By Tufail Ahmad, New Age Islam
22 December 2015
There are definitive signs that radicalisation of Indian Muslim youths in favour of the Islamic State (ISIS) is increasing by the day. While concerns over radicalisation of Muslims have been reported from many parts of India including Assam, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, India needs to focus its counter-radicalisation efforts on the two key regions surrounding Mumbai and Hyderabad. During the course of 2014 and 2015, these are the two regions of India that have emerged as a cause of concern due to pro-ISIS activities.
On December 21, it emerged that three more youths from Mumbai – Mohsin Sheikh, Ayaz Sultan and Wajid Sheikh – have left India to join the ISIS. Ayaz, a college dropout, was enrolled in a computer course while Wajid is an auto driver and Mohsin a graduate. The three are in addition to the four youths who left Mumbai last year to join the jihadist group: Saheem Tanki, Aman Tandel, Areeb Majeed and Fahad Shaikh. Of the four, Areeb Majeed returned after he was injured fighting for ISIS in Syria and ended up in Turkey for medical treatment. It is worth mentioning that these four youths had left India about two months before ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself as the Emir-ul-Momineen (Leader of the Faithful Muslims) on June 30, 2014.
Before Muslims fall into jihadist radicalisation, the intellectual atmosphere of the society in which they live is taken over by radicalising organisations. For example, in Mumbai and its surrounding areas including Pune, a large number of Islamic clerics from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind have been engendering grievances among Muslims. The Jamiat uses religious sentiments regarding the need for quota in government jobs and educational institutions to further political ends. Unfortunately, Islam, which as a universal religion is supposed to work for all sections of humanity, has become another sectarian ideology in the hands of Islamic groups like Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind.
Mumbai is the base of Islamist televangelist Maulana Zakir Naik whose speeches and videos are responsible for radicalising Muslims across India and in several parts of the world. Mumbai is also the headquarters of the Raza Academy, a militant Barelvi group which mobilizes Muslims in Mumbai and in many parts of India. The Raza Academy has branches in several countries. It raises religiously sensitive issues and has expressed its militant inclination to use violence, notably in the case of Salman Rushdie. On the theological principles such as blasphemy (criticisms of the life of Prophet Muhammad), apostasy (leaving Islam) and Shia Muslims (who are deemed infidels by many Islamic groups), there is no difference between the Barelvi groups such as Raza Academy and the ISIS. Different Raza Academy websites clearly state that Shias are not Muslims.
Also, in the Mumbai region, popular Urdu dailies such as Roznama Inquilab and Roznama Urdu Times play a significant role in radicalising Muslim youths. In Roznama Inquilab, columns written by Islamic cleric Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rehmani have stressed the need for industrial-scale Islamisation to counter apostasy. Islamic Shariah's principle of apostasy (leaving Islam) is contrary to the democratic values of the Indian Constitution. In an article dated December 26, Roznama Urdu Times cited the Quran and Hadiths (traditions of Prophet Muhammad) to justify that Indian Muslims reverting to Hinduism be beheaded. It wrote: "The first interpreter of the Quran, Prophet Muhammad, has clearly ordered the killing of a person becoming apostate."The editors of such Urdu newspapers should be jailed forthwith for publishing such murderous articles.
It is not surprising that Anis Ansari, a Muslim youth from Mumbai, was planning to attack the American school in Bandra, an area of Mumbai. Ansari, a techie who was trying to find out how to prepare a thermite bomb, was arrested because his Facebook chats with a jihadi youth in the United States was detected by the American intelligence. In August 2015, a journalist from Mumbai, Zuber Ahmed Khan, was arrested in Delhi after he visited the Iraqi Embassy to seek visa in order to join the ISIS. According to a report in The Indian Express dated August 8, "Zuber Ahmed Khan, who claimed that he was editor-in-chief of a newspaper, Journalist for International Peace, had put up social media posts, saying he planned to join ISIS. He had said he would visit the embassy to 'submit my memorandum to Caliphate Baghdadi' with the 'desire to join the ISIS as a spokesperson for foreign affairs…."
Mumbai and the neighbouring city of Pune are also centres of the Dawat-e-Islami, international Barelvi group with deep connections in Pakistan. Bookshops affiliated with Dawat-e-Islami sell CDs, DVDs and religious books from Pakistan. Dawat-e-Islami's role in radicalising Muslim youths came to be known internationally after Malik Mumtaz Qadri, an elite security command deployed to protect Salman Taseer, the liberal governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, murdered Taseer in January 2011 for advocating reforms in Islam's blasphemy laws. Recently, Pune has seen some pro-ISIS activity. In mid-December, it emerged that a 16-year-old Muslim girl with convent education and from a well-to-do family of Pune was in touch with ISIS contacts on social media and wanted to join the Islamic State. She came on the radar of the Indian intelligence agencies following the interrogation of Mohammed Sirajuddin, a manager of the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) who was arrested in Jaipur for recruiting youths for ISIS.
