fears that they could have joined the Islamic State, it’s this commune nestled in the Athikkadu hills that many thought held the answers.
None among the 21 is known to have ever lived in this commune, but what binds them to its way of life is their faith in Salafism, a school of thought that believes in a puritanical form of Islam, one that resists Western values.
The commune is home to 16 Muslim families, all of the Salafi faith, who say they are attempting to recreate the life the Prophet led about 1,400 years ago. While there’s no goat farm yet and there are a few concessions to modernity — a car parked in a shed, televisions in some homes — commune members, who live in two-storey homes typical of any middle-class locality, talk of a life “going back to the book of the Prophet”.
Their children go out to study, but only to schools that have strictly segregated classes for boys and girls. The women don’t step out of their homes and are always in Purdah. The members don’t participate in censuses or vaccination drives and don’t vote during elections.
A mosque on Kozhikode’s Beach Road.
“We use television only for news. We do not want to commit a sin even with our eyes,” explains Shiju, 45, who shifted with his family to the commune a month ago. “Our lives are short. If I can’t live the life of the faithful in this country, I will go wherever I can do so,” he says.
After he moved to the commune, Shiju realised his name wasn’t “Islamic enough” so he now goes by the name “Abdullah”.
Shiju was born to a Muslim family in Varkala near south Kerala’s Kollam district, and his father was a local Communist leader. It was a lecture by M M Akbar, the ‘Zakir Naik of Kerala’, that triggered “that spiritual awakening” in him, Shiju says. “I was not a religious person until I turned 30. I was angry at Islam, especially the clerics,” says Shiju, sitting on the verandah of his three-bedroom house in the Salafi Commune.
Shiju and his wife share their house with another family. Shiju says his income from a fishing trawler, which he purchased a year ago, takes care of their limited needs.
The commune was started a decade ago by Subair Mankada, a local Islamic scholar and businessman. In 2013, Mankada had a fall-out with his business partners — also members of the commune — and left. A few other families, disillusioned with the infighting, too left the commune, leaving many to believe the model had failed.
But now, the commune is witnessing a revival, with new families from across the state moving in. “After the dispute in 2013, the prayers at the masjid were stopped and the school had to be shut. We will soon reopen that school,” says Shaji.
Shaji and others believe the revival of the commune sends out a larger message — that a section of Kerala’s Muslims are embracing a more aggressive, non-negotiable form of the faith.
Unlike most places in India, the Kerala Muslim can match other religious groups in numbers, wealth, social status and, now, education. In the recent Kerala medical entrance examination, there were four Muslims in the top 10 list. It is probably the only state where two minority communities, Muslims and Christians, are powerful and influential.
The state has also had Muslim reformist movements such as the one led by the Muslim Aikya Sangham, an Ulema organisation that campaigned in the 1920s “to educate and reform religious, moral and economic conditions of Muslims”. During that period, rich Muslim merchants, inspired by the British, embraced modern education and opened two schools in Kozhikode. But there was no way they could match the Christian community when it came to setting up missionary schools.
That changed with the Gulf boom and the money that came with it — several schools and mosques mushroomed all across Kerala, particularly in Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kasargod and other districts that make the larger Malabar region.
This period also coincided with what many see as the Arabisation of Kerala’s Muslims — the purdah, abaya and hijab gradually gaining in prominence over the thattam, the simple head scarf that women traditionally wore, and the neighbourhood mosques making way for opulent structures. This was also the time that a range of organisations such as the Mujahid preached hardline versions of Islam, speaking against movies and other ‘social ills’.
Formed in 1950s as the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen (KNM), the Mujahid is considered an Islamic renaissance movement, which took up issues such as the ‘decline’ of family values, consumerism and pornography as major social problems facing the community.
Observers, however, insist that a clear line be drawn between these visible symbols of religion and radicalisation. “Whether it is a Salafi commune or allegations of conversion, questions can be raised only if it poses a threat to the social fabric of society. Linking every Muslim youth with a beard to terror or every purdah-clad woman to radicalism will get you only wrong answers. These are similar to the changes that you witness in Hinduism or Christianity, of people increasingly asserting their religious identity through religious symbols or clothes,” says A P Kunjaamu, a cultural activist and writer based in the north Kerala district of Kozhikode.
