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In India, a struggle for moderation as a young Muslim woman quietly battles extremism

In 2002, Rubina Sandhi's home burned down by Hindu mobs during anti-Muslim riots. Instead of turning to violence, she is one of India's many Muslims who are fighting back against extremism.

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Map of Ahmedabad, India
Ahmedabad, India
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 12:00 AM

AHMEDABAD, INDIA -- Rubina Sandhi had settled in for a night of homework when panic swept through the narrow, congested alleys of her neighborhood.

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It was Sept. 11, 2001. Television sets in the mosques, tea shops and market were beaming images of the World Trade Center engulfed in flames in New York. Five months later, Rubina's house was burning as Hindu mobs torched Muslim areas of her city, leaving thousands of people homeless. She remembers smoke hovering over Ahmedabad just as it had over New York.

With their few remaining possessions, Rubina's family members took refuge in a squalid relief camp and, several weeks later, moved into ramshackle housing on the edge of the city - where only Muslims lived and worked. "We felt like ghosts," recalled Rubina, who was then 12.

The rioting was among India's worst sectarian violence in decades, hardening divisions between the Hindu majority and the country's 140 million Muslims as hard-liners on both sides sought to exploit the tensions. Soon after the rioting, many young Muslims in Rubina's neighborhood started following stricter forms of Islam as imams fanned out into the region's poorest Muslim areas, some bringing with them Wahhabism, the fundamentalist form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.

Some Indian Muslims even sought training in Pakistan to carry out acts of revenge in India, their version of violent jihad. For her part, Rubina chose a different struggle, determined to be a good Muslim and daughter as the community around her became more radicalized. She fought for the right to make decisions for herself, and she tried to find a way to voice her beliefs as a woman, as others around her were being silenced.

Her decisions would mirror those of many other young Muslim women in her city who entered adulthood in the aftermath of religious violence and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She would be asked to compromise her dreams, and her commitment to Islam would be questioned.

Ahmedabad, a 600-year-old city in the state of Gujarat, has long been a vibrant historical center where religions aspired to coexist. It was the headquarters for Mahatma Gandhi's ashram and his peaceful freedom struggle and is celebrated for its Indo-Islamic architecture. Of the city's 5 million people, 11 percent are Muslim.

Before the riots, many Muslims in Rubina's neighborhood celebrated Hindu traditions. Yet tensions between Hindus and Muslims here often rose to the surface.

The violence in 2002 erupted after 59 Hindus were burned to death on a train as they were returning home from a pilgrimage site. Muslim extremists were blamed for the blaze, but the cause of the fire remains in dispute. In 2004, a government-appointed panel ruled that the train fire was an accident and not caused by Muslims.

Soon after the anti-Muslim riots, extremist imams started to gain more clout. Among them was a firebrand televangelist named Zakir Naik, whose weekly sermons are broadcast from Mumbai and Saudi Arabia. Thousands of young Muslims have been drawn to his powerful slogans, including his declaration that to defend Islam, "every Muslim should be a terrorist."

This more conservative brand of Islam became more acceptable, and it seemed to empower Muslim men in India. But it had the opposite effect on Muslim women. The imams and mullahs warned young women to stay indoors, to forgo higher education and to become dutiful mothers of as many children as God would give them. The children, they said, would replace the Muslims killed during the riots.

"The Hindu mobs who attacked us called us all terrorists. Then the mullahs wanted to take away our freedoms," Rubina said, adding: "Everyone felt confused."


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