NDTV on Salafism

BY JYOTI PUNWANI| IN Media Practice | 13/10/2016
Two recent editions of Truth vs Hype try to link the growth of Salafism among Muslims with the appeal of ISIS to a few young Muslims.
But the linkage is not convincing, says JYOTI PUNWANI


Sreenivasan Jain’s two-part, hour-long documentary, `The Shadow of Salafism’ and `Road to ISIS’ shown on consecutive Sundays (Truth Vs Hype, NDTV, September 25 and Oct 2), tries to link the growth of Salafism in India with the attraction for ISIS among some Indian Muslims.

Jain himself asserts that it is difficult to establish this link. Yet, he persists in doing so - unsuccessfully.

The documentary reveals that of the 55 Muslims who’ve been arrested for their alleged links to ISIS, 28, or 51%, have told the NIA that they have recently become followers of the Ahle Hadees sect. In India, Islamic scholars tell Jain, there is no difference between Salafi, Wahhabi, and Ahle Hadees.

What does the Ahle Hadees have to say about this damning statistic?

The Ahle Hadees spokesman tells Jain that they were the first to condemn terrorism and ISIS. Other Ahle Hadees members interviewed say that ISIS cannot be called Islamic because its members do not follow the teachings of Prophet Mohammed.

Such condemnations and denials are routinely made. But the camera can catch lies and hypocrisy. There’s a certain openness about most of the ordinary Muslims connected to Salafi madarsas/mosques, whom Jain interviews. They willingly and enthusiastically answer all his questions, be they about funding or curriculum. Such openness in front of a camera is rare if you want to hide something.

This is just one reason why the first part of the documentary, which focuses on the growth of Salafist madarsas/mosques, does not lead to the second, which focuses on the attraction for ISIS among Salafist youngsters.   


"This growing intolerance of other practices worries a large number of Muslims, who link it to Saudi funding."


The growth of Salafism in India has been a cause for concern primarily among Muslims. The sub-continent’s Muslims have blended with the religious practices of the majority, producing a ``Ganga Jamuni’’ culture, to use a cliché. This is what Jain constantly refers to as ``Sufi Islam’’, and he makes no bones about preferring it.

Salafism, as experts in the documentary point out, does not like any deviation from a literal adherence to Islam, and considers those who worship at dargahs, as most Indian Muslims do, to be kafirs (unbelievers). Such is the level of strictness that even differences in the style of offering namaz are labelled as ``weak’’ or ``strong’’, as the interrogation reports of those arrested by the NIA (cited in the documentary) reveal.

This growing intolerance of other practices worries a large number of Muslims, who link it to Saudi funding. Jain’s documentary is probably the first to probe whether this is true. It’s a sensitive subject, handled in characteristically sensitive style by Jain. But it fails to answer the question asked by Jain himself: how is the growth of Salafism eroding Sufi Islam? For Jain’s one-point agenda remains Salafism’s links to extremist violence, read ISIS.


Interpreting Ibn Tahmiyyah

Jain busts the myth that Saudi Arabia is the biggest source of funds for Salafis in India. It’s ranked fifth, and contributes just Rs 4.5 crore of the total Rs 124.5 crore received by Salafi institutions in the last three years, according to the Home Ministry’s FCRA website. The biggest donor is UAE.

Among states, UP gets the maximum amount – Rs 55 crore.

Almost a decade ago, the late Sajid Rashid, Mumbai’s boldest Urdu journalist, had told this columnist after a visit to his hometown in UP, about the growing number of madarsas on the Indo-Nepal border, teaching dangerous stuff. Jain confirms that Salafi madarsas are indeed mushrooming on the Indo-Nepal border. He also expresses alarm at what's being taught: the writings of the 13th century scholar Ibn Tahmiyyah. The scholar’s `Mardin Fatwa’, says Jain, encourages the killing of non-believers, and Ibn Taymiyyah is upheld by the ISIS as an inspiration.