Abdul Nasser Madani, founder of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), is the man seen as Kerala’s radical Muslim face. Currently an accused in the July 2008 bomb blast in Bengaluru, Madani’s early life as a Muslim fundamentalist was a period when several youngsters idolised him.
C K Abdul Azeez, who resigned from the PDP several years ago, says radical and communal movements in Kerala are a “failure”, since they have not been able to “break the secular fabric of Kerala”. “Probably the Hindu communal forces are seeing some success now,” he says.
Azeez says this assertion of faith, especially the “seemingly harmless” Salafi variety, among the youth can be explained by the lack of leaders who can interpret the religion for them. “What is contemporary Islam? How do you define it? Perhaps these are questions for which the young are seeking answers and, in the absence of good religious scholars, they turn to online materials and hardcore ideologies,” he says.
Jamaat-e-Islami leader T Mohammed Velom believes this heightened religiosity is usually “some kind of resistance to modernity”. “There is a huge spiritual vacuum that sets in after you have fulfilled your material goals and that gives space to a religion like ours,” he says, adding that it’s here that conversion plays a role – at least five of the 21 who disappeared were recent converts to the religion.
Islamic organisations such as evangelist M M Akbar’s Niche of Truth admit to such conversions. “There are postal libraries that provide literature and texts for those who aspire to embrace Islam. What is wrong in it?” asks a member of the Kochi-based Niche of Truth.
However, M K Muneer, senior leader of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which is a prominent ally of the Congress in the state, says conversion and radicalisation are trends the Muslim community needs to correct. “It is a fact that Muslim youth are becoming more and more religious. We need not link it to terrorism but it is definitely a matter of concern, as such religious assertion might also work against our secular and pluralist values,” he says.
Muneer adds that conversions can happen not as organised events but by “seeing the life and practices of a Muslim”. “We don’t support tele-evangelists like Zakir Naik. We recently issued a statement in support of him only because there were attempts to link him to the IS. But still, we do not endorse such aggressive campaigns.”
N P Hafiz Mohamad, a leading sociologist and writer, blames fringe communal elements for making the “ordinary Muslim vulnerable”. “Imagine the plight of an innocent Muslim who becomes a suspect because of his beard. No Christian missionary is ever seen as a terrorist but a Muslim cleric will most likely be seen as one. Kerala’s biggest threat is probably its disappearing pluralistic values, not the Islamic State,” he says.
To illustrate the breakdown of “pluralistic values” he talks about how IUML leader P K Abdu Rabb had last year refused to light a lamp to inaugurate a programme. Many hardcore groups cheered him, saying lighting a lamp would be “against Islamic values”.
At Moozhikkal in Kozhikode is the Peace International School, its glass facade glistening in the afternoon sun. It is one of the 11 schools owned by Peace Educational Foundation of M M Akbar and is said to have no non-Muslim students.
Of the 21 who went missing from the state, at least two who converted to Islam — brothers Bexen and Bestin from Palakkad — had links to this school.
The school, with classes from LKG to X, follows the CBSE curriculum (though it doesn’t have accreditation) and holds a three-hour daily compulsory religious education class with textbooks from Saudi Arabia.
A parent whose daughter studies in Class VI in the school says she was “forced” to send her daughter to Peace International because Christian schools in Kozhikode refused to allow the child to wear a headscarf. “I myself studied in a convent school where we wore a headscarf. But when I approached convent schools for my daughter, two of them demanded an undertaking that she would not wear a headscarf. It’s this intolerance that has forced parents like me to go to Peace school though it is completely against my idea of education,” she says.
About 140 km away is Udumbunthala, a village in Kasargod near Payyannur town in Kannur. Sitting in his house opposite the Noorul Huda Secondary Madrassa, Abdulla says, “My son is innocent… he is god-fearing.” Abdulla, in his 60s, refuses to talk any further. “We will be in further trouble if we do,” he says.
It has only been a day since officials of the Intelligence Bureau visited Abdulla’s house following reports that Abdul Rashid, the elder of his two sons, had led the team of 21 people out of Kerala. Rashid, 29, wife Ayesha and their daughter Sara too are among those missing.
