On April 23, 2006, Al-Jazeera aired an audio recording attributed to Al-Qaeda’s (AQ) then-leader Osama Bin Laden.1 In it, bin Laden refers to a “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu” war against Muslims.2 The message referenced the Government of India’s policies in the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, and this was clearly aimed at stoking greater anti-India sentiment among Islamist extremists in Pakistan. At the time, al-Qaeda wanted to foment a larger war between Pakistan and India, and some analysts believed it was actively allied with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani state-sponsored terrorist group that committed the 2008 Mumbai attacks.3 At the same time, when bin Laden’s recording was released, India, a Hindu-majority democracy that is also home to over two hundred million Muslims, actually figured very little in the salafi-jihadist movement’s propaganda. Bin Laden’s message on the Hindu “war” against Islam made only a passing mention of New Delhi’s policies; his main complaint was about how then-Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf had acquiesced to U.S. President George W. Bush’s demand to shut down Kashmiri terrorist camps. In fact, throughout the 2000s, transnational jihadist ideologists said very little about India and, when they did, they primarily focused on the anti-India struggle in Kashmir.
By the mid-2010s, transnational salafi-jihadist propaganda about India had changed dramatically. In September 2014, AQ established Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), led by an Indian-born Muslim from the state of Uttar Pradesh named Asim Umar.4 The Islamic State (ISIS) followed suit, establishing a wilayah, or “province,” for India in May 2019. It was further reported that small cells of ISIS supporters wanted to build a province in the jungles of southern India.5 As these salafi-jihadist groups have tried to expand into India, they have attempted to shatter the country’s traditions of Hindu-Muslim comity and toleration and to radicalize individuals both to recruit Indian support and fighters for foreign theaters and, increasingly, to wage war in India itself.6
To date, however, only a small number of Indian nationals have actually joined transnational salafi-jihadi organizations. An estimated 100 Indians have left the country to join the Islamic State movement in the Middle East,7 and by 2019, 155 were arrested inside India for allegedly belonging to ISIS.8 This is not insignificant, yet these numbers are miniscule compared to salafi-jihadist recruitment in other South Asian countries—and in Western ones. For instance, more nationals of the Maldives, a country with a population of only 400,000, have traveled to join ISIS than Indians have.9 Meanwhile, roughly 300 Americans have joined or attempted to join ISIS. 10 Yet, America’s Muslim population is estimated to be around 3.45 million—a fraction of India’s. 11 Meanwhile, as many as 1,700 citizens of France (whose Muslim population is about the same size as the U.S.’s) have traveled to the Middle East to join ISIS.12
This general failure of the transnational jihadist movement to radicalize and recruit Indian Muslims in large numbers has clearly become an issue for today’s salafi-jihadist ideologists. Indeed, in his 2013 call for action entitled “Why Is There No Storm In Your Ocean?: A Message for the Muslims of India,” the former head of AQIS, Maulana Asim Umar, asked, “Why is it that the Muslims of India are totally absent from the fields of Jihad?”13 In the years since, both ISIS and AQ have launched new ideological campaigns online and in various publications targeting India’s Muslims. In all this, Kashmir is still a central issue, but salafi-jihadist propaganda has also increasingly focused on the “failures” of Indian democracy and on the socio-political situation that Indian Muslims face under India’s Hindu nationalist-led government.
Absence of Indian Muslims from Global Jihad
As Mohammad Sinan Siyech has argued, multiple factors help to explain why so few Indian nationals have, to date, been recruited by transnational jihadist groups.14 These include India’s non-participation in the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet Union, India’s Muslim leadership and a strong sense of Indian national identity, effective government actions, various practical barriers that have hindered radicalized individuals from actually joining jihadist groups, and (perhaps most important) the influence of strong Indian Muslim families. Moreover, unlike Pakistan-based groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba or India-based terrorist groups like the Indian Mujahideen, 15 transnational movements like AQ and ISIS have historically focused their operations and radicalization efforts on other regions and countries, not on India. Indeed, a frequent complaint of the small number of Indian nationals who do sympathize with AQ and ISIS is that the “Islamic struggle” in “Hindu India” has been ignored by the global jihadist movement.