``Yes, yes, absolutely, Ibn Tahmiyyah is taught in `their’ institutions,’’ says a spokesman of a Salafi madarsa in UP, referring to his donors in Qatar, ``and in ours too.’’ At this point, viewers know how dangerous the Mardin Fatwa is. So when Jain asks whether its author is part of the syllabus, you wait for the interviewee to show some embarrassment, if not evasion. The categorical assertion comes as a surprise.  

The same assertion is repeated by another spokesman of another Salafi institution in UP. 

How does one reconcile these two seemingly contradictory realities? On the one hand, the ISIS holds up Ibn Tahmiyyah as its source of inspiration. On the other, UP’s madarsa heads, knowing they are on camera, state without any hesitation that they teach his text. They aren’t defiant about it, just matter of fact.

Obviously, the ISIS’ interpretation of Ibn Taymiyyah is not shared by these people.

In 2010, an international  conference was held in Mardin (in Turkey), to study the Mardin fatwa. Muslim scholars, while upholding Ibn Taymiyyah’s contribution, concluded that his fatwa ``can under no circumstances be appropriated and used as evidence for leveling the charge of kufr against fellow Muslims,…acting treacherously towards those who live (in harmony) with fellow Muslims or with whom fellow Muslims live (in harmony) via the bond of citizenship and peace. On the contrary, the fatwa deems all of that unlawful, notwithstanding its original purpose of support (sic) a Muslim state against a non-Muslim state…Anyone who seeks support from this fatwa for killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation and has misapplied the revealed texts.’’ 

I asked a journalist friend who is a proud to be a madarsa product about IbnTaymiyyah. ``Yes, I had him on my syllabus at the Jamiatul Falah, Azamgarh,’’ he replied, ``and no, my university is not Salafi.’’

Jain should have at least referred to the Mardin Declaration. 


Funding – jarring explanations

There are other problems with the documentary.

Jain insists that the Home Ministry’s list of foreign Salafi donors does not match the number of institutions on the ground.  The latter are more. He meets those in charge of a few of these madarsas that do not feature in the FCRA list. We get donations from within India, they tell him, but he refuses to believe them, even when one of them cordially invites him to investigate his madarsa’s  source of funding.

But instead of asking a Home Ministry spokesperson, Jain turns to counter-terrorism expert Ajai Sahni for an explanation. Sahni says that while one  reason for the ``exponential difference’’ between the official list and the actual extent of Salafi funding may be the usual apathy of government agencies, another reason  is  ``intentional neglect’’ - orders from above to look the other way for fear of arousing partisan or communal passions, or being charged with communally motivated action.’’

There are two jarring elements in Sahni’s explanation. First, can simply keeping a record of foreign Salafi donations be deemed ``action’’? Second, Jain is referring to records from 2013-16.  The Congress  might  have asked agencies to look the other way, but the BJP has been in power since 2014. That party is certainly not  inefficient when it comes to documenting foreign funds coming to minorities, neither is it afraid of either arousing communal passions or being charged with communally motivated action.

Why is it difficult to believe that these madarsas are locally funded? Educated Muslims always complain that wealthy Indian Muslims settled in the Gulf donate tons to madarsas and nothing to secular schools. Secondly, during Ramzan, groups of madarsa students descend on big cities to collect zakat, the charity that is binding on Muslims, for their madarsas in UP and Bihar. Estimates of amounts collected, as reported in the papers, start at Rs 7500 crore per Ramzan!

Interestingly, in the documentary, those getting Gulf/Saudi money make no bones about it, even describing their methods - ``sometimes we go begging, sometimes donors contact us, seeing our websites.’’ The head of a 103-year old Salafi madarsa in Nepal, almost brags about his establishment’s links to Saudi ministries, and the projects they have funded. So why would others hide the fact that they are getting foreign funds from Islamic sources? For the majority of Indian Muslims, being linked to Saudi Arabia is not a cause for embarrassment.


Donors and terror watch lists

Interestingly, these madarsa heads remain unfazed when informed that some of their donors are on US global terror watch lists. Obviously, the US government is not quite the last word in credibility among Muslims, Salafi or otherwise. A Google search of one such donor revealed that while he was put on the US list in 2002, the UN Security Council removed his name in 2014.