One more case has emerged from Pune that should be of concern. A Hindu man from the city left home a year ago, travelled through different parts of the country, received Islamic education and converted to Islam under the influence of extremist Islamic groups. It seems that he was involved with the Tablighi Jamaat, which is a revivalist Islamic group; he may not have any connection to the ISIS. However, it is the use of social media in his case that is interesting. According to journalist Chandan Haygunde, Rakesh (name changed) revealed: "A Muslim student in my class became my good friend. We used to discuss Islam. It aroused my curiosity towards the religion. I joined a few WhatsApp groups on which Islam was discussed. Then I started four WhatsApp groups of my own."
Other than the Mumbai-Pune region, Hyderabad has also been in news headlines for its connection with pro-ISIS radicalisation. The southern metropolis is basically ruled by Islamist politicians Asaduddin Owaisi and Akbaruddin Owaisi, whose speeches radicalise Muslim youths towards an Islamist cause. In an earlier article elsewhere, this writer has argued that Asaduddin Owaisi's rise in Indian politics – shaped by the political use of Islam – is similar to the rise of M. A. Jinnah who went on to establish the Islamist state of Pakistan in 1947. The Muslim intellectual discourse in the Hyderabad region is shaped by a number of Urdu newspapers and Islamist politics of the Owaisi brothers. Areeb Majeed, the Mumbai youth who returned from Syria, told the police that he was radicalised by the speeches of Akbaruddin Owaisi.
Not only the Owaisi brothers and Urdu newspapers, Islamic clerics too play a role in radicalising Muslims. For example, after the jihadist attacks on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in January this year, Islamic cleric Maulana Naseeruddin led a funeral prayer in absentia for the terrorists at the Eidgah in Saeedabad area of Hyderabad. In his prayer a video of which is available on the website of the Washington D.C.-based Middle East Media Research Institute (memritv.org), Maulana Naseeruddin prays to Allah: "May Allah forgive Said and Cherif [Kouachi], the two boys who were martyred while taking revenge on the enemies of the Prophet Muhammad. May Allah provide sustenance to their fathers and mothers." He told the Muslims who attended the prayer: "The two boys who attacked the offices of [Charlie Hebdo] and killed the French cartoonists did the right thing, according to human values as well as Shariah law."
It is not surprising then that youths from the Hyderabad region have been attracted to the cause of international jihad. Sometime in August-September 2014, 17 Muslim youths from the Hyderabad region were stopped in Kolkata from where they were headed to join the Islamic State in Iraq. Journalist Abhishek Bhalla interviewed one of the youths, Saifuddin (name changed), who had left his heavily pregnant wife to join the ISIS. "After watching ISIS videos and interacting with radicals, I wanted to go to Syria. Now I realise I was walking into a death trap," revealed Saifuddin, the 26-year-old who has an MBA degree. It appears that another group of four, who may have been part of the 17 youths stopped in Kolkata, tried to join the ISIS. A former Google employee, software engineer Munawad Salman, was arrested in Hyderabad in October 2014 for trying to join ISIS. In January this year, it emerged that a 19-year-old Muslim woman from Hyderabad, who was perhaps based in Qatar and decided to join the ISIS, abandoned her trip to Syria mid-way in Turkey and returned to India.
The most high-profile case is that of Afsha Jabeen, the mother of three daughters from a Hindu convert to Islam, who was deported by the United Arab Emirates. Afsha Jabeen was arrested on September 11 this year as she arrived at the international airport in Hyderabad. According to an unidentified Indian official, "The 38-year-old woman, identified as Afsha Jabeen alias 'Nicky Joseph', has been posing as a British national while trying to lure young men and women through the social media into joining the dreaded outfit [i.e. ISIS]." She was arrested following a long intelligence cooperation between India, the UAE and Britain. It appears that Afsha Jabeen's name cropped up during the interrogation of Salman Mohiuddin, a 32-year-old youth who was deported from the United States to India. He was later stopped at the Hyderabad airport as he was headed for the Dubai for an onward journey to Syria to join ISIS.
In April this year, it was reported that Mohammad Haneef Waseem, a 27-year-old engineering graduate from Hyderabad who had joined the ISIS in February, was killed while fighting in Syria. It appears Waseem went to Syria directly from London. On May 6 this year, it emerged that at least 14 Muslim youths, who were on their way to Syria and Iraq to join the ISIS, were stopped at the Hyderabad airport. These youths belonged to different engineering colleges in the Hyderabad region. In the Hyderabad region, police officials have been generally lenient in dealing with the youths some of whom might have sleep-walked into the ISIS trap. In this region, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has launched Operation Chakrayuh to counsel the affected youths and there are some indications that Muslim parents are helping the local police to prevent their sons and daughters from falling into the hands of ISIS.
According to a media report dated November 19, nearly 150 Muslims, most of them from south India, are under the surveillance of Indian security agencies for their pro-ISIS activities. There is some overlap in connections involving Indian youths joining Al-Qaeda, the Indian Mujahideen and the ISIS. Currently, Indian Muslims are working with the ISIS as well as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hyderabad should also be mentioned for something positive. It is from the orthodox corners of this metropolis that Sania Mirza emerged to be an international tennis icon. For the city's Muslims, it is Sania Mirza, not the Owaisi brothers, who should be a role model.
Tufail Ahmad is Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC.