Whenever explanations have been sought for the radicalisation of Muslim youngsters, religious texts or practices specific to Muslim societies have come into excessive focus. The actual reasons may lie in the troublesome interaction of Muslims and the societies they are part of.

Scouring textual traditions or searching for clues in Muslim religious and cultural practices can often prove to be the proverbial red herring, serving to obfuscate the actual reasons for radicalisation.

Ten years ago when the jihadist militant outfit Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) burst onto the scene in the Middle East, it attracted hundreds of recruits from several countries. 

There were reports of Muslim youth from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh joining the ISIS ranks. However, these recruits did not constitute large numbers. Fewer than 100 Indian Muslims were reported to have joined the ISIS.

In Western and European societies, “reasons for radicalisation are more often to do with elements of Western foreign policy” that are hostile and aggressive to Muslim lands. For instance, US foreign policy tilted towards Israel and weighted decisively away from Palestinian statehood, right from the time of the June 1967 Six Day war. Or the decision by the US and UK to go to war with Iraq over non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in 2003.

A more recent instance is the unstinted support that US and European governments have given to Israeli military actions in Gaza, subsequent to Hamas’ October 7, 2023, attacks.

This brings us to the question of Indian Muslims and the welcome fact that not many have been sufficiently radicalised to join ISIS in significant numbers.

Again, explanations have been sought within the specificities of “South Asian Islam” to suggest there are congenial elements, such as suffusion with a supposedly peaceable Sufi ethic, that prevents possibilities of radicalisation.Such an explanation conceptualises South Asian Islam as hermetically hived off from the rest of the Islamic world, when in fact Islam in this region has always been open to multiple influences far beyond its  geographical confines.

These influences have crossed mountain passes of the Northwest; from the expansive landmass of the central Asian steppes and from the maritime influences of the Indian Ocean, while at the same time enrichingly combining with the dominant strains of Hindu civilisation.

In his exceedingly readable book What is Islam?, late Harvard scholar Shahab Ahmad considers the cosmopolitan nature of what he calls the “Balkans to Bengal complex”, that South Asia and its particular regional form of Islam are very much part of.

Western foreign policy

It is further argued that despite rising levels of Islamophobia in Indian society, especially during the Modi years, such hostility has not been as manifest on the foreign policy front.

Radicalisation among Muslim youngsters in Western societies tends to arise on account of disgruntlement with aspects of the prosperous societies in which these Muslim youngsters were born and raised. Often it is the foreign policy component of these societies that becomes most significant in precipitating radicalisation.

The major trigger for retreat into the scriptural and textual or moving to Muslim traditional practices has primarily to do with the way these youngsters experience hostile interactions with certain elements of their own societies, that is perceived as Islamophobic, with foreign policy subsequently becoming the most prominent.

If those elements of often problematic foreign policy of countries such as the UK, France and Germany were to be taken away, significant reasons for radicalisation may disappear.

Among the more infamous cases of radicalisation was British teenager Shamima Begum who joined the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS). Shamima was of Bangladeshi origin and before she realised the difficulty of her situation, she was stripped of her British citizenship.

The Pakistani British novelist Kamila Shamsie in her 2017 novel Homefire imaginatively draws from the Greek tragedian Sophocles and his work Antigone to convey the idea that the fatal decision to join ISIS by a youngster is actually sparked by the domestic and foreign policies of contemporary British governments.

Indian foreign policy

Indian foreign policy has remained consistently antagonised with neighbouring Muslim-majority Pakistan. Younger generations of Muslims are not unduly affected by such a stance as they become more indifferent towards Pakistan, especially as Partition recedes further into the historical rear-view mirror.

Indian foreign policy, even in the Modi years, has been cordial and even warm to Muslim nations west of Pakistan, such as Iran, Iraq and the larger Middle East. This is not to deny that there has been a growing proximity towards Israel over the last three decades, but this has guarded against expressing any major hostility towards the Palestinian cause.

The point remains that reasons for a lack of radicalisation among Muslims have less to do with specificities of South Asian Islam and more with the dynamic interplay of Muslim youngsters and their perceived hostility from Islamophobic elements within their society, that very often project outwards into foreign policy.

An instance of this absence of hostile foreign policy in India, despite rising levels of Islamophobia, was the Nupur Sharma incident in June 2022. At that time, BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma made objectionable remarks about the  Prophet Mohammad during a live television debate.

The issue quickly snowballed into a major diplomatic incident with the Indian government having to quickly take damage control measures after influential Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar raised the matter at the diplomatic level.

The Editors Guild commented that levels of hatred spouted against Muslims by Indian television networks was comparable to Radio Rwanda in the early to mid-1990s. The point remains that this has not translated into an overtly hostile foreign policy towards Muslim lands.

There is one further point to be made on radicalisation leading to joining ISIS. In the case of Western societies, foreign policy antagonism and its impact on Muslim youngsters tends towards identification with lands that may have been recently left behind by immigrant parents or grandparents or which can be identified with in terms of religious and cultural proximity with Islam, notably the Middle East. 

This does not hold with respect to Indian Muslims.

Amir Ali is an Assistant Professor with the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Author of the book, South Asian Islam and British Multiculturalism, Ali’s research interests are in Political Theory, Multiculturalism and Group Rights.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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India’s warm foreign relations with some Muslim states may have prevented youngsters from joining ISIS ranks.
South Asian Islam and the red herring of radicalisation