One can understand relying on US watch lists, but on Israeli government  classifications? One Salafi donor has been banned by the Israeli Defence Ministry, the documentary tells us, because he donates to charities linked with Hamas.

Last heard, Hamas had been elected to power in 2006, and currently shares power in Palestine with Fatah.

Just last month, the EU’s legal advisor asked that Hamas be taken off the international terror list, because the EU could not ``rely on facts and evidence found in press articles and information from the Internet to list organisations as terrorist’’ (Haaretz.com, 22 September 2016).

In 2014, the European General Court had upheld Hamas’ challenge to being labeled a terrorist organization. Norway and Switzerland among other countries, do not regard Hamas as one. 

Most importantly for this documentary, Hamas is itself a target of Salafi groups in Palestine.

Another ``expert’’ Jain chooses to interview is a Senior Fellow of the US-based ``foundation for defence of democracies’’.  The name itself is a giveaway.  Set up after 9/11, its major donors and key staff are known to be pro-Israel, and it has been described as a ``neo-con think tank’’ (Wikipedia).


The nature of Indian Salafism

Undoubtedly, Salafism in action, be it as Al Qaeda or ISIS, is terrifying. This is what Jain himself calls ``a new, toxic Salafism’’. But Indian Salafism?

Jain digs out one incident of Salafist violence against Sufi Muslims who wanted to put up a mosque near Bangalore. ``This (attack) is Wahhabism. I forgave them, that is Sufism,’’ says the victim grandly, showing his bruised arm. In the next breath, he admits he had filed a case against his assailants but nothing came of it. So much for forgiveness.

This man, like many others quoted in the documentary, is a follower of the ``Imam Ahmed Reza Khan Movement’’. Ordinarily called Bareilvis, they have  often clashed with Deobandis (also described as Salafis in the documentary) over control of mosques. It was Mumbai’s Raza Academy and its followers who were responsible for the August 2012 violence against media and police personnel in the city’s Azad Maidan. In 2006, the Raza Academy instigated violence in Bhiwandi, resulting in the lynching of two policemen.

A scholar from George Washington University tells Jain: ``The vast majority of Salafis are quietists who don’t believe in a revolutionary remaking of society by the sword.’’ Jain himself says that Indian Salafism has diverse strands, and most Indian Salafis are quietists.

Yet he is bent on conveying the opposite message, through straplines such as: ``Jihadist ideologues taught in Gulf funded madarsas’’; ``Donors on global terror watch list funding Indian madarsas.’


"The documentary itself shows how bogus is the link between Salafi madarsas and ISIS."


One example of his mindset is his statement that Salafism can even make children turn against their own parents. But the Bangalore man who unhesitatingly states that in his eyes, his parents are not ``true Sunnis’’, also says in the same breath: ``But we have no problem with that.’’

The other is Jain’s completely unsubstantiated statement that the ``actual number of Indians in ISIS territory and on ISIS watch lists is much higher.’’ 

The documentary itself shows how bogus is the link between Salafi madarsas and ISIS. While UP receives the highest amount of Salafi funds, most of those drawn to ISIS are from the South.

Additionally, of the 55 arrested by the NIA, only one was a madarsa product (from Hyderabad), the rest were educated professionals, recent converts to Salafism, radicalized by mostly foreign Salafi preachers on the Internet.

The families of the 22 youngsters who left Kerala to live under ISIS, the documentary shows, come from a village which has never seen riots; their families are ordinary, easy going Muslims. These youth believe in what a Kerala academic in the documentary calls ``fringe Salafism’’. Ironically, when one of them talks to his uncle about the glory of their new lives, he does so in Malayalam, its Sanskritised words mixed with Arabic!

To conclude, the growth of Salafi madarsas is a cause for concern, and their  influence on Hindu-Muslim relations needs to be studied. The phenomenon of  Muslims who have turned Salafist recently  being drawn to ISIS  is also a cause for concern. But the two aren’t related.

Jain asks Indian mainstream Salafis to disown those joining the ISIS. In his last episode of Truth Vs Hype on October 9, on gau-rakshaks, we didn’t see him asking the RSS to disown those who assault Muslims and Dalits in the name of  gau-raksha. 


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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