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The Rise of Ideological Jihadists: And Why India Should Be Really Worried



By Tufail Ahmad

21 August 2014

Almost all terror attacks in Jammu & Kashmir and elsewhere in India could be attributed to the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, as well as to major Pakistan-based terror organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad. Wait, that is no longer the case. India is now witnessing the rise of a new generation of jihadists, who identify themselves with groups based in the Middle East. They are motivated by the ideology of jihad— both through social media networks as well as by local recruiters—and are not sponsored by Pakistan. As per intelligence estimates that appeared in the media in July, up to 80 Indian Muslim youths are reportedly fighting alongside jihadists in Iraq and Syria. The argument that Indian Muslims are not part of Osama bin Laden’s global jihad now stands invalidated by the turn of events.

In the summer of 2013, a new anti-India group began coming to the fore: Ansar ut-Tawheed Fi Bilad Al-Hind (Supporters of the Islamic Monotheism in India). It released a number of videos in which nearly a dozen youths from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh were shown training somewhere in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. On 18 July this year, the 20th of the fasting month of Ramadan, a Jihadi account on Twitter released a photograph of Anwer Bhatkal, a relative of Indian Mujahideen co-founder Riyaz Bhatkal, announcing his death while fighting in Afghanistan.

These Muslim men are being recruited both internally in India and from abroad. As reported by journalist Praveen Swami, four Muslim youths from the suburbs of Mumbai— Arif Majeed, Fahad Sheikh, Shaheen Tanki and Aman Tandel— flew on May 23 for Baghdad as part of a group of 22 Shia pilgrims and joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the terror group headed by jihadist commander Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. A few youths from Tamil Nadu who were based in Singapore were recruited by jihadists and are now fighting in Syria, notably Fakkurudeen, who took his wife and three children to the jihadist battlefield. In addition to the ideological jihadists who may or may not be recruited by Pakistan- based groups, the arrest in April—along with the Chennai train blasts in May—of Sri Lankan national Shakir aka Zakir Hussein by Chennai police revealed transnational terror links involving Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan and Malaysia to target Israeli and US consulates in Bangalore and Chennai, hatched by Pakistan’s ISI and involving a Pakistani diplomat in Colombo.

On 29 June, an audio statement was issued by Al-Baghdadi. He declared himself as the Caliph, or head of the Islamic State, and demanded Bai’yah (an oath of fealty) from all Muslims. Among the jihadists, the position of Caliph, known formally as Emir- ul-Momineen (Leader of the Faithful Muslims), was until now held only by Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader from Afghanistan. Al-Baghdadi’s ISIS has released a global map where it aims to enforce the Islamic Sharia rule. The map includes the land of Khorasan, which covers Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka.


The Jihadist Threat to India Is Real

Al-Baghdadi is considered a terrorist by all good-intentioned people in the West and the East, including by a large number of Islamic clerics across the world—except by Indian cleric Maulana Salman Al-Husaini Nadwi. In early July, Nadwi, an Islamic scholar at the Nadwatul Ulema seminary of Lucknow, wrote an open letter greeting him on his assuming the role of Caliph. In the letter sent via messaging service WhatsApp and in later statements in Hindi and Urdu, Nadwi referred to Al-Baghdadi as Emir-ul-Momineen and prayed—‘May Allah protect you’, spoke of ‘good news of victories’ in Iraq, urged jihadist organisations in Syria to sink their differences and forge unity, and advocated that Muslims ‘abide by’ the Emir-ul- Momineen ‘if he follows Allah’s Sharia’.

Nadwi’s message is certain to motivate hundreds of Indian Muslim youths on the path of global jihad, especially because the cleric heads an organisation of Muslim youth called Jamiat- u-Shabab-il-Islam, which must now be placed on the watch of Indian intelligence agencies. An especially worrisome fact is that Nadwi wrote another letter to Saudi Arabia requesting the Saudis to train five lakh Sunni Muslim youth from India to fight against Shia militias in Iraq, according to the media reports emerging in July.

Anjuman-e-Haideri, a Delhi-based organisation of Shia Muslims, placed advertisements in Urdu newspapers calling on volunteers to defend holy shrines in Iraq. Ali Mirza of Anjuman-e-Haideri said his group will register one million volunteers. One lakh Shias registered; of them, 6,000 volunteers have applied for Iraqi visas. The volunteers say their mission is humanitarian. Zeeshan Haider, a youth, described his trip as “a religious duty”. Haji Mirza Qasim Raza, a volunteer, said: “There is nothing that I will not do to protect Karbala... including laying down my life.” Jahan Ara, a widow with failing eyesight, said: “There’s no better way to spend one’s last days”. 25 per cent of the volunteers are women. Iran-backed Shia cleric Kalb-e-Jawwad supported women’s participation in battlefields, arguing: “There are misconceptions about Islam being very limiting for women”. The risk is that Indian Shias visiting Iraq could be recruited by Iran-backed Shia militias. For Shia nurses, doctors and others, the best deed is to help the sick in India; or, they should go as part of Red Cross, not led by sectarian group like Anjuman-e-Haideri.

