India’s Moderate Muslims See Peril In Growth of Stricter Form of Islam

Rama Lakshmi, Washington Post, June 29, 2008

On his way out of the town mosque, through a green archway, Ghulam Sarwar Sheikh was handed a copy of the community newspaper. Quietly glancing over the front page, he sighed. The article that had caught his attention was about a series of bombings in an Indian city last month that killed 80 people and injured more than 150.

A previously unknown group, calling itself the Indian Mujahidin, claimed responsibility for the attack. It blamed the government for deliberately delaying justice for Muslim victims of religious riots.

“These are dangerous times. We cannot trust anybody,” Sheikh, a 28-year-old taxi driver, whispered as other worshipers around him nodded in agreement. “We are holding on to our teenage boys by a very fragile thread. We have to protect them from outsiders who come to change our moderate ways.”

Sheikh’s concerns reflect the growing anxiety among Indian Muslims, a minority in this country of more than 1 billion people, following a series of bomb blasts carried out by radical Islamic groups over the past three years. Many in his community are proud of their moderate tradition and wary of straining the social fabric of this multi-religion nation. As a result, they and other Indian Muslims are starting to guard against Islamic groups that advocate stricter interpretations of the religion.


About two-thirds of India’s 130 million Muslims are Barelvi Sunnis. In addition to attending mosques, they follow the mystical strain of Islam known as Sufism and attend shrines of Sufi saints—seen by more conservative Muslims as blasphemous.

Shabeeb Rizvi, a professor at Rizvi College in Mumbai who is researching Islamic ideologies in India, said the Barelvis have increasingly felt besieged by Islamic groups with stricter interpretations of Islam, particularly Wahhabism, a conservative school of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia.

“Most of the Barelvi Sunni mosques are in a dilapidated condition, and the groups loosely connected to Wahhabi ideology donate money for repairs, appoint their own priest and slowly begin to take over,” Rizvi said. “About 30 percent of their mosques have been taken over by front organizations of Wahhabi ideology in 10 years. This brings a new aggressiveness to the Indian Muslim landscape.”


Most Islamic groups that embrace Wahhabism or other strict versions of Islam do not support violence. And not all religious-based violence in India is carried out by Muslims. Last week, for instance, two Hindus were arrested in connection with a pair of explosions in suburban Mumbai. A Hindu nationalist tabloid, meanwhile, has urged Hindus to form suicide squads.

Still, Indian officials fear that members of more radical Muslim groups are seen as prey by organizations that do support violence.

“Muslims in India have always followed a moderate tradition. There have been no calls to violence in the mosques. But we can no longer remain complacent. A few have begun giving shelter to terrorists, helping put together the explosives and pressing the timer device,” said a senior intelligence officer who has investigated several of the bombings in Indian cities over the past three years. The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.


The violence, along with the police scrutiny, has led Indian Muslims to react in different ways. Some, like those at Sheikh’s mosque, have closed their doors to outsiders. Others have publicly denounced terrorism.

One of the most pronounced responses came from the Deoband school, an influential 19th-century Islamic seminary that issued a religious edict against terrorism. The seminary has held nearly a dozen anti-terrorism conferences over the past several weeks.


Many Indian Muslims say that a tradition of moderation is the strongest deterrent against terrorism.


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