One example of the conspicuous neglect of Indian Muslims in global jihadist propaganda is the November 2017 Al-Qaeda document from Al-Nasr Media, Don’t Get Stung Out of the Same Hole Repeatedly! A Call to the Muslims of the Subcontinent. Written by Muhammad Miqdaad, an AQIS “mujahid,” the document is primarily addressed to Muslims in Pakistan, not to Indians. It describes India as a bigoted state which wants to enslave the Asian subcontinent’s Muslims. Yet, while the document criticizes the Pakistani state, Islamist parties in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the atrocities of the Pakistani military against Pakistanis, it very rarely addresses itself to Indian Muslims. The anti-India struggle in Kashmir is noted in passing, but this is to criticize the Pakistani state’s own self-interested and capricious policy of support for Kashmiri separatism.16
A blog post by a self-described ISIS supporter in the Indian state of Kerala mentions the global jihad movement’s limited focus on India. “All jihadi shaikhs outside India are of the view that India is Darul Harb and jihad is compulsory in India. But they have formed their views based on what is happening in Kashmir.”17 The author blames salafi-jihadism’s neglect of India on the failure of Indian Islamists themselves to inform the larger world about their struggles in India. Similar frustrations can be seen in a comment on a pro-AQ Telegram messaging channel:
…i would like to say that, Media branch of Al Qaida Indian Sub Continent 24/7 busy with khorashan, shaam, somalia etc, but they r not worried about Indian sub continent! there is no news about the Muslims of assam, monipur, (sic) nagaland etc but full news about khorashan or shaam! is this the responsibility? wht r u doing actually? have u not any common sence (sic)??? if u r going like this, may b, someday u will be vanish from this area.”18
In the past few years, AQIS and ISIS have increasingly responded to the complaints of their India-based sympathizers via social media. The two movements have competed with one another and tried to displace regional and local terrorist groups by attempting to convince Indian Muslims that they are aware of the struggles that Muslims face and supportive of the “Indian Islamic cause.”19 A pro-AQ Telegram account, for example, acknowledges the complaints of Indian jihadist sympathizers, and promises that Prime Minister Modi will be unable to stop the rise of the mujahideen. The message ends with a direct appeal to India’s Muslims: “Mujahideen are aware of the trails (sic) that the muslims (sic) in India are facing and we promise them that we the Mujahideen will protect them like a wall and we are preparing for it.”20
Transnational jihadist movements have also featured more coverage of Indian Muslims in their official publications. ISIS, for instance, published a 22-minute video in May 2016 that showcased its Indian members and denounced India while encouraging others to make hijrah to the Islamic State.21 In February 2020, ISIS released the first issue of its English language magazine for South Asia, Sawt Al-Hind (Voice of India). It featured an article addressed to Indian Muslims titled “So Where are You Going? A Call to Muslims of India.”22 The article promotes an “us versus them” mentality and portrays relations between Islam and Hinduism as unbridgeable.23 The May 2020 issue of the magazine also featured an in-depth article titled “Rise Up O Ahl-u-Sunnah of Hind.”24 The August 2020 issue has a cover story titled “From Babri to Aqsa,” which seeks to entwine, in the salafi-jihadist imagination, the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindutva extremists and Israel’s control of Palestine and Jerusalem.25
AQIS has also expanded its propaganda outreach to Indian Muslims. Its main Urdu publication, Nawai Afghan Jihad, was renamed as Nawai Ghazwat Ul Hind (Voice of the Conquest of India) in April 2020. In January 2020, Asim Umar’s de-facto successor, Usama Mahmoud, published a 27-minute audio track addressed to Indian Muslims titled “If Islam is Your Home, Then it is Your Nation: Message of Love and Brotherhood in the Service of Muslims in India.”26
