The migration to oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies of as many as one in five men from India’s Kerala province has brought an influx of money that pays for food, shelter and education. It also funds dowries for their daughters and gifts for their wives.
But like many of the world’s millions of economic migrants, the men bring back more than money.
In this case, they brim with provocative ideas about the proper way to worship. And they pay for plain green mosques with minarets and Arabic writing that are far different than the ornate and bulbous temples where Muslims have long worshiped here.
In Kerala, where Muslims are traditionally the poorest residents, those returning from the Persian Gulf say they are building pride in their community and connecting its members to the broader Islamic world. But others see the growth of sectarian politics and scattered religious violence as warning signs.
“Kerala was a place in India known for communal harmony,” said Hameed Chennamangloor, a writer and former professor of English at the Government Arts and Science College in Calicut, the main city in the province’s heavily Muslim north.
Historically, when rioting between Hindus and Muslims swept through India, Kerala remained calm.
Now, Chennamangloor said, “There has been a rise in fundamentalist tendencies among a certain segment of Muslims.”
From 40 days to 4 hours
But the weak economy forced many men to leave to find work. Filmmaker Abbas Pannakal said his late father boarded a rickety ship in 1970 for a journey to the United Arab Emirates that took two months and cost the lives of 17 passengers.
As successive oil booms caused the Persian Gulf economy to soar, South Asians started migrating in droves. Air connections expanded. A trip to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates was whittled to four hours.
Scholars and government officials in India estimate that expatriate workers send back at least $20 billion a year. About 50% of Persian Gulf migrants from India come from Kerala.
From the moment they arrive, migrants from Kerala are introduced to attitudes unknown at home. Some housing is for Hindus only; some employers openly prefer Muslims over Hindus or Christians.
Some migrant workers are invigorated by living in a country with a Muslim majority. Others less enthusiastic about their new home cling to their faith out of loneliness and a sense of isolation. But they find a different interpretation of Islam.
In study groups and at prayer gatherings throughout the Persian Gulf region, men such as Abdul Rahman Mohammed Peetee hammer away at Kerala’s traditions. For them, paying homage to local saints or anyone other than God is sacrilege: The Koran and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad contain all that any Muslim needs.
Religious foundations and wealthy individuals in countries such as Saudi Arabia also promote a more rigid version of Islam. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have government agencies devoted to the religious lives of Asian expatriates, often administered by preachers from their own communities.
The Persian Gulf version of Islam fits the expatriate lifestyle: They can practice their faith in drab dormitories and on breaks during long work shifts. And it sanctifies their newfound riches. The wealth obtained by South Asian Muslims in the Persian Gulf is interpreted by many as a reward for service to God.
When it started out 28 years ago, the Markaz Sunni Cultural Center just east of Calicut was a tiny orphanage supporting 21 children. It has grown into an empire, with a complex of religious schools and colleges educating 10,000 students. Its orphanage is home to 1,700 children.
More wealth has meant that more Kerala Muslims have the time to pray five times a day and more can afford a religious education for their children. The new mosques enforce strict separation of the sexes.
Impressed by the power of education, many returnees urge their daughters and sons to attend high school and college. But to placate their parents, women raised in conservative families often must abide by strict Islamic dress codes.
By the 1990s, Kerala clothiers began mass-producing cheap Persian Gulf-style religious coverings for women. Now they are worn even at universities.
“What the women wear depends on the trend in the gulf,” said Fazel Kizhekkedath, a 24-year-old salesman at the Hoorulyn clothing wholesaler. “Now the trend is the abaya. Black is the new fashion now.”
Men also are being told by religious groups what to wear. One Islamic organization recently demanded that Muslim youths stop watching soccer and wearing T-shirts with team logos.
“I am scared,” said one moderate Muslim newspaper editor, who asked that his name not be published because it could harm his community standing. “The liberal Muslims, the moderate Muslims, are scared.”
The religious awakening also has given rise to a new political assertiveness.
Critics say Muslim organizations have set up de facto political machines, forcing parties on the left and right to woo extreme Islamic groups funded by Persian Gulf riches.
Although it denies any active political involvement, Markaz and its leader, Kanthapuram Abu Bakr Musaliar, have become major players in southern India.
Kerala’s elders often boasted that Hindus, Muslims, Christians and a smattering of smaller religious groups were Indians first. Religious identity took a back seat to class interests. The Communist Party and the conservative Indian National Congress dominated elections.
During recent ballots in a Muslim enclave near Calicut, both the Communist Party and conservatives plastered walls with pictures of Saddam Hussein. Even before the controversy over his execution, Hussein’s trial had become a cause celebre among Muslims, largely because of the region’s connection to the Persian Gulf.
Many worry that the status quo has begun to unravel.
“Muslims themselves are worried by the rise of the militant Islamic organizations,” said Ajai Mangat, Calicut correspondent for the Malayalam Manorama, the province’s largest daily newspaper. “If they become more powerful, the Hindu nationalists become more powerful.”