A Muslim evangelist who was active in various social welfare programmes, Rashid, police say, handled the administration of the Peace Foundation’s11 schools and helped many convert to Islam.
In each of these 21 cases, families reported how their sons and daughters had turned overtly religious, left home citing different reasons, and infrequently kept in touch through WhatsApp. Police sources confirm that their whereabouts have been traced to Sri Lanka and Afghanistan before the trail went cold in Tehran, Iran.
While the Malayalam media has gone ahead and tagged the missing 21 as “ISIS recruits”, there is nothing so far to suggest that they left to join the IS. The picture that emerges from talking to the families of some of them is of men and women who were deeply driven by faith. In Udumbunthala, a Sunni majority area, people talk of Rashid “as a peaceful and calm person”.
The story of Kerala’s missing 21 started in Padne village in Kasargod, about 10 km from Udumbunthala. On the day of Eid, Hakeem received a message from his 23-year-old son Hafeesuddhin Thekekoleth, a businessman, saying he had “arrived in the land of Islam”. As Hakeem was already suspicious about his son’s demeanour in the weeks leading up to his disappearance, he approached Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan when he got that message. That’s when the story unravelled — more families reported their sons and daughters missing.
Next to Hakeem’s palatial mansion is Abdul Rahiman Parambath’s opulent bungalow. Here, he sits on a plastic chair in the verandah, talking of his sons Dr Ijaz and Shihaz, who went missing along with their families.
“I am a practising Muslim. But even by my standards, my sons were too religious. They changed in the last year and a half. They would eat very little, would tell us not to watch TV, insist that the women of the home wear the Purdah and ask me to grow my beard. They would talk about an Islamic life where they would commit no sin, not even with their eyes,” says Rahiman, who says he spent several years in Mumbai as a businessman and settled down in his village only three years ago.
Rahiman’s younger brother Mujeeb says there was a noticeable change in his nephews’ behaviour after they started hanging out with Rashid, who was Shihaz’s colleague at Peace Foundation. “During Ramzan last year, I shouted at Rashid for getting our boys to be so religious. That was the last time we saw Rashid,” says Mujeeb.
A police officer from Kasargod, who has spoken to the families of those who went missing, says none of them had any criminal background. “They were all young professionals who probably had so many questions about themselves, their religion, faith and their social identity,” he says.
Rahiman would like to believe that. “They must have gone to some Islamic country to live a life prescribed by Islam. They wouldn’t have gone to the IS,” he says.
Earlier this month, the families of at least 17 people reported their sons and daughters missing, saying they got messages on WhatsApp that suggested those missing had reached the place of “divine rule”. That set off speculation that those missing may have left to join the Islamic State. On July 11, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told the state Assembly that the number of people missing stood at 21. Indian agencies have traced the whereabouts of 17 of them to Tehran, Iran, before the trail went cold. The 17 include nine men, four women in their 20s, three of them pregnant, a child and an infant:
Abdul Rashid Abdulla, an engineering graduate who worked with Peace International School, his wife Ayesha and two-year-old child from Udumbunthala in Kasargod district.
Hafeezuddin and Marvan Ismail, in their 20s, who were Rashid’s neighbours in Udumbunthala.
Dr Ijaz, a doctor, his wife and two-year-old child from Padne village, 10 km from Udumbunthala.
Shihaz, Ijaz’s brother, an MBA graduate who worked for Peace International School, and his wife Ajmala. Shihaz is a friend of Rashid’s.
Ashfaq Majeed, Dr Ijaz’s relative, his wife Shamsia, and their baby.
Isa — ‘Bexen’ before he converted from Christianity — used to work with Peace International School. Isa left with his wife Fathima (Nimisha), who was nine months pregnant. Fathima hails from an affluent Hindu family in Thiruvananthapuram and was ‘Nimisha’ before she converted while studying in a Kasargod college. It was Rashid who introduced Isa to Fathima.
Eshia (Bestin), brother of Isa, also converted reportedly under Rashid’s influence. Eshia left with his wife Mirriam (Merin), who belongs to a Christian family in Ernakulam.