Social media reports and images indicate that some public demonstrations in favour of the Al-Baghdadi-led ISIS took place in the states of Tamil Nadu and Jammu & Kashmir. According to one report, nearly two dozen Muslim youths posed for a picture wearing ISIS T-shirts in front of the ‘Periya Pallivasal’ (Big Mosque) in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, from where some youths have already gone to fight in Syria. Reports from Jammu & Kashmir reveal that masked Kashmiri youths held at least two public demonstrations carrying ISIS flags in Srinagar: the first was at the Jamia Masjid on 11 July and a second was on the day of Eid-ul-Fitr, 29 July. There were reports in the Indian media that Muslim youths from Kerala could be headed to join groups like ISIS.

In recent years, Al-Qaeda has carried out a considerable media campaign to recruit youth from India. In June 2013, Al-Qaeda had released a video—titled “Why is there no storm in your river?”—in which militant cleric Maulana Asim Umar expressed exasperation that while Muslim youth from all over the world were fighting in Syria and elsewhere, Indian Muslims were not.

Last June, Al-Qaeda released another video devoted to the Kashmir issue, in which Asim Umar exhorted: “Who took away Kalashnikovs from the hands of my Kashmiri Muslims and handed them stones and pieces of soil?”


Not All Terrorists Are Jihadists or Islamists

India now needs to worry about the threat from ideological jihadists. There are clear indications that the ISIS is attracting jihadists from Pakistan and India. Their guiding philosophy is rooted in Ghazwa-e-Hind (the Battle of India), a statement in which Prophet Muhammad prophesied that two groups from the Ummah will be saved from the fire of Hell—one group will rise from India and march on to join the forces of the second group led by Jesus who will be reborn in the present-day Israel to establish the global Islamic rule. The Ghazwa-e-Hind prophecy is widely quoted in the literature and videos of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda’s Pakistani commanders as well as by mainstream Pakistani jihadist ideologues such as Zaid Hamid, Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and Jaish-e- Muhammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar. Now, India is seeing the emergence of this class of jihadists who ideologically connect with those in Iraq and Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.


Five Arguments on the Roots of Jihadism

After 9/11, Western commentators and liberal Muslim writers sought to dismiss the reality of jihadist terrorism by arguing that the terrorists were inspired by Egyptian jihadist theorist Syed Qutb and Jamaat-e-Islami founder Syed Abul A’la Maududi. Those among the liberal commentators who sought to criticise Islamists and jihadists were rejected, ridiculed and accused of spreading Islamophobia by those who are soft on the Islamists. However, a review of videos and publications released by jihadist organisations reveals that these groups do not mention any of these scholars. Invariably, the jihadist literature and videos justify jihad on the basis of teachings from the Koran, the Sunnah (traditions of Prophet Muhammad) and precedents established by the four Righteous Caliphs who succeeded the prophet. Let’s take up some arguments being debated regarding jihad.


Argument 1: Islam Promotes Pluralism and Co-Existence

Whenever a terror attack takes place, notably on Sufi shrines in Pakistan or on Shia Muslims elsewhere, critics of Islamism are told to shut up by supporters of everyday Islamism who argue that Islam promotes pluralism and co-existence. They cite the Quranic verse: ‘To you your religion and to me mine’ (Verse 109: 6). However, this interpretation is rejected by the jihadists. Nawa-i-Afghan Jihad (Voice of the Afghan Jihad), an Urdu-language magazine published from somewhere in Pakistan, carried an article titled ‘The Success of ‘Democratic Islamists’ in the Elections of Tunisia and Egypt’, written by Hafiz Ehsan ul Haq. It argued that the concerned verse was revealed not to promote pluralism but to ensure that the Islamic way of life did not mix with the lifestyles of non- Muslims of Mecca.

Haq explained how Prophet Muhammad rejected an offer from non-Muslims of Mecca to live together and share power: ‘Addressing all faithful Muslims, the Quran has said with full clarity that Allah has chosen the complete religion—Islam— for them. Prophet Muhammad was sent with the religion, and spent his days and nights for the implementation of that religion only. He rejected an offer from Kuffar [infidels/polytheists] of Mecca to rule [in collaboration] because it is impossible to run a polytheist system along with Islam based on compromise.’


