Fourteen-year-old Riyab’s parents were in for a shock when he refused to go back to school, saying he didn’t want to mix with people from other faiths.
Sessions with a psychologist revealed that Riyab had come across websites propagating extremist ideologies, and he was hooked.
Riyab is not an isolated case in Kerala; several parents have come forward saying their children have shown similar signs of being influenced by Salafis, fundamentalists who believe in returning to the original ways of Islam, and other extremist ideals. These youngsters shun TV and popular entertainment, find fault with the system and become reclusive.
For Kerala, this incidence is worrisome. The state has seen a spate of arrests or cases of missing people tied to the militant Islamic State (IS). In June this year, 21 youth disappeared from northern Kerala, and are believed to have joined the group in western Asia. Their case brought to light the problem of ‘Online Islam’; youth being influenced by extremist propaganda via the internet.
Early in October, the National Investigative Agency arrested six men and said it busted a Kerala module of the IS.
As questions arise about whether the southern state is a hot-bed of terrorists, the Kerala Muslim community is weary. The alarm bells have spurred them to desperately attempt to combat the spread of extremist ideologies and isolate those who preach hatred.
“Reformers have been warning against growing radicalisation but nobody took note of it,” said Muslim thinker and writer MN Karasserry, pointing to the failure of the community in anticipating the traction of radical outfits among youth. Karasserry wants the community to imbibe the true spirit of modernism and democracy to check the dangerous deviation.
Anger is also brewing against those soft-pedal such ideologies.
“Islam embodies love, respect and compassion for all. Barbaric deeds of IS are a slur on Islam. We will not allow them to hijack our faith and questions our co-existence,” said Syed Khaleel Bukhari, chairman of the Madin Academy. His organisation is planning to conduct a series of lectures and seminars to sensitise youth. Many religious heads have also asked local committees to keep a tab on suspicious people or those attempting to radicalise youth.
But parents are stuck in a conundrum.
Fearing ostracism and harassment from law-enforcement agencies, they often keep quiet about their children who show behaviour indicating radicalisation.
A father of a missing youth in Kasargode said his family was shunned by a section of their community for making the disappearance public.
Islamic leaders decry the generalisations being made about their community and faith, saying it puts all of them in bad light.
“In Kerala, ghettoisation is not there. Community members always cherish religious and democratic values. We don’t want innocent to suffer in the process,” said Muslim League leader, KNA Khader.
Family members of those missing blame the Salafi sect that preaches Wahabism — an ultra Sunni sect that believes in Sharia law, responsible for the indoctrination of their children. In Kerala the sect was popularised by a former member of the banned SIMI.
Recently, a group of children in a school in Malappuram approached their headmaster with a strange request. They wanted their biology teacher changed; she was a good teacher, they said, but they didn’t want to take lessons from a woman.
In northern Kerala, Malabar is being considered a hotbed for outfits that push these ideological extremities. Religious and political bodies have instead stepped their efforts to counter these. Even hawkish outfits such as Popular Front of India and Jamaat-e-Islami have joined the movement.
In the Muslim-dominated Malappuram, thousands recently gathered at a Sunni congregation and pledged to not be swayed by any provocation and oppose extremist ideology.
Similarly the Muslim League, a moderate political outfit, is planning a major drive to create awareness among youth.
“We have been fighting such forces for quite some time. At times, many blamed us for not taking a belligerent position on sensitive issues. We have suffered a lot due to this,” said Khader. The party’s youth wing is also planning a statewide yatra to spread the awareness.