One main focus of salafi-jihadist propaganda (and of ISIS in particular) has been to showcase and lionize the Indian nationals who have left their home to join the global jihad. An article in the March 2021 issue of Sawt Al-Hind, “The Irhabis Who Infuriated the Pagans,” celebrated the Indian Mujahideen terrorist group while highlighting how many Indian Mujahideen members joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.27 Likewise, a pro-ISIS Telegram message celebrated the martyrdom of Dr. Shahnawaz Alam, known by his nom-de-guerre Abu Muhammad Al-Hindi, who pledged allegiance to ISIS and participated in the 2017 battle of Mosul where he was later killed.28 Allegedly, Dr. Alam said in his last will that he wanted to take “revenge and kill Americans for they were the ones who destroyed Mosul and hacked civilians to death. In his will He [Alam] also said, Their women, children, old people kill them destroy them, burn down their houses. The maximum loss to the `deen (religion) of Islam is caused by America. Enter their place and kill them. Kill them wherever you can.”29
Yet another pro-ISIS Telegram message celebrated another former Indian militant, Mohammad Shafi Armar, aka Yosuf Al-Hindi, who had travelled to Syria and reportedly died in the battle of Baghouz in March 2019.30 The message concluded by asserting “These are the Abtaal (deeds) who should be taken as an inspiration by the Muslims of Indian Subcontinent. What better example of steadfastness than the example of these mujahideen who were besieged in Al-Baghouz. May Allah open the hearts of Indian Muslims for Jihad.”31
ISIS’s Sawt Al-Hind also profiled multiple Indians who had joined Islamic State to fight in Afghanistan. The September 2020 issue looks at Abu Khalid Al-Hindi, a Kerala-born Indian who massacred Afghan Sikhs in Kabul. Little is mentioned about his life in India, except that he had “seen the brutalities of infidel hindus (sic) and Sikhs from his own eyes in Kashmir and India, but had no way to take revenge or support his Muslim brothers then.”32 The article justifies Al-Hindi’s atrocities as a way to “avenge the heinous crimes that kuffar committed in Kashmir and Hindustan upon Muslims” and celebrates the fact that Al-Hindi killed many “hindus and sikhs in their togetherness” and multiple Afghan Muslim soldiers.33 The October 2020 issue celebrated the life of one Abu Rawahah Al-Hindi, an Indian who conducted a suicide bombing against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Unlike Abu Khalid’s story which had minimal background on life in India, details on Abu Rawahah’s life in India are practically non-existent. Both profiles, however, valorized each man’s life with the Islamic State and their battles and attacks against enemy forces.
Clearly, ISIS’s showcasing of Indian fighters is aimed at drawing more young Indians to fight and die on foreign battlefields. It is significant, however, that of the fifteen available issues of Sawt Al-Hind, only five articles are directly addressed to Indian Muslims and the situation they face at home. In fact, most of Sawt Al-Hind’s content tends to address a general jihadist audience, rather than focusing on South Asian issues. Moreover, despite ISIS’s aim to recruit Indian Muslims, India is not a main focus. The cover story for the April 2020 issue of Sawt Al-Hind discussed the hadith Ghazwa-e-Hind, i.e., the traditional Muslim saying on the Islamic conquest of India. The story featured a map of South Asia with ISIS flags planted on the locations of Khorasan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Bangladesh. Curiously, India is conspicuously absent in ISIS’s imagining of its “caliphate.”34 This may be a reflection of the small number of Indian nationals that have actually joined the group. Despite this, transnational jihadist groups are intent on expanding in India, and they have increasingly looked to exploit the country’s religious and political tensions for their own gain.
Under the Shadow of Hindutva
Significantly, transnational jihadism’s bid to expand into India has coincided with the rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since the BJP’s 2014 election victory, Hindu nationalism or Hindutva has become the dominant political force in India. Hindu nationalism is, in fact, a broad-based phenomenon, although its Indian opponents and many of its supporters alike say the movement’s ultimate goal is to establish India as a majoritarian Hindu state. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, major aspects of the Hindutva program have been implemented, and this has generated considerable upheaval, debate, and worry over Indian democracy’s future.
