India’s Ayatollah Myopia
By Sadanand Dhume
April 9, 2015
As Sunni jihadists and Shia militias square off across much of the Middle East, should nearby India be rooting for one side to prevail?
On the face of it, the answer seems obvious. Sunni radicalism—both imported and home-grown—threatens India directly, whereas radical Islam’s Shia variant is virtually unknown to most Indians.
But in the long run India would benefit almost as much from an Iran freed from the ayatollahs’ nearly four-decade-old grip as it would from a Saudi Arabia that stops exporting its poisonous Wahhabi creed to Muslims around the world. India’s foe is neither Sunni nor Shia Islam as practiced by the average believer but the radicalism spawned by power-hungry ideologues in each sect.
For the average Indian, the case against Sunni radical Islam is much easier to make. The vast majority of India’s 150 million Muslims are peaceful, but India’s problem with radical Islam is almost entirely with its Sunni variant. Though exact numbers are hard to come by, the Pew Research Center has estimated that only 16 million to 24 million of India’s Muslims are Shia.
When the average Indian thinks of an Islamist terrorist, what comes to mind is likely the Lashkar-e-Taiba that attacked Mumbai in 2008, the Taliban that blew up Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 or the Indian Mujahideen’s attacks on busy markets. Hezbollah’s suicide bombings in Beirut or Iran-backed Shia death-squads in Iraq scarcely register in the Indian imagination.
With the Middle East in turmoil, a handful of young men have signed up to wage jihad on behalf of the Islamic State. In December, British journalists unmasked a Bangalore food-company executive with an engineering degree as one of the Islamic State’s most prolific propagandists on Twitter.
To add to this, over the past few decades neighbouring Pakistan—founded as a homeland for all Indian Muslims who didn’t want to live in a Hindu-majority country—has taken a sharp sectarian turn. The witches’ brew of terrorist groups it houses—including the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba—are steeped in hardline interpretations of Sunni Islam. So are home-grown Indian radicals backed by Islamabad from outfits such as the Indian Mujahideen.
Step away from terrorism to the ideology that undergirds it—the drive to order all aspects of human life by the tenets of Shariah law—and once again hardline Sunni thought dominates the subcontinental landscape. One of the 20th century’s most influential Islamists, Abul Ala Maududi (1903-79) was born in undivided India.
In 1941, Maududi founded Jamaat-e-Islami, which in South Asia has played a role roughly analogous to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, acting as a conveyor belt for extremist ideas. Some of its recruits gravitate toward more violent groups dedicated to similar goals.
Given all this, it’s hardly surprising that India remains largely blind to Shia radicalism. The well-known moderation of prominent Shia sects, such as the business-minded Bohras and Khojas, only adds to this view. Some Indians also imagine a greater cultural affinity with Persians than with Arabs. Although India’s Mughal emperors, who preceded the British, were Sunni, their court language was Persian.
But just because the average Indian knows little about Hezbollah or Yemen’s Houthis doesn’t mean that New Delhi should view Shia radicalism or its Iranian patrons any more favorably than their Saudi counterparts. As long as Iran remains a revolutionary state, it will act as an impediment to core Indian interests in the region, including stability and religious moderation.
Indeed, of a troika of pioneering Islamists born within a few years of each other in the early 20th century—Maududi, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini—arguably Khomeini was the most influential. By leading the Iranian revolution in 1979 he proved to Islamists, Sunni and Shia alike that their medieval fantasy of imposing “God’s law” on Earth was achievable.
As long as Iran remains under clerical rule, it remains a powerful global symbol of radical Islam’s triumph. Conversely, few developments would set back radical Islam in the Middle East and beyond as decisively—and help long-term Indian interests—as an Iran rid of clerical rule.
Revolutionary Iran also feeds Saudi Arabia’s worst instincts. Saudi charities stepped up their work around the world after Khomeini came to power and threatened Saudi pre-eminence in the Muslim world. Both religious moderation in Saudi Arabia and stability in the Middle East, home to seven million Indian workers, will remain elusive as long as these two ideological states remain locked in combat in a bid to influence the region.
Finally, Iran directly threatens India’s natural ally in the Middle East—Israel. Over the past two decades, New Delhi has deepened ties with Jerusalem spanning technology, defense, counterterrorism and agriculture.
At the same time India has maintained a working relationship with Iran, which India needs for access to landlocked Afghanistan denied by Pakistan. But it’s in India’s own interest to take Israeli fears about a possible nuclear Iran seriously.
When it comes to the battle between Sunni and Shia jihadists in the Middle East, India should not take sides. Rather, it should wish for, and to the extent possible work toward, a pox on both their houses.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a columnist for WSJ.com.