During a meeting with UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in New Delhi in February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the Islamic State (IS) cannot be tackled through military means only. Instead, Modi said, any counter-offensive against the group should be preceded by a sociological and psychological analysis of those who are attracted to the IS’ ideology. The Crown Prince agreed to the PM’s proposal and added that the UAE was opposed to extremism since al-Qaeda days and it had also sent troops to Afghanistan to fight Osama bin Laden.
Aware of Modi’s plan to travel to Saudi Arabia on April 3, the Crown Prince conveyed the willingness of the Gulf countries to join hands with India against terrorism. While the UAE is a frontline State in the battle against the IS, India is starting to feel the impact of this radical ideology with a section of Sunni Muslim youth eager to join the IS’ Caliphate.
India’s security agencies have identified 28 youth fighting for the IS in Iraq and Syria, out of which six may have been killed. Recently, 22 people were arrested for acting on behalf of the IS in India, taking the total number of radicalised youth beyond 100. India is finding it hard to counter this spurt in radicalisation because its intelligence agencies are understaffed at the field level.
It is in this backdrop that the Modi government is promoting a four-day World Sufi Forum (WSF) from March 17 to 20. The meet will be attended by more than 200 international delegates from Pakistan, the United States, Britain, Canada, Egypt and Turkey, and over 100 papers will be presented. The event, which is being organised by the All India Ulema and Mashaikh Board, will showcase India’s Islamic heritage that rejects violence and supports inclusivity.
Led by Sufi scholars such as Canada-based and Pakistan-born Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, the WSF will spread the spiritual and universal message of Islam. Sufism could be a strong counter to the IS troopers as it never pursues political power or tries to change social structures.
Instead, Sufism stands for multiplicity, tolerance, acceptance and love.
Musicians such as Nizami brothers will highlight the cultural aspect of Islam and spread the message of inclusiveness through qawalis.
This counter-narrative will not end with the WSF: Later this year, scholars from Deoband are organising a conference to expose the IS.
Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia — on his way back from the nuclear security conference in Washington — should be seen in context of the country joining hands with the West Asian powers to prevent radicalisation of youth and eradicate extremism.
With seven million Indians in West Asia (two million in Saudi Arabia), Modi must ensure that the Indian convergence is linked only to terrorism and not to any sect or a country.
Although Chinese President Xi Jinping did the balancing act when he visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran in one year, Modi does not need to do so as India’s relation with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel are independent of each other and transparent.
While trying to prevent radicalisation within India, Modi needs to reach out to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to ensure that the two Sunni-dominated states do not become gateways for Indian youth to join the IS. This convergence has started to bear fruit with friendly West Asian countries keeping an eye on Indian youth. These countries have state-of-the-art cyber interception technologies and they have often acted as warning systems against threats emanating from the IS or other terrorist groups against India.
The cooperation with Saudi Arabia would also restrict the movement of Pakistan-based jihadi groups, which have acted as a strategic arm of the State in targeting India with hardly any ideological baggage.
Even though Saudi Arabia heads the 24-nation coalition to counter extremism, it needs India’s support to ensure that the campaign to counter the IS is not limited to any particular faith or ideology.
With the security of its seven million citizens as its priority, India can act as an honest broker since it has time-tested links with all major powers in West Asia on counter-terrorism.
India’s Islamic traditions can remind the world that the fundamental principles of the faith can be expressed in different ways without any dilution of the core religion. This character is evident not only in India but also in Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics.
This broad-based front to contain, restrict and then eradicate the IS cult is the need of the hour as it has the potential to take advantage of the existing geographical-political vacuum in West Asia and can also redefine existing relationships among nation states and non-State players.
The Modi government is rightfully concerned about youth radicalisation and understands the larger threat that emanates from a certain section of the Indian Muslim clergy and pro-Pakistan Kashmiri separatists since radical thoughts transcend geographical boundaries.
Modi is correct in saying that the IS cannot be tackled only through military offensives. Its rabid ideology must be challenged by a counter-narrative that is inclusive, and India must lead that movement by example.