Argument 2: Suicide Attacks Are Not Permitted

In Pakistan, the Taliban have bombed a series of mosques, shrines and holy places belonging to Ahmadi Muslims, Shias and Sufi mystics. In 2014, their ideological cousins in Iraq and Syria are demolishing historical mosques, tombs of prophets and shrines revered both by Shias and Sunnis alike. However, a key argument by those who fail to condemn the jihadists is: bombing mosques is un-Islamic and suicide attacks are not permitted by Islam. This argument has become a first line defence in our societies for jihadists. However, the jihadists are themselves overturning this argument by citing incidents from early Islamic era and based on authentic Islamic literature.

In 2013, the jihadist website Minbar Al- Tawhid Wal-Jihad published a fatwa about the permissibility of bombing synagogues and churches, written by Mauritian radical cleric Sheikh Abu Mundhir Al-Shinqiti. He summarised Islamic jurists’ opinion that attacking houses of worship is illegitimate, based on the Quran: ‘Had Allah not defended some men by the might of others, the monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which His praise is daily celebrated would have been utterly destroyed’ (Verse 22:40).

However, Al-Shinqiti went on to reject this argument, citing medieval scholar Ibn Al-Qaym Al-Jawziyya’s opinion, that the verse refers only to pre-Islamic era, and adding that since Judaism and Christianity lost their validity with the birth of Islam, their houses of worship also lost their protected status. Al-Shinqiti explained that only two types of worship places are protected by Islam: those belonging to (non-Muslim) monotheists living as dhimmis (second-class subjects) in a Muslim state, and secluded monasteries; but depending on circumstances, churches and synagogues of Christians and Jews can be attacked. It can be inferred from this interpretation that if polytheist Hindus were living in a Muslim state as dhimmis, their temples will not be protected because such protection is available only to monotheist non-Muslims.

In December 2013, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Movement of the Pakistani Taliban) released a posthumous video of its commander Qari Hussain Ahmed Mehsud. In the video, Mehsud answered popular criticism of the Taliban by Pakistani writers over the bombing of mosques, noting: “Prophet Muhammad declared jihad in Madina, demolished mosques of the Munafiqeen [hypocrites].” The issue of mosques built by the Munafiqeen in Medina has been discussed in verses 107-110 of the Quran’s chapter Al-Tawbah.

Citing incidents from the era of Prophet Muhammad, the jihadists are also rejecting the argument that suicide bombings are not permitted. Most Islamic scholars, including the jihadists, are unanimous that suicide for personal reasons is not permitted in Islam. However, the jihadists argue that suicide bombings are permitted for establishing Sharia rule. Writing in a Taliban magazine in 2013, Islamist writer Muhammad Qasim cited two Quranic verses to rationalise ‘martyrdom’ attacks: ‘‘and this life of the world is only amusement and play! Verily, the home of the Hereafter, that is the life indeed, i.e. the eternal life that will never end...’ (Verse 29:64); ‘Think not of those who are killed in the way of Allah as dead. Nay, they are alive, with their Lord’ (Verse 3:169).’


Argument 3: Islam Is a Peaceful Religion

Soon after Prophet Muhammad died, a war for succession and bloodshed began. In a message to his followers at a place called Ghadeer—the veracity of which is accepted by all scholars but Sunnis interpret it differently—the prophet had nominated his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor. However soon after the prophet’s death, his companions argued that the successor (caliph) be chosen through consultation. Abu Bakr became the first caliph, followed by Umar ibn Khattab and Usman ibn Affan. When the time came to choose the fourth caliph, there was disagreement and the caliphate went to Ali. This dispute led to the birth of two sects of Islam: Sunnis who believe in that succession under which Ali is the fourth caliph and Shias who believe that Ali is the first caliph, succeeded by an entirely different set of imams (leaders). This led to a bloody struggle in Islam.

Except for Abu Bakr, all the caliphs and twelve Shia imams were murdered or poisoned in the wake of the war at the Battle of Karbala.

Today, most of the jihadist bloodshed that has emerged can be attributed to this conflict: Sunni versus Shia. The conflict is forged by Iranian and Saudi roles in Muslim countries, especially in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran. Iran, predominantly Shia, has nurtured a number of terrorist groups including Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia, primarily Sunni, has backed Sunni jihadist groups across the world to counter the Iranian influence. US President Barack Obama’s decision to alter the course of American foreign policy in the Middle East made the Saudis so insecure that Riyadh backed jihadist groups like ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The current wave of bloodshed in Syria and Iraq can be attributed to Tehran and Riyadh, along with the US.

