With the New Year, enhanced fears of, and challenges to, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, other local jihadists, and their allies among violent Muslim fundamentalists, have become visible across the Indian subcontinent. Intra-Muslim tension inside India, between moderate Barelvi-Sunni Muslims and the radical Deobandi sect, emerged on the weekend of January 3, at a conference in the Indian city of Moradabad, held by the All-India Ulema Mashaikh Board, representing the moderate leaders.
The board’s general secretary, Maulana Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kichowchhwi, called for 10,000 madrassas, shrines, tombs, and other Islamic monuments in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (India’s largest with a population of nearly 200 million) to be taken out of the hands of the “Wahhabis”--the blunt, Barelvi way of referring to the Deobandi extremists. Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan were the birthplace of the Taliban, who are led by Deobandis in Afghanistan and Pakistan alike. But the Deobandi phenomenon originated in what is now India. Until recently, the Indian Deobandis were considered radical in theology but non-threatening. Paradoxically, the fundamentalist movement, which was founded in Deoband, a town in Uttar Pradesh, began after the failed Indian Mutiny of 1857 as a nonviolent trend, based on the conviction that Indians could not expel the British by military means, but should instead dedicate themselves to religious purification. The Pakistani branch of the sect was radicalized in the aftermath of the Afghan war against the Soviets, when Deobandi madrassa pupils (talib being an Arabic word for a student) were recruited by jihadist elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence services to rule as their proxies in Afghanistan.
The Barelvi Muslim leaders, comprising a majority of Sunni Muslims in both Pakistan and India, are conservative but adhere to the spiritual Islam of Sufism, which is anathema to the Taliban, their Deobandi mentors, and their Wahhabi sponsors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Barelvi leader Maulana Kichowchhwi accused a minority financed by petro-dollars--no need to guess from where--of systematically capturing mosques and madrassas. He called upon the moderates to “liberate our properties,” and demanded that the Indian government assure that administrators of the numerous religious facilities be named from the 80 percent of Indian moderate Muslims who maintain Sufi traditions. Since the Deobandis, in the Wahhabi manner, condemn honors to Islamic saints at shrines and tombs, the Barelvi leader argued that the Deobandis cannot be expected to preserve and administer them.
Radical Islamist violence in India had been limited when compared with conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, until the Mumbai terror raid at the end of 2008. But observers attuned to the widening reach of the Taliban-Al Qaeda offensive in South Asia have warned that the extremist enemy’s aims always extended beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. They include seizure of the Indian-ruled section of Kashmir, a battle zone where many Pakistani jihadis were trained and sent to fight by the Islamabad government. The Kashmir conflict has served as an alternative sphere of operations to Afghanistan, and produced Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the al-Qaeda backup cadre responsible for the Mumbai attack. LeT, like the other subcontinental radical movements, is active in every place South Asian Muslims reside, including the U.S. (where eleven of its members were imprisoned for weapons and related charges based on the 2003 “North Virginia paintball jihad” case.)
Assaults on shrines and tombs have long comprised the first phase of fundamentalist terror against moderate or otherwise noncompliant Muslims. At the same time last weekend that Indian Muslim leaders appealed for their religious properties to be returned from radical control, Taliban in the Pakistani Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the northwest border with Afghanistan dug up the corpse of Anwarul Haq, a local spiritual figure, and blew up six shrines in the FATA agency of Orakzal. There a local tribe, the Stori Khel, had been fighting the Taliban for more than a month. Anwarul Haq was a leading religious teacher among the Stori Khel. The FATA includes Waziristan, best-known as an Al-Qaeda and Taliban base area, as well as the town of Parachinar, a reputed refuge for Osama bin Laden and site of horrific massacres of minority Shia Muslims by the Taliban late in 2008.
Pakistani-directed Taliban sympathizers have also appeared as far away as Bangladesh, a Muslim country of nearly 160 million, on India’s eastern border. During the Bangladesh independence war of 1971, murder, rape, and despoliation of property were inflicted on the Bangladeshis by the powerful Pakistani jihadist movement Jamaat-e-Islami (JI)--a matter Pakistan refuses to discuss. JI operates in the U.S. through the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), controller of the Alexandria mosque from which six American citizens recently departed to join the anti-American jihad in Afghanistan (see “It Can Happen Here,” issue of December 28, 2009). Another group adhering to the Taliban’s Deobandi ideology, Tabligh-i-Jamaat (TJ or Call of the Community), is based in India, and with millions of members scattered around the globe, has launched a major “Islamic revival” in Bangladesh. TJ first drew the attention of the non-Muslim world thanks to one of its past members, Richard Reid, the unsuccessful “shoe bomber” of 2001 and antecedent of the technologically-similar Delta Air bomb attempt near Detroit on Christmas. Moderate Muslim figures in Bangladesh have called for a stop to the spread of TJ and Deobandism on their soil.
The current war in Afghanistan has stimulated belief that Taliban deserters may form a counterterrorist force comparable to the “Sunni Awakening” that succeeded in Iraq. Unlike the Taliban, the Sunni terrorists in Iraq were mostly composed of Wahhabi fanatics crossing the border northward from Saudi Arabia, and even those Iraqis discontented with the U.S-led intervention resented the extremists as foreigners. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are much more implanted among the local Pashto people, who live on both sides of that border. In addition to recruitment of disaffected Taliban, a strategy for defeat of the Taliban should include support for moderate Muslims in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh who are equally menaced by radical aggression.
Stephen Schwartz is author of The Two Faces of Islam and The Other Islam. Irfan Al-Alawi is executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, based in the UK.