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The radical sweep

The radical sweep

Author: Sandeep Unnithan and Uday Mahurkar
Publication: India Today
Date: July 31, 2008
URL: http://indiatoday.digitaltoday.in/index.php?option=com_content&issueid=65&task=view&id=12343&sectionid=30&Itemid=1

When Safdar Nagori was a 15-year-old teenager studying at the Ujjain Polytechnic, he came in contact with Hafiz Nehmatullah Nadvi, the imam of Ujjain's Fateh Masjid and a known leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH).

Nadvi individually counselled the young son of the police officer from Madhya Pradesh and very soon, Nagori was inducted into the radical Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

When he was arrested in Indore in March, Nagori, 38, held a diploma in mechanical engineering and a masters degree in journalism and mass communications. But he also headed the ultra-extremist SIMI, dedicated to the jihadi ideals of the Taliban.

Nagori's organisation had trained and indoctrinated youth-doctors, engineers and web designers- for assassinations and planting bombs. The youths were nabbed before they could execute their macabre plans.

All of them subscribed to the hardline Wahhabi ideology of the Deoband school which practices a rigid, puritanical version of Islam. They loathe what they view as contamination of the faith by Sufi practices and regard the Prophet as a messenger, to be respected but not revered.

Deobandis and their missionary wing, the Tablighi Jamaat-distinguished by their long white tunics, turbans and flowing beards-call for a pan-Islamic identity unencumbered by nation or region.

They are in sharp contrast to the Barelvi school to which over two-thirds of India's 15 crore Muslims subscribe to and who follow the Islam enriched by its contact with fertile local cultures, revere the Prophet and revel in Sufi traditions like dargah visit, music and mysticism.

The struggle is almost as old as their origin-both schools sprang from Uttar Pradesh towns, Deoband and Bareilly, in the 19th century. Interestingly, the differences between the Deoband-Tablighi Jamaat and Ahle Hadis schools on one hand and the Barelvi school on the other are deep.

Deep enough to often result in physical fights. The Barelvis have a group called Rifai Committee whose only job is to counter the radical propaganda of the Deobandis regarding Islamic tenets.

The attacks on Barelvi school's followers in Ajmer Sharif, Hyderabad and Malegaon were believed to have been organised by ultra Wahhabi groups which follow strong Deobandi or Ahle Hadis tenets.

"The terror that is being inflicted in India is not Islamic terror, but Wahhabi terror," says Mohammed Hamid, a government servant in Nagpur who runs a moderate Islamic organisation IMAN (Indian Muslim Association-Noori) which fights Deobandi fundamentalism.

Except for the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993, carried out in revenge for the communal riots in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, Barelvis have not been involved in any terror attacks.

Whereas a majority of terror groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed, HUJI, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Harkat ul-Ansar owe allegiance to the three subgroups of Wahhabism in India.

"Wahhabis should explain as to why almost all the terrorists are invariably their followers," says Abdullah Patel, a Barelvi preacher from Bharuch. In Pakistan, another frontline state, where Deobandis have declared war on the moderates, the war is predictably a little more vicious.

A decapitation explosion at a religious congregation in Karachi on April 11, 2006, killed the entire senior leadership of the Sunni Tehrik, an anti-Deobandi-Salafi Sunni organisation of Pakistan.

Fifty other innocent civilians, many of them lower-level leaders of the Tehrik, were killed in the explosion. In India too, Barelvis have been at the receiving end of terror attacks. A blast at the Ajmer dargah in October last year, frequented by Barelvis, killed three worshippers.

A vast majority of terrorists invariably follow the Deoband-Tablighi or the Ahle Hadis tenets. "Terror outfits seem to draw their raw material from these groups," says G.L. Singhal, former ACP of Ahmedabad Crime Branch.

These groups do not necessarily tell their cadre to don suicide jackets and blow themselves up for the cause of Islam. But the security threat from them stems from challenges in dealing with people who dream of recreating a universal Muslim community cut from all existing societies, including Muslim society.

"These second-generation Muslims-some of them, of course, not all of them-feel alienated from a pristine culture of their grandfathers. They don't care about how one lives in a Moroccan village, they feel so alienated by the modern Western culture.

And by not reverting, but by joining a neofundamentalist movement, which tells them, 'Don't care about society, any kind of society; don't care about culture; don't care about politics; just try to be a good Muslim and to recreate the true Muslim community,' they feel at home.

They would say, this is an identity for me," argues Olivier Roy, author of The Failure of Political Islam. It is to this new identity that fundamentalists address the injustice against the community. In recent years, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Mumbai riots of 2003 and the Gujarat riots of 2002 have formed powerful propaganda tools.

On the face of it, there seems to be no contest. The non-Wahhabis still command nearly 80 per cent of the Muslim community and are seemingly in no danger. Yet, their moderate voice is well in danger of being swamped.

From Barelvi mosques in the north to ritual art forms in the south, Wahhabis and their offshoots are threatening years of assimilation. When a more organised and vocal minority takes over, mostly with a petro-dollar funded message, choreography and persona, a hapless majority fights back weakly.

"The Wahhabis are conducting an aggressive campaign of mobilisation for a particular brand of Islam with the other sects in a permanent defensive posture. Their's is a violent interpretation of jihad and has the enormous potential to create and sustain mobilisation and recruiting base of extremist movements in India," says Ajai Sahni, executive director, Institute for Conflict Management.