The rise of Hindu nationalism has met with a wide variety of responses from India’s civil society, including from Indian Muslims. India is perceived by many to be on an illiberal path and, for many Muslims, the youth especially, the traditional Islamic leadership is seen as out of touch or too slow to respond to the dramatic changes in the country. This has led many Indian Muslims to seek out new leadership, just as it has driven new forms of religious and political activism. At the same time, Indian Islam is as ethnically, theologically, linguistically and sociologically diverse as the rest of India is. Because of this, as the scholar Hilal Ahmed has poignantly argued, there is not one “political Islam” in India, nor is there only one “Muslim response” to the rise of Hindutva.35
Significantly, many of India’s premier Islamic institutions, such as Darul Uloom Deoband,36 the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind,37 etc., have said very little about the rise of Hindutva.38 In contrast, activism has generally increased among younger Indian Muslims, particularly among students who not only assert their Indian Islamic identity, but also argue that India must never become a Hindu state and that Muslims form an important part of India’s history and its future. One prime example of this trend can be seen in the rise of Muslim political leaders like Asadudin Owaisi, a member of parliament from Hyderabad. Although Owaisi is seen as a controversial firebrand for his provocative statements and accusations that his party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, engages in communalism,39 he also clearly advocates for Muslim rights within the framework of the Indian constitution and argues that a religious Muslim identity and Indian nationalism are not incompatible.
In 2019, a major controversy erupted over the Government of India’s passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which offered expedited Indian citizenship to non-Muslims fleeing religious persecution in nearby Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.40 BJP officials argue the law and related measures are meant to make India a safe haven for religious minorities who are fleeing persecution in neighboring Muslim-majority states. The CAA, however, effectively bars persecuted Muslim minorities such as Shia and Ahmadi Muslims from pursuing expedited citizenship in India.
The CAA and subsequent developments triggered widespread protests in December 2019 in Delhi and several other major cities. The protests were led by Muslim women from the neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh, and many of the protestors were Muslims.41 Although many Muslim protestors did shout religious slogans, they also held high many pictures of B.R. Ambedkar, the famous Dalit leader and the man most responsible for India’s 1950 secular and liberal constitution.42 Meantime, pro-Hindutva media channels labeled the protesters as anti-India radicals or extremists,43 and some protesters were met with violence from the police as well as from Hindutva gangs. This culminated in what some Indian media termed the “Delhi pogroms,”44 in which a BJP politician, Kapil Mishra, was accused of inciting violence against Muslim citizens.45 In the ensuing violence, fifty people were killed, and thousands were displaced. With little to no evidence, far-right news sites claimed that jihadists had infiltrated the protests and were responsible for the violence. The protests ended as the COVID-19 pandemic started to affect India, although this led to a new bout of accusations and violence targeting Muslims.46
ISIS and AQIS have both seized on these developments, arguing the anti-Muslim violence is proof of the threat posed by Hindu nationalism and of how Indian democracy is a tool for the oppression of Muslims.47 ISIS and AQ sympathizers both ridiculed the majority of Indian Muslims who protested peacefully. In the December 2020 issue of Sawt Al-Hind, ISIS criticized the anti-CAA protestors as participating in an un-Islamic system, i.e. democracy. The many Muslims who marched alongside Hindus were further said to be begging the “Kaffir” (infidels) for concessions.48 If Indian Muslims refused to respond with violence, this made the protests unacceptable.
AQIS’s approach to the anti-CAA protests was different from ISIS’s. An article in the February 2020 issue of Nawai Afghan Jihad argued the political protests were a “temporary necessity.” In this, the article seemed to offer a qualified endorsement of the anti-CAA protests—if, that is, the protestors continued to use Islamic slogans and worked to impose Sharia.49 Subsequently, an Indian AQ supporter sent a “letter to the editors” criticizing the February 2020 article. The protests, AQ sympathizer argued, were not legitimate because Muslim protestors mixed with women and with non-Muslims, and also because the protests were in support of a kufr and secular system. The author insisted that protests to “save democracy” could never be condoned by Sharia.50
AQIS responded to this critique by arguing that the protests were not in favor of democracy but against anti-Muslim atrocities. In this view, protests are acceptable as a tactical expedient and step toward establishing Sharia. AQIS explicitly compared this argument to AQ’s support of the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Although many of those protesters were, like the ones in India, pro-democracy, AQ sought (and partially succeeded) to take advantage of the political upheaval. Further, for AQIS, the presence of women at the protests mean that it was up to jihadists to “inform” their co-religionists on proper Sharia.51 Despite all this, there is little evidence that AQ or its members were, in fact, involved with the anti-CAA protests.
