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

Mohammad Samdani Misbahi, leader of an Umred mosque, passes a list of Islamic groups whose members are barred.
Mohammad Samdani Misbahi, leader of an Umred mosque, passes a list of Islamic groups whose members are barred. (Photo: Rama Lakshmi/Post)
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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 29, 2008

UMRED, India -- 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.

The modest prayer hall of Sheikh's mosque, for instance, has posted a painted sign warning outsiders to stay away. The sign lists the names of stricter Islamic groups, whose members are not welcome in the mosque.

In the past two years, several mosques here in the Indian state of Maharashtra have taken similar measures.

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."

Two years ago, a violent clash broke out at a Barelvi mosque in the town of Chimur, also located in Maharashtra, over ideological differences among the worshipers. Those with more conservative views took over the mosque, and the others are now building a new one, replete with a sign warning that not all are welcome.

The group now in charge of the mosque does not advocate violence of the sort that has inspired fears among moderate Muslims. Rather, the head cleric said in an interview that his group simply did not approve of Muslims who visited Sufi shrines and wanted to enlighten them.

"We do not belong to any group. We are just good Muslims," Abid Husain said. "But our doors are open. We do not put up signs."

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.

He said about 300 Indian Muslims have been arrested or detained in connection with about a dozen bombings that have ripped through India since 2005.

In various interrogation sessions, the officer said, the radicals confessed to being driven by two specific episodes in recent Indian history: the 1992 demolition of a mosque by a Hindu mob, and sectarian killings in the western Indian state of Gujarat that left more than 1,000 Muslims dead in 2002.

"Terrorism is born out of the womb of injustice," said Akhtarul Wasey, the head of Islamic studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. "In spite of all this, Indian Muslims still have faith in the secular and democratic Indian state."

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.

"It is our religious duty to tell people that terrorism cannot be jihad. It is not a holy war," said Mahmood Madani, a member of the Indian Parliament and a prominent leader of the school. "There are so many bomb blasts in India today. Innocent people are dying. We are doubly concerned because Islam is being used to carry them out."

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

In Sheikh's town, a small grave said to belong to a Sufi saint attracts about 50 people a day, many of them Hindus. Next to the grave, there is a portrait of the saint placed on a rickshaw covered with flowers and golden glitter. In thousands of similar Sufi grave-shrines in India, devotees offer embroidered sheets, incense sticks and coconut oil, and tie threads on intricately carved walls. They also sing and sway in a trance at these shrines.

"We believe that we cannot dare to approach Allah directly. No direct dialing for us. The prophet and these saints are our intermediaries," said Mohammad Hamid Engineer, who founded a small group called Iman Tanzim eight years ago to preserve the Barelvi Sunni way and identity in India. The group urges many mosques to hang signs at their doors warning conservative groups to keep out and publishes a community paper. "We follow rituals that were born here on this land."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company