In the early Islamic era, Prophet Muhammad himself took part in 27 wars. It is often argued that the prophet upheld compassion and justice for all; and indeed there are incidents from his life to prove that. However, a major argument forwarded by apologists of Islamism is that the Prophet pardoned everyone after the Victory of Mecca. This is historically incorrect, or only partially true. In 2012, Al-Qaeda released an audio lecture of Ustad Ahmad Farooq, who heads Al-Qaeda’s Preaching and Media Department for Pakistan. In the lecture, Farooq lauded Malik Mumtaz Qadri, an elite security commando who was deployed to protect Punjab’s liberal governor Salman Taseer but instead assassinated him for advocating reforms in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Farooq criticised enemy forces for advocating that the Taliban and other jihadist forces should show patience and register their protests peacefully. ‘This is not the path that the Prophet himself taught us,’ Ustad Farooq noted: ‘On the Day of Victory of Mecca, when all people were granted amnesty, the prophet was informed that there were about 10 people, including women, who had committed blasphemy against him. He ordered that even if they are found hanging on the curtains of the Kaaba (the Holy Mosque of Mecca), they deserve no respect, and their blood should be spilled; and indeed it was spilled’. This blasphemy law has become a nightmare for Christians, Ahmadi Muslims and others in Pakistan and other Islamic countries.


Argument 4: Jihad Means Personal Striving

In purely etymological terms, jihad means striving. Islamic scholars have argued that jihad means striving to become a better Muslim. It is true that jihad also means striving but in popular Muslim imagination it carries only one meaning: military fighting to establish Islamic rule. Almost every video and e-book released by jihadist groups quotes directly from the Quran to argue that jihad means to procure arms, to train and be prepared, to fight and establish the rule of Allah on earth. A verse frequently cited in jihadist videos is: ‘Fight them until no corruption (Kufr) exists and all religion (worship) is for Allah’ (Verse 8:39). This verse was cited in a 2013 video from the Manba-ul-Jihad Studio of the Haqqani Network of the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Mohammad Omar.

There are similar verses being cited by the terrorists. In 2013, a TTP video cited a verse: ‘Fight against them. Allah will torment them at your hands and will humiliate them, and will help you against them, and will heal the breasts of the Muslims’ (Verse 9:14). Last year, the Qaeda al-Jihad fi Bilad-e- Khurasan (Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan) released a video lecture of militant cleric Maulana Asim Umar in which he cited Quranic verses arguing that Islam should prevail over all other ways of life: “And if Allah did not check one set of people by means of another, the Earth would indeed be full of mischief. But Allah is full of bounty to the Alameen” (mankind, Jinns, and all that exist) (Verse 2:251). Umar explained the meaning: “If jihad is not performed, everything on Earth would be filled with corruption.”

Those who argue that Islam teaches moderation cite a Quranic verse: ‘there is no compulsion in (acceptance of) religion’ (Verse 2:256). However, the jihadists are arguing that this verse is applicable to non-Muslims who must live under Sharia rule. A year ago, the TTP released a video of a Pakistan-based Burmese militant scholar Mufti Abuzar Azaam, who clarified that as per this verse, no Christian, Jews, or non-Muslim can be forced to accept Islam but went on to argue that when Muslims go to war, they first do Dawah (invite non-Muslims to the fold of Islam). Arguing that only Islam offers the principle of ‘live and let live’, he however insisted that there is indeed compulsion for Muslims. He quoted Prophet Muhammad as saying: ‘Beat up your children when they are 10-years-old to offer their prayers if they do not do so’. Azaam’s interpretation means: a) there is indeed compulsion in religion insofar as Muslims are concerned; b) non-Muslims cannot be forced to convert to Islam, but must live as dhimmis (second-class subjects) under the Islamic rule, the only permissible system of governance on the earth of Allah and their security will be guaranteed in lieu of jizya (tax on non-Muslim subjects).

In June 2013, Asim Umar argued in an Al-Qaeda video that non-Muslims cannot be forced to accept Islam but went on to argue that Islam must prevail over all other systems of government, which means that Islam does not imagine a situation in which it can coexist with non-Muslims in power. Umar cited the Koran: “And if there comes any power in the way [of establishing an Islamic Sharia system] then it was ordered [by the Koran]: ‘whoever comes in the way of this system, do Qital [fight to kill] against them until their power is broken, their rule gets ended, and then establish the lifestyle world over in accordance with this Koran’ (Verse 2:190).” An internet forum on Facebook associated with the TTP, in a post dated 5 March, rejected the argument that there is ‘no terrorism in Islam’. It quoted a Quranic verse: ‘If anyone killed an innocent it would be as if he had killed the whole of mankind. And one who saved a life would be as if he had saved the lives of whole mankind’ (Verse 5:32). In jihadists’ perspective, jihad simply is fighting to establish the peace of Islam to save mankind from polytheism and other such corruptions.