In May 2020, AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a statement affirming its “solidarity” with the Muslims of India.52 The short declaration began by recounting the events of the anti-CAA protests and the violence against Delhi’s Muslims. At the time, former U.S. President Donald Trump was on a state visit in India. AQAP argued Trump had actually given a “green light” for the Delhi violence to take place, and AQAP’s message about an “international war waged against Islam” harked back to bin Laden’s 2006 message. AQAP also called on India’s Muslims to join their fellow Mujahideen in India and to exhort the India’s Muslim religious leaders to take a committed stance against the injustice.
On January 2020, AQIS’s Usama Mahmoud released a long audio message arguing it was necessary for India’s Muslims to raise their voice in protest against anti-Muslim oppression, but that this was not enough. “Just by crying softly, one cannot protect their lives.” Instead, Mahmoud directed Indian Muslims to start preparing for battle. A large segment of the audio message discusses inter-religious relations in India. For Mahmoud, a religious war between Muslims and Hindus is inevitable, as the Hindus, in his mind, are “unbelievers” who will only double cross Muslims. Although many Hindus supported the anti-CAA protests, Mahmoud further stated that “it will be murderous self-deception if we [Muslims] trust the white lies of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood and religious tolerance … Ram Ram (God God) on their mouth and a knife behind the back is their modus operandi.”53
While ISIS and AQ continue to debate tactics, ideologists from both movements see Hindu-Muslim toleration and brotherhood as “delusional,” and they see political strife in India as an opportunity to foment violence. Unlike ISIS, some parts of AQIS appear to support protests as a tactical expedient, although they insist this is a prelude to the use of violence, which they view as inevitable. Given this, ideologists from both movements continue to ask why large numbers of Indian Muslims have not taken up violence. The answer, jihadists argue, is that the fault lies with Indian Muslims and their leadership.
India’s Muslim leaders have widely and forcefully condemned ISIS and al-Qaeda. In 2015, 70,000 clerics associated with the Barelvi school of Islam issued a fatwa saying ISIS and AQ were not “real Islamic” organizations.54 The same year, 1,000 Deobandi scholars issued a fatwa condemning ISIS and its activities.55 Not surprisingly, the Indian Muslim leadership, including prominent politicians, intellectuals, and institutions, are all targets of harsh criticism by ISIS and AQIS. Jihadist propagandists argue that, at best, the Muslim leadership is ineffective, and at worst, they are complicit in the oppression of Muslims.
Jihadist groups have likewise sought to undermine the Muslim leadership in other countries. However, to India’s advantage, the country possesses a wide variety of Muslim intellectuals, theologians, and political figures, all of which can hinder the appeal of these extremist groups. More ISIS fighters from the state of Kerala have traveled overseas than from any other Indian state. Kerala’s Islamic religious and political scene is considerably diverse, although it has a particularly strong Salafist movement, which is frequently described in the Indian media as a driver of radicalization in Kerala.56 However, Salafism has been a part of the state’s politics since before independence,57 and scholars argue there is little evidence that Kerala Salafism by itself has led to extremism.58 There is, however, evidence of a dispute between jihadist ideologists and the leaders of the Kerala Salafi community. Abdul Rasheed, an ISIS fighter from Kerala, sent multiple voice messages sometime in 2017 over WhatsApp and Telegram to radicalize his friends and colleagues.59 In a 10-minute-long WhatsApp recording, Abdul Rasheed calls on Indian Muslims to either make hijrah to the Islamic State or, at minimum, to commit violence against their Hindu neighbors. He ends the recording by slamming several leading Islamic organizations in Kerala, most notably the Kerala Nadathul Mujahideen (KNM) and Wisdom Global Islamic Mission, both prominent Salafist religious organizations. Referring to these organizations as Munafiqun (false Muslims), Abdul Rasheed goes on to assert, “They do not say anything, [but] instead fight amongst themselves on everything including Jinn [genies]. In between, just to make the muslims (sic) happy, once in a while they host talk shows for other religions, all unnecessary…. Even if you do this for a 1000 years, what change can you bring in to the situation? Nothing.”60
The 2019 Babri Masjid Supreme Court judgement, which gave the land to a Hindu group, has also been used as a pretext by jihadists to attack India’s Muslim leadership. The AQ-aligned Ansar Ghazwatul Hind group based in Kashmir issued a statement in November 2019 calling the Court’s judgment a vindication of their own view of the “Hindu” Indian government and the Muslim leaders that support it:
Nothing else could be expected from this unjust Hindu government and its unjust courts regarding the verdict on Babri Masjid. But on this occasion, the gullible Muslim leaders who have laid their hopes on the oppressive polytheist government and on its subservient departments, and who teach the Muslim community to do likewise, must necessarily review their stance.61
An ISIS article in Sawt al-Hind took the attack on Muslim leaders still further. In the article “Rise Up Ahl-u-Sunnah of Hind,” India’s established Muslim scholars are broadly referred to as “mouthpieces of evil.” “Beware the Ulama as-Su’ who use the pulpits of the Masajid to spread misguidance, these mouthpieces of evil and lead them astray.”62 Indeed, the very first issue of Sawt al-Hind refers to the prominent religious scholars Mahmoud Madani and Arshad Madani of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind as “wicked.” It also described Asaduddin Owaisi and the student activist Kanhaiya Kumar “at the forefront of misguiding Muslim youth.”63
Asaduddin Owaisi, who is probably one of the most visible Muslim politicians in India today, has since been heavily vilified. In 2016, Owaisi condemned ISIS, calling the group “bloody murderers and rapists.”64 Following this, an ISIS supporter tweeted at Owaisi that he was a “Disgrace for Muslims of India. Opposing islamicstate (sic) will lead you to hell only repent before end.”65 ISIS supporters continue to regularly attack Owaisi, with one ISIS Telegram channel posting: “O Muslims of Wilayah Hind, Democracy (Kuffur) is not going to save you? Murtaad (apostate) Asaduddin Owaisi #Wilayah_Hind #Islamic_state #The_truth_Media.”66
India’s Muslim leadership is also blamed for weakening the Muslim community. As an ISIS supporter put it in one chat message:
The problem with most Indian Muslims is that they are taught by murjiah (those who postpone) imams who make them sheep instead of lions? They tell them to follow the law of the land. Even when there are riots they point out that there (sic) own "akhlaq" wasn't good otherwise whole world would have loved us.67
Muslim religious figures—including even ones like Zakir Naik, a controversial Salafi televangelist who has lived in exile outside of India since 2017—were further criticized for their support of the Indian State:
So called ulema in India can't call for hijrah or jihad. They sold their Imaan. Zakir Naik used to say he was proud Indian and that he had faith in Indian judiciary system. He went on to call IS (Islamic State) as un-IS. Yet kuffar were not pleased with him. Now he is hiding in Saudi. Indian Muslims have become used to humiliation. Their evil ulema kept them saying, jihad is not allowed today. Now they are so afraid of fighting back that they let mobs beat them till they die, offering no bit of resistance.68
AQIS’s former emir, Asim Umar, also issued a number of scathing attacks on the Muslim leadership. In a 2014 article, Umar dismissed Muslim leaders as instruments of state power with nothing to offer Muslims but empty slogans about freedom, democracy, and human rights.69 According to Umar, Muslim leaders, political parties, the Supreme Court, and Bollywood all exist to keep the illusion that India is a genuine democracy. Furthermore, Umar argued that all power in India is controlled by the Brahmin upper caste, and he asked his Islamist followers whether Muslims are actually better off than Dalits. Here, he treats Muslims as simply one people, despite the fact that India’s Muslims are themselves divided by caste. And, rather than condemning the caste system outright, as Indian democrats do, Umar makes clear that he views it as insufferable that Muslims are just as bad if not worse off than Dalits.
