Times of India in Kerala demonises Shias

BY MUHAMMED SABITH| IN Media Practice | 05/08/2017
A one-sided story painting a picture of Shias plotting to take over is a classic example of rumour and conjecture replacing facts.


Is Shiism, one of the two major streams in Islam with millions of followers worldwide, a threat? A report recently published in The Times of India (ToI), appears to think so.

“A group of Muslim intellectuals have cautioned the community that there is a concerted attempt to smuggle in the Shia ideology among the Sunnis in Kerala with the support of the Iran government”, the newspaper wrote in a disturbingly one-sided story  published in Kerala on July 31.

The report, titled “Concerns over rising Shia influence in Kerala”, is filled with sentences that could promote anti-Shia sentiments. Shia Muslims are a minority group within the Muslim community in Kerala, as they are across South Asia and several other parts of the world, except some countries like Iran where they are the majority.

The ToI report, quoting a couple of anti-Shia scholars, warns of a hidden, dangerous Shia ‘agenda’ but fails to provide any proof of such an agenda and also fails to explain what is harmful about such an ‘agenda’ even if it exists. The report gives no space for the individuals and institutions that are negatively presented to give their side of the story.

The story also condemns those who keep their beliefs extremely private. “The Shias should be honest in declaring their faith and should not masquerade as Sunnis,” a Shia critic was quoted as saying.

It also accused Shias in Kerala of practising ‘Thaqiyya’ which, according to Wikipedia, is an Islamic term referring to precautionary dissimulation or denial of religious belief and practice in the face of persecution.

"The report, titled “Concerns over rising Shia influence in Kerala”, is filled with sentences that could promote anti-Shia sentiments"


A conveniently ignored side of the story is an objective appraisal of why, and in which context,  Shia Muslims practise Thaqiyya. One may also wonder what is wrong if someone hides from the public his/ her religious belief and practices? Why should one always be expressive about one’s beliefs?

What is wrong with Thaqqiyya-like practices being followed if there is fear of social boycotting? Or to avoid unwanted questions from others? Don’t we have any example before us where members of a minority community prefer to keep their faith extremely personal?

Even if members of a religious minority community conceal their identity, how should journalists cover it? Should they objectively study the issue, or should they demonize those individuals as if they’re doing some criminal activity?

These are some of the questions that arise from the ToI report on ‘Shia influence’ in Kerala. 


The defence: ‘Will publish another report’

When contacted, M.P. Prashanth, the ToI reporter who filed the story, said he has made attempts to get the other side of the story and is preparing to file another report. His story also made allegations against Professor P. Koya, director of the Islamic Youth Centre and C Hamza, an Islamic scholar, 

When asked about why the report was extremely one sided, he said “we have word limits in filing a story … I have contacted Prof. Koya, whom I know for years ... I am preparing another report focusing on other side of the story. I am also trying to contact Hamza,” said Prashanth, adding: “I was just reporting some allegations that are on the air for some time now.”


Flimsy allegations

My enquiries revealed that the two institutions mentioned in the report as being the centres of the ‘Iranian agenda’ in Kerala - the Islamic Foundation and the Thaqlain Foundation - were non-functional.

The Thaqlain Foundation’s Facebook page describes itself as “a non-profit, academic, cultural and educational, research institution, concerned with classical Islam."

As to the Islamic Foundation, Hamza, who was once associated as an editor with it, said that the Foundation has been “dysfunctional for years”. An Islamic scholar against whom some allegations were made in the report, he denied having any ‘hidden agenda’. “I associated with the Islamic Foundation, which was focusing on publishing, as an editor … They published books on subjects including the Iranian revolution and Shiism … I later left the foundation protesting some of their views," he  said.

Hamza said the ToI reporter did not contact him.

P.T. Nasar, a television journalist who was once associated with Thaqlain Foundation also confirmed that the Foundation was non-functional. “They didn’t have even an office. People associating with it used to meet at the residence of one of the members. Whenever I attended their programme, there were around 20 people and this number hardly grew," said Nasar.

Nasar said he was in touch with the Foundation for some years out of his interest in Shia philosophy and practice. He said it used to conduct three major programmes: a ‘Unity Week’ observed in connection with the Meeladunnabi, one book releasing ceremony, and a seminar.

According to Nasar, some people are carrying out an anti-Shia campaign in Kerala and the ToI report may be part of that. He also alleged that the hate campaign has similarities with the state sponsored “anti-Shia propaganda” of Saudi Arabia.

 “There are people who are interested to know different schools of thoughts. But this Saudi-Iran campaign and counter campaign in the name of Sunni, Shia ideologies have more to do with politics than with Islam or spirituality,” said Nasar.


Political motives lurk….

Professor Koya, director of the Islamic Youth Centre (IYC), a prominent Muslim institution in Kozhikode which was described in the ToI report as the “master brain behind the pro-Iranian propaganda”, said that such remarks are baseless.

"The ToI report, said Koya, was a result of propaganda by certain individuals, who “look paranoid about a non-existent threat”."


"The IYC is a place used by all sections of the society including Dalits and the underprivileged and it is basically involved in social and educational empowerment,” said Koya.  

Also a retired college professor and leader of the Popular Front of India, Koya said the IYC runs a publishing house and a scholarship programme which has benefitted hundreds of students with financial difficulties.

The ToI report, said Koya, was a result of propaganda by certain individuals, who “look paranoid about a non-existent threat”.

Refuting the personal remarks against him in the ToI story, Koya said “I don't associate with either the Iranian government or any Shia groups. I am not Shia as I disagree with their theological and epistemological positions. Obviously somebody who does not believe in Shiism cannot be a main figure working for it”.

He also said he suspects political motives behind the allegations. “When I oppose the horrible killings of the civilians in Syria perpetrated by Shia dictator Bashar, they call me anti-Shia; when I oppose the corruption and terror of the Saudis they call me anti-Sunni. These are people who can't distinguish between theological and political positions,” said Koya.

Ausaf Ahsan, a publisher based in Kozhikode who also featured in the ToI story, said he didn’t feel the report was worth taking seriously and declined to comment, beyond saying: “This is an exaggerated issue. Muslims have better issues to discuss today."


Muhammed Sabith, an independent journalist and researcher, can be reached at sabith.muhemmad@gmail.com

[Disclaimer: Sabith previously worked as a reporter with Malayalam newspaper, Thejas, for which P. Koya serves as Managing Editor.]



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