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Here's What May Work To The Advantage Of ISIS In India

18/04/2016 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza, in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014. The death toll in Gaza hit 265 as Israel pressed a ground offensive on the 11th day of an assault aimed at stamping out rocket fire, medics said. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)

Home to the world's second largest Muslim population and flourishing fundamentalist Islamic schools such as the Deobandi movement, it is somewhat surprising that India so far has seen less than 25 of its citizens becoming ISIS fighters. In my Huffington Post article titled, "Why ISIS can't make much headway with Muslims in India", I argued that the terrorist organization will find it challenging to make inroads due to our liberal Sufi Islam, an inherently diverse and tolerant nature of state and society facilitating a stronger integration of Muslims and the presence of a strong right wing. I still, more or less, hold that view. However, after the Brussels attack, symbolic of the fast-spreading global reach of ISIS and its ideology, I feel that once again we need to address the alarming question, "Will ISIS get a foot-hold in India?"

If ISIS ever gets any following in India then it will be due to its clear, immediate, strong and focused religious appeal.

This post throws light on the factors which could facilitate the influence of ISIS in India, even if it is not widespread. And, I request you all to read this article as an addendum to my previous article, not as its antithesis.

If ISIS ever gets any following in India then it will be due to its clear, immediate, strong and focused religious appeal. Graeme Wood in his essay, "What ISIS Really Wants", writes, "In conversation, they insist that they will not--cannot--waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers." The directness, clarity and the force of its religious appeal invoking all Muslims to be the part of the project that brings back the caliphate stands in contrast to outfits like Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose objectives are a vague concoction of nationalist, religious and sectarian agendas. In addition, these are also seen as regional groups working as proxies for intelligence agencies.

The fact that Indian Muslims joined the Khilafat movement en masse underlines their reverence for the concept of a caliphate.

Interestingly, writer MJ Akbar has referred to the Khilafat Movement of 1919, with Mahatma Gandhi as one of its leaders, as a jihad (albeit a non-violent one) to restore the Caliphate. While the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1915-16 reduced the idea of a caliphate in the Middle East to a fable, in India the mass awakening of Muslims on religious lines led to the creation of Pakistan, the first state based on the religious identity of Islam. M J Akbar in his seminal work Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan informs that though Indian Muslims joined Gandhi's 'jihad', they were disillusioned by the non-violent approach, arguing that jihad, as sanctioned in the Quran is a violent war. Nonetheless, the fact that Indian Muslims joined the Khilafat movement en masse underlines their reverence for the concept of a caliphate.

Further, India, historically, is no stranger to Wahhabism, which is the ideological backbone of ISIS. Patna was a seat of Wahhabism in India and from 1800 to 1900; in addition, the British armies had to engage in fierce battles with Wahhabi forces in NWFP under the leadership of Syed Ahmad Barelvi (1831). More recently, between 2011-13 ₹ 1700 crore has been channelled into India for Wahhabi proselytization by Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, India is also a home to the orthodox Deobandi school of Islam, often referred to as the South Asian variant of Wahhabism; it is also followed by the Taliban.

India is also a home to the orthodox Deobandi school of Islam, often referred to as the South Asian variant of Wahhabism...

Given these factors, it is possible for ISIS--with its projection of powerful Islamic symbols like Dabiq (doomsday prophecies that speak of the final battle between Islam and Christianity at Dabiq)--can actually attract a huge following in India also. Quranic prophecies like Gajwa-e-Hind, which is about the final conquest of India by the forces of Islam, can also be very powerful instruments in getting a following among Indian Muslims. The fact that religious appeal can transcend socioeconomic factors (such as economic deprivation and exclusion from the mainstream) is evident in the fact that so far many of the Indians who joined ISIS came from middle-income and educated backgrounds, for example, the Indian Oil engineer from Jaipur and the students from Hyderabad.

Bruce Hoffman, terrorism expert at Georgetown University, observes in Foreign Affairs that there is a strong possibility of a merger between ISIS and Al Qaeda in future as the differences between them are on trivial ego-based issues--they have strong ideological similarities that make it plausible for them to come together. In such a scenario, it will be much easier for ISIS to gain a foothold in India because Al-Qaida already has a strong nexus with organizations like SIMI and Indian Mujahidin which by virtue of being indigenous, could play a linchpin role in facilitating the ISIS's entry into India. Further, the presence of ISI and its extremist proxies like Lashkar and JEM might act as congenial springboards for ISIS to launch itself in India.

Molenbeek-type ghettos where radicalization, deprivation and crime go hand in hand are spread across the nation, in almost every city of India.

And while religious factors may be the big draw, the social condition of Muslims is a cause for concern too. Molenbeek-type ghettos where radicalization, deprivation and crime go hand in hand are spread across the nation, in almost every city of India. The rampant poverty, crime, and unemployment make it very easy to find targets for radicalization. Often, the reach and control of the law-enforcement machinery in these areas is very poor so it is difficult to detect if any suspicious activity is going on. Along with such ghettos, India also has huge unauthorized markets from where it is very easy to buy explosive materials like hydrogen peroxide and fire-arms. Porous borders with Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar have the potential to make things worse. Incompetent police and state intelligence agencies often flounder in the face of terrorist groups that are technologically advanced, skilled, and exposed to the dynamics of transnational terror operations. The waters are further muddied by the appeasement of Islamic extremists for political expediency.

As Georgetown Professor Rosa Brooks said that the terrorism is a problem to be "managed rather than 'defeated'." In order to do that, the first and foremost thing we need to do is to have a nuanced understanding of terrorism and religious extremism. And, then we need a multipronged strategy to address the problem, which I will discuss in my next post.

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