When prominent Muslim leaders speak out against anti-Muslim violence in India, jihadists argue this is insufficient. They insist democracy and its associated values are not only un-Islamic, but a threat to Islam itself. Advocacy on behalf of the Muslim community is normally framed as a human and minority rights issue, but an ISIS supporter took issue with that conceptualization:
…the situation is changing and some of them [the Muslim leadership] are outspoken for the rights of muslims and about killing of muslims. They are portraying this as human rights or political issue. Some of them in Kashmir also do the same thing but recently their support by masses has dwindled and masses support Mujahideen of Kashmir and want to be part of it but weapons are in low supply and thus costly. May Allah subhanhuwatala give all of us hidayah.70
In jihadist propaganda, one of the most damning failures of the Indian Muslim leadership is their embrace of Hindu-Muslim comity and brotherhood. Ever since the arrival of Islam in India in the 7th century, Muslim scholars have generally regarded Hindus as Ahl-ul-Kitaab, or “People of the Book.” Initially, the decision to declare Hindus as People of the Book was based on political calculation, as the Muslim Mughal minority sought to enable their rule in India, but this soon had religious justification.71 The ideals of Hindu-Muslim comity have been crucial to the emergence of modern India, and they have been championed by many Muslim scholars. The famous modern pan-Islamic revivalist Jamal al-Din Afghani [1839-1897] called for Hindu-Muslim unity as an anti-imperialist strategy and as a basis of Indian nationalism.72 Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani [1879-1957] of the conservative Deobandi school similarly advocated against Partition and for “composite nationalism” in which Hindus and Muslims live side by side.73 To be sure, some Indian Muslim scholars and revivalists have argued for Islamic supremacy over Hindus, but one can just as easily find many more arguing for unity and co-existence.
ISIS and AQIS are both trying to destroy this tradition. AQIS released a video in 2018 titled “A History of Islamic India.” The video portrays Islam’s arrival as bringing a new age of enlightenment to India, where “people were so shackled by slavery and cruel laws that their lives were no different from that of animals and other four-legged creatures.”74 The video is simplistic, and it only presents a timeline from the arrival of Islam to 1857, the year of the Sepoy Mutiny, the famous rebellion against British colonizers. But the video’s main message was that Islam is the gift for what was a backwards subcontinent that believed in slavery, unlike pre-Islamic India. Importantly, there is an implication that there is no distinction between today’s Hindutva street mobs and Hinduism itself. Instead, the actions of Hindutva mobs against ordinary Muslims are simply carried out by Hindus, hence justifying the idea that Hindus and Hinduism as a whole represent a threat to all Muslims. But this anger also is reserved for Indian Muslims, who are often attacked by global jihadists for failing to use violence.
“Why Is There No Storm In Your Ocean?”
Jihadist ideologists reserve much of their harshest criticisms for Indian Muslims themselves. For ISIS and AQIS members and sympathizers, Indian Muslims have done little to take action against “their oppressors” nor have they truly “embraced” Islam (as defined by ISIS and AQIS.) Indian Muslims, jihadists lament, are too dedicated to secularism, democracy, and nationalism.
As mentioned earlier, the AQIS leader Asim Umar released a video in 2013 titled “Why Is there No Storm in Your Ocean?” The video calls on Indian Muslims to put aside their “weakness” and to reclaim their lost “honor” through violent struggle:
Today when the call of Jihad is being raised all over the world and Muslims of every region have started Jihad in their lands to eradicate the system based on disbelief, the leaders of global jihad have the right to ask not just the scholars but also the ordinary Muslims of India: Where are the Muslims of India whose history is witness to the fact that they have in every age raised the banner of truth against the enemies of Islam?75
Zakir Musa, a Kashmiri fighter that led the AQ-aligned Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind, described Indian Muslims as the “most shameless Muslims in the world. They should be ashamed of calling themselves Muslims. Our sisters getting abused and dishonoured and Indian Muslims keep screaming that ‘Islam is peace.’”76 Musa’s statement specifically referenced the perceived silence of Indian Muslims about the Kashmiri cause, but his criticism of Indian Muslims is hardly unique.
The ISIS fighter Abu Muhammad Al-Hindi (aka Shahnawaz Alam) likewise criticized the lack of action by Indian Muslims. In what is alleged to be his final recording, Al-Hindi said Muslims are “happily living a dishonored life among the lowliest unbelievers. Walk on the path of Allah, recognize your religion and your abilities, pick up weapons, if not then immigrate to the nearest frontiers of Caliphate, follow jihad and hijrah, it’s a life of respect there.”77
Indian Muslims are further attacked for their refusal to fight or kill Indian Hindus; a topic frequently brought up on Telegram. “Indian Muslims being treated like animals by Indian Hindus. When will India Muslims wake up?”78 Another pro-ISIS message goes further, saying Indian Muslims willingly dishonor themselves to win the favor of Hindus, but this does not “saved” the Muslims from “massacres.”79 None of this should be dismissed as simple talk by rabble rousers on social media. The first Sawt Al-Hind issue includes a statement saying,
O Muslims of India! Will you not pay heed at this glorious from al-Qur’an?....Haven’t the filthy Hindu polytheists become dominant over you already? Your situation is living proof that indeed Allah has forsaken the Muslims of India. Allah almighty has forsaken you, for you chose for yourselves the deen of secularism over Islam.80
Indeed, this theme of Indian Muslims trading in Islam for the “religion” of the Indian constitution and nationalism is a frequent topic. A long pro-ISIS Telegram message declares Indian Muslims “were more nationalists than Hindus to please kuffar. How many of them bowed down to Hindu idols along with Hindus to show brotherhood. How many of them sang national anthem while they knew it had words of kufr. They still could not please kuffar.”81 Meantime, an AQIS Telegram channel, Ghazwathul Hind, commented on India’s 70th Independence Day and the fact that Muslims took part in the celebration:
To the Muslims in India! How long are you going to sleep and dream about the peace and harmony by which Hindus are trying to enslave your mind? How long are you going to obey the so called holy book? The Constitution of India? which contradict the Holy Quran of Allah (swt)? Why do you want to be the slave of this constitution, while Allah has ordered us to reject these man-made laws? Allah (swt) says in the Quran?82
Despite salafi-jihadist efforts to proselytize and spread their war into India, the March 2021 issue of Sawt al-Hind once again lamented the lack of Indian participation in the global jihad. One article hailed the political and economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as a “blessing in disguise” for ISIS’s efforts to spread mayhem in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Even so, the article said ISIS remains “disappointed over the situation of Muslims in the mainland India which has become barren and devoid of Jihad even as the ‘Ansar al Khilafah’ (supporters of the caliphate) have largely restricted their efforts merely to the social media platforms.”83
The profound socio-economic changes underway in India today affect all of its citizens, and this expresses itself in many ways, including in the country’s religious politics. To many Indian Muslims, the traditional Islamic leaders are out of touch. This disconnect between Muslim citizens and established Islamic leaders and institutions provides some opportunity for the delegitimization of the latter, particularly among those who are seeking leadership and protection against the ascendant politics of Hindutva.
Salafi-jihadist movements are trying to take advantage of this, and India is a prime area of competition between AQ and ISIS, both of which are trying to radicalize and recruit Indian Muslims. Yet, their narratives about Indian Muslims and efforts to undermine Indian democracy and nationalism remain relatively understudied. This needs to change. ISIS and AQIS view any pact with a democratic or Hindutva government as religiously invalid. As such, their propaganda has targeted established Islamic institutions, Muslim leaders, and the Hindu nationalist-led government. To many younger Indian Muslims, the traditional Islamic leadership is out of touch. This disconnect between Muslim citizens and established leaders and institutions provides some opportunity for the delegitimization of the latter, particularly among those who are seeking leadership and protection against the ascendant politics of Hindutva.
The salafi-jihadist threat to India is real, but, even so, ISIS and AQ propaganda is not driving Muslim politics in India. Indian Muslims, for the most part, are forging their own religious and political paths, within the framework of the Indian constitution and the country’s democracy. It is imperative for the Indian government and foreign observers to recognize this. Indeed, the discussion should not be about Indian Muslims as a potential security problem, but about Indian Muslims as citizens. Despite the turmoil in India, few Muslims in India have actually joined extremist groups. They have instead doubled down on India’s constitutional tenets, viewing the rise of majoritarian politics as a threat to the Indian constitution, to its democracy, and to its existence as a nation. Perhaps nothing else puts this clearer than an anti-CAA Malayalam rap song performed by Haris Saleem, “We are Indians beyond languages, attires and bloodlines, we will roar together, together again.”84