"From just 28 websites eight years ago, there are over 1,000 websites dedicated to spreading Wahhabi ideology," says Shabeeb Rizvi, a professor at Rizvi College in Mumbai who researches Islamic ideologies in India.

Even as Barelvi mosques struggle for funding, rows of shiny new Tablighi mosques funded by Saudi money have sprung up across the country from Haryana to Kerala and southern Gujarat to West Bengal.

"Most Barelvi Sunni mosques are in a dilapidated condition so the hardliners donate money for repairs, appoint their own priest and slowly begin to take over," says Rizvi. About 30 per cent Barelvi mosques have been similarly taken over by front organisations of Wahhabi ideology over the past decade.

But now, over the past few years, hundreds of Barelvi mosques have put up signboards warning the Tablighis, Deobandis, Jamaat-e-Islami, Ahle Hadis, their preachers as well as worshippers to keep out.

The Deoband Tablighi preachers, however, deny that their ideology is spreading fanaticism amongst Muslim youth. Says Mohammed Patel, a Tablighi preacher: "How can an ideology or a seminary be held responsible for the violent behaviour of a few?"

He compares the Tablighis to religious movements like the Swadhyaya Parivar or Gayatri Parivar. "What they are doing for Hindus we are doing for Muslims in order to bring them to the right path. What's wrong with it?"

The corollaries appear out of place if one were to have a look as to what they preach in their madrasas in Gujarat. Symbols of exclusive Islam are glorified and paragons of inclusive Islam, run down. Emperor Akbar is sold as an "untrue Muslim" and Aurangzeb an "ideal" Muslim ruler.

In Gujarat, clashes between the Deoband-Tablighi and the moderate Ahle-Sunnat Preachers of the Barelvi school have occurred in Bhavnagar, Junagadh, Surat, Dohad and many other places over the past decade.

The Patel Muslims of south Gujarat's Bharuch were moderate until four decades ago when the Deoband-Tabligh preachers started swamping the area with their puritan message. Today most of the Patel Muslims are Wahhabis.

The maulvis of Bharuch district are now carrying out the Wahhabisation of the Muslims of Bhavnagar. Mohammed Ali, a terrorist caught in 2001 from Sopore in Jammu and Kashmir told his interrogators that he had studied for four years at the Akwada Deoband-Tablighi madrasa near Bhavnagar.

In south India, key figures in the emerging climax are JIH and the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen (KNM) represented by two factions. The Jamaat-e-Islami was set up in Lahore in 1941 by Maulana Maududi, who gave a call for setting up Islamic states.

The JIH is now experiencing a serious mood swing as it takes up fresh routes and stresses personal reforms and abandoning, at least privately, its earlier slogans of political Islam.

Unlike other neo-fundamentalist groups with larger lukewarm flock, the JIH has fervent activists to its credit and preaches an anti-imperialist, anti-multinational line-rehabilitation of endosulfan victims in five panchayats in Kasaragod district, call for retraction the draft Coastal Zone Management (CZM) notification by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, "which would hand over Indian coasts to bigger players and multinationals", raising voice for people displaced for setting up the International Transshipment Terminal in Vallarpadam in Kochi and waging a campaign against the Pepsi plant in Kerala.

"These are posturings they use to make inroads into a secular society. They are yet to publicly question Maududi's idea of a religious state. In India they raise anti-fascist campaigns, but fail to explain why their founder emphasises mullah hegemony similar to Aryan hegemony," says M.N. Karassery, writer and professor at the Calicut University.

With a growing realisation that their narrow interpretation of Islam is inspiring terrorism, the Deobandis are distancing themselves from terror acts and condemned these for the first time.

On February 25, the Darul Uloom Deoband and other organisations organised a rally declaring terrorism as un-Islamic and against the Koran, condemned the maligning of madrasas and Muslims and exhorted the latter to continue their loyalty to their motherland.

The Deoband influence transcends borders and has the potential to influence Muslims worldwide. Over the next few weeks, other Muslim organisations held similar conferences.

In spite of its declared stance against terrorism, by preaching puritan Islam, hardliners run the risk of pushing Muslim youths to the thin line that divides fundamentalism and terrorism.

Critics of neo-fundamentalist movements argue that groups like Al Qaeda find cadre from groups who define their Islamic politics primarily as encouragement of a narrow range of Islamic practices and symbols and whose background has nothing to do with traditional Islamic preaching.

The solution to countering the spread of fundamentalism may well lie in encouraging the moderates. Between June 2 and 4, representatives of the British and Indian home ministries sat down for a series of meetings discussing their experiences of terrorism.

The meeting comprised India's Intelligence Bureau, UK's MI5 and senior police officials. Their verdict was unanimous. Both sides would have to work to actively encourage moderates, which has worked well in the UK where community elders led the police to elaborate plans to serial-bomb aircraft in 2006.

In India, this would mean encouraging the Sufis. Isolated peace efforts have come from the Sufi Foundation of India led by Hazrat Syed Mohammad Jilani Ashraf Kichhauchhvi, who is busy creating a Sufi corridor. But it will take many more deeds than mere words if the bigger battle against fundamentalism is to be won.

- with Farzand Ahmed and Shafi Rahman

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