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A six-month plan for defeating Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind’s violent political agenda, the root of Islamism and radicalisation in India

The support for Sharia law in a Muslim community is a good measure of its radicalization and its support for violent extremism. A 2021 poll conducted in India showed that 74% of Indian Muslims preferred Sharia courts over regular ones.

The clerics of Jamiat seem to think that they are smart and untouchable. But their time is up because they have insulted Islam, duped Muslims, and played a role in terrorism directed at the majority community in India.

These are strong words indeed. But they are supported by extensive details of the so-called “Antiterrorism Conference” hosted by the Jamiat at Deoband in 2008. Moreover, since that time, Jamiat’s actions have only served to reinforce the stated outlook and intent.

Jamiat stands for a council of Islamic scholars. In particular, it manages Deoband Islamic seminary, which has graduated thousands of clerics who control most of the mosques in India. 

My recent research article shows that clerics are at the forefront of radicalizing their flock. This should be no surprise to the majority in India. But for the people in the West, that is not so obvious. This is the reason the Afghan Taliban managed to drive America out. It is a mistake to presume that the West knows everything “better” because it excels in science, medicine, and technology. In my view, on the topic of terrorism, countries such as India have far more practical knowledge compared to the West.

Why have clerics become so influential? My article provides an answer for the first time. By calling Sharia (which is a clerical interpretation of Islam) “God’s law,” allegedly covering all aspects of a Muslim’s life, clerics can exert control over the lives of those Muslims who believe in Sharia.

Indeed, Jamiat does not let go of any prominent occasion to advocate for Sharia. The declaration of the 2008 Deoband Antiterrorism Conference in India attended “by an estimated 10,000 Islamic clerics, scholars, muftis, and teachers of madrasas” from across the country called on Muslims “to spend their lives . . . following [the] Islamic Shariah and teachings with full confidence.”

By ordaining Muslims to spend their lives following their Sharia interpretations, when Islam itself does not limit where to acquire knowledge, Jamiat clerics have insulted the religion itself and those who follow it of their own accord.

What also stands out is Jamiat’s duplicitous behavior in conveying false narratives to both Muslims and non-Muslims. The conference declaration accused the West and Israel of “state-sponsored terrorism” when Indians were most concerned with Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism directed at India. It also demanded that the Indian government curb those in the state machinery who “malign” Muslims. But it did so without mentioning that the machinery had found links between local Muslims and terrorist acts.

From my research involving Muslim communities in 20 nations across the planet, in 10 countries where the majority of the Muslims favoured Sharia law, Islamist extremist groups had a strong presence in eight nations and a weak presence in the rest of the two.

Thus, the support for Sharia law in a Muslim community is a good measure of its radicalization and its support for violent extremism. A 2021 poll conducted in India showed that 74% of Indian Muslims preferred Sharia courts over regular ones.

Hence, the stone-pelting (especially from mosques) we have witnessed in Ram Navami or Hanuman Jayanti processions are not due to intelligence or administrative failures or let alone be “provocations,” but are the inevitable consequence of Jamiat and the clerics it graduated propagating Sharia, radical agendas, and false narratives. Not surprisingly, Jamiat is at the forefront of defending or overturning Muslims accused or convicted of terrorist activities.

Therefore, in India, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind forms the fountainhead of Muslim radicalism and violent extremism. The central government is considering banning the Islamist outfit, Popular Front of India (PFI). Such a move should be welcomed, but ultimately the buck stops with Jamiat and the clerics it has graduated.

These clerics are oppressing their flocks by discouraging modern education and undercutting Muslims’ integration with the rest of society. All of this, put together, constitutes a political agenda of the clerical cadre and, arguably, should be seen as distinct from the religion of Islam itself. In other words, to neutralize the threat of Jamiat, the clerics must be separated from the faith, and a wedge between them and the flock be driven without speaking ill of the religion and by portraying ordinary Muslims as being duped by the Islam-insulting clerics.

Even in Saudi Arabia, where Sharia was the law of the land until recently, the Sharia interpretations are often contradictory – telling evidence that they are clerical opinions after all. Moreover, Sharia law there was not codified. Under Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom has moved away from the narrative of Sharia as divine law toward a much more secular law that is codified. Hence, there is no justification for using Sharia law in India, as it would also mean giving legitimacy to the entities that systematically radicalize their communities.

As per the 2011 Indian census, among the children of age five and below, over 20% of them were Muslims, while the overall Muslim population percentage was only about 14%. Such data should not be alarming, except that from every Muslim majority region of South Asia, non-Muslims have been massively driven out to India, thanks mainly to the clerical incitement. Thus, the escalating acts of Muslim extremism in India are an existential threat few non-Muslim Indians can afford to gloss over. The advent of the movie Kashmir Files has awakened the majority to this impending threat while at the same time exacerbating tensions with Muslims.

To the extent it is necessary to neutralize the power of Jamiat-trained clerics, it is hard to see it being carried out if their ability to command and assemble their flock in mosques remains. But under an emergency rule, neutralizing Jamiat and its clerics should be less complicated than it seems because the emergency powers can be used to declare these entities as enemies of the state and ban their affiliated institutions from assembling their flock. At the same time, a campaign shall be directed at them and by discrediting Sharia as mostly their mere opinions. Such a step largely takes out the mosques operated by these clerics as the staging posts and nerve centres for organized violence and, importantly, as centres of indoctrination.

Indians are naturally proud of being the world’s “largest” democracy. But it is not a functional one if it cannot guarantee the safety of its citizens under the growing threat of Islamist extremism. It is important to note that South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore became functional democracies through authoritarian regimes that put a premium on economic growth and stability. Being culturally similar, India can and must move in that direction to save itself. In any case, the escalating communal conflict will likely drive India to declare an emergency. But it should instead do so on its terms.

The strength of Islamist extremism lies in conducting political activities masquerading as religious ones, driven by religious leaders. But with its power so concentrated, it is a one-trick pony, which could be its fatal weakness.

I am not advocating violence against anyone, be it clerics or ordinary Muslims, but only those steps that ensure human rights and religious freedom for all of the concerned parties. Moreover, such efforts are not directed at all Islamic institutions but only at those led by the Sunni, Jamiat-trained clerics (which should be about 90% of the mosques, as the Sunni sect consists of 90% Indian Muslim population). I believe that the duration of six months should be sufficient to drive a wedge between Jamiat clerics and the Muslim populace and bring safety and security to non-Muslim communities all over. However, bringing religious freedom to the vast majority of India’s Muslims – a scenario in which they feel free to pray to whoever they choose, including Lord Ram – could take up to 5 years. This may read like a fantasy, but it is impossible to arrive at solutions without first debating them.

Muthuswamy is a US-based physicist and a scholar of radicalism

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