Argument 5: Islam Protects Minorities; Quran Advocates Peace

If one criticises Islam, the pro-Islamists in our neighbourhoods retort that Islam protects minorities. This retort is indeed correct, but a deeper examination reveals that in order to enjoy the protection of Islam, non-Muslim minorities must live under the Islamic rule and pay jizya. In other words, non- Muslims cannot be rulers. This is the precise jihadist argument based on which a number of Muslim countries do not allow their non-Muslim citizens to become the head of the state. Under the constitution of Pakistan, a non-Muslim Pakistani citizen cannot be the head of the state. Under a constitutional amendment in 2008, the Maldives barred non-Muslims from becoming citizens. For several decades, Egypt has constitutionally barred its non-Muslim citizens from occupying top positions in government. Several Islamic countries do not permit their own non-Muslim citizens to become the head of the state. This is also exactly the case with blasphemy laws prevailing in several Islamic countries form Sudan to Pakistan, with Islamists arguing that blasphemy of Prophet Muhammad cannot be even pardoned by him.

Islamic clerics and average Muslims argue that the Koran advocates peace. Indeed, it does. There are hundreds of verses in the Koran that advocate love, peace and brotherhood. Islam is a peaceful religion, and the majority of Muslims are peaceful. However, the majority does not exist meaningfully: it takes just one cleric to stand up, deliver a lecture and shut up an entire village; the majority ignores him, thereby allowing him to rule over them; and a few who follow him truly could become jihadists.

While there are hundreds of verses in favour of peace and brotherhood, there are also numerous Islamic justifications for armed fighting and capture of women in the times of war, as Boko Haram demonstrated in Nigeria. So, there are others who argue the need for admitting this duality of the situation: Islam is and isn’t peaceful—both at the same, as is illustrated in numerous verses.


The Case for Islamic Reform

In Islam, the concept of god is dual: as Rahman and Raheem (gracious and merciful), and as Jabbar and Quahhar (mighty and punishing). The need of the hour is that Indian Islamic scholars sit down and think through the relevance of the Quranic verses for the modern age, and assess what kind of teachings Muslim youths, attracted to jihadist forces like ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, are imbibing from some verses. For meaningful Islamic reformation to begin, Islamic scholars and college- going Muslim youth must admit that there are two types of verses: those advocating peace, love and pluralism; and those that contradict these teachings.

Fortunately, India has a strong legacy of Islamic reform. After the Fall of Delhi in 1857, there were two responses from within the Muslim community to revive the fortunes of Indian Muslims: one group of reformers was led by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who stressed the need for learning European sciences and for promoting a scientific temperament among Muslims; he wrote an interpretation of the Quran and established a college for modern education, now known as the Aligarh Muslim University. The second response was led by Maulana Qasim Nanautavi who believed in Islamic revivalism as a panacea for the problems of Muslims and established the Darul Uloom Deoband, the seminary producing obscurantism and anti- women Fatwas. In the post-Independence era, Maharashtra- based reformer Hamid Dalwai articulated a better model of reform as a liberty project for Indian Muslims by incorporating enlightenment ideas and arguing for the need to think beyond the frameworks of secularism and minorityism.

Currently, a host of Islamic scholars and activists such as Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, late Asghar Ali Engineer, Daud Sharifa, Shaista Amber, Zeenat Shaukat Ali, Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, Uzma Naheed and others are working for reform: their work is essentially within the framework of Islam. However, Muslims must also realise that change comes from external forces: interaction through foreign ideas generated by travel, globalisation, wars and technologies. The current waves of conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan region should also remind Indian Muslims that Islamic reform is urgent, and such a task must be accomplished by Islamic scholars from India. This is because India is the only country where Muslims have consistently experienced democratic values for more than half a century. There is absolutely no Muslim nation that can compare with this extraordinary experience of Indian Muslims on almost all conceivable parameters: political and religious freedom, educational and economic opportunities, freedom of thought and expression, individual liberty or right to form political association. The constitution of India contains hugely relevant ideas from the Enlightenment to address Muslim issues.

However, given this context, it is a tragedy that nearly one hundred Muslims from India are fighting alongside jihadists in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Indian Muslims must admit that there is a problem of jihadism in our midst.

Tufail Ahmad is a former journalist with the BBC Urdu Service and Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC