The news that 21 Muslims from Kerala have gone missing and were believed to have left the country to join the Islamic State has jolted several Muslim parents in the state who have seen signs of an increasing conservatism among their wards but are struggling to address the trend.
The northern districts of Kerala are the most affected: the Muslim-dominated district of Malappuram, as well as Palakkad, Kozhikode and Kasaragod.
Educationists say that a fast-growing number of youngsters between the ages of 16 and 22 across these districts are coming under the influence of Salafism, an ultra-conservative reform movement within Sunni Islam, which aims to go back to what its proponents call the fundamentals of the faith.
This puritanical strain of Islam advocates strict adherence to Sharia law, and considers cinema, music and interactions with the opposite gender as un-Islamic.
The Salafist influence on boys often manifests itself in them showing a reluctance, or flat refusal, to study in co-educational schools and colleges.
Several parents, whose children are displaying signs of being influenced by Salafist thought, acknowledge it is a problem and are worried about their children, but express their helplessness at dealing with the issue. Many are reluctant to seek help for fear of being ostracised by society, or worse, harassed by law enforcers. They also worry about the impact it may have on the future of their children.
No school, no girls
In Edavanna town in Malappuram district, for instance, Hakkim Razzack and his wife are struggling to get their son Abdul Hakkim to start attending school again. The Class 10 student has skipped classes for a week now.
When his parents asked him why he didn’t want to go to school, he told them that his teacher was a woman and there were girls in his class with whom he was forced to interact. The Razzacks said that their son added that according to the Quran, apart from his mother and sister, he wasn’t permitted to look at any other woman otherwise God would punish him. “He said, ‘How can I defy God?’” said Hakkim Razzack.
Abdul Mohammed of Mukkham town in Kozhikode is another worried parent unable to comprehend the recent behaviour of his 16-year-old son, Sajid, a Class 11 student.
“Last month we all wanted go out for a trip but Sajid just wouldn’t get into the car,” said Mohammed. “He said I have bought the car on a bank loan and taking a loan is against Islam. I was shocked.”
Mohammed added: “A few days ago he refused to allow his cousin to stay here for a few days just because she is a girl. I am scared to even think which way my son is heading.”
Mohammed, who runs a shop in Mukkham, thought that a few counselling sessions by moderate preachers would set his son straight. But that didn’t have much of an impact.
He said that his son told him that the preachers he had been sent to for his counselling sessions were wrong about Islam. “He told me that he had enough proof to show what he believes is right,” said Mohammed. “He said, ‘If you want to really follow Islam, you need to give up on all this. Otherwise God will punish me’.”
Cry for help
Several Muslim teachers say they are getting an increasing number of frantic calls every day from parents concerned about their children, which is indicative of the extent of the problem.
Ashraf Kadakkal, who teaches Islamic history at the University of Kerala, has been counselling such parents for the last two years.
He said that the influence of the ultra-conservative strain of Islam on Kerala’s youth needed to be addressed immediately.
“There is a very young society here which feels that this is not their world,” said Kadakkal. “They believe the Islam practiced here is not pure and that they need to go in search of the puritanical strain. 16-17 year olds thinking like this is a very dangerous trend. They may not be jihadis now but if this terrible mental imbalance is not treated it will make them prospective jihadis of the future.”
Kadakkal spoke of his experience with distressed parents.
“There are fathers who hold my hands and weep in front of me urging me to help their children get out of this mess,” Kadakkal said. “What can you do? The moment I talk to the child, the boy will retort with Quranic verses. So strong is his conviction. It’s a kind of madness that needs to be addressed very fast.”
Professional conferences and seminars held at various institutions were recruitment grounds for ultra-conservative master preachers, according to Kadakkal.
Once master preachers identify their recruits, these impressionable youngsters are fed a daily diet of puritanical interpretations of the Quran and other propaganda through networks on the internet and social media, say law enforcement officers.
The internet has changed the game, admitted Jacob Punnoose, former Kerala DGP (Intelligence). “Gone are the days when the police had to look out for secretive camps and get-togethers,” said Punnoose. “Now everything is over the internet and social media so it has become impossible to keep tabs.”
Punnoose suggested that parents should keep an eye on children who show signs of extreme conservatism.
“The only way out is to make society as open as possible,” said Punnoose. “If you see your child deviating from his normal behaviour talk to him, change him. Try to involve him with the local community and discuss the matter in open forums and change him.”
But that’s easier said than done as evident in the case of Sajid Mohammed.
Spotlight on Salafism
Many parents, in hushed tones, blame the growing influence of the Salafi movement in Kerala for alienating their children from them.
The police have identified a few mosques in Kodungallur in Thrissur district, one in Kozhikode and a few Salafist study centers in the Salafi stronghold of Karuvarakundu in Malappuram as places where preachers recruit and indoctrinate youth in the ultra-conservative form of Islam.
One of those gone missing from Kerala is Hafeezuddin, a B.Com student who dropped out of college. He is from a well-to-do family in Padanna town in Kasaragod. His father has a thriving business in Mumbai and the Gulf.
Still shaken by the disappearance of his nephew, his uncle Salam blamed the Salafi influence for making Hafeezuddin a hardliner.
“He started visiting the local mosque here where you have these Salafi preachers roaming around,” said Salam. “After a few months, his entire outlook changed. He even cut the TV cable connection to the home which shocked all of us. Then one day he just went off with his friends.”
Hafeez, who has three sisters, was among six who left their homes in this little town in the northernmost part of Kerala for presumably Iraq or Syria in search of what they call “Darul-Islam” or the real home of Islam.
A voice message by Dr Ijaz Rahman – a government doctor, who is believed to be the leader of a number of missing Kerala youth – sent to one of the young men’s fathers referred to their search for what they believe to be the real Islam:
It said: “Dear Uncle, this is to inform you of a very important matter. Me, Ashfaq, Shehaz and Hijaz have moved from Darul-Kufr to Darul-Islam. Our familes are also here. We are safe here with ISIS. We are sorry we had lied to you before we left that place, but we did not have another option…Don’t talk too much to the police and get into trouble.”
The message baffled investigating agencies too. Terms like Darul-Islam and Darul-Kufr are rarely heard in Kerala.
Aware that the spotlight is on them, Salafist groups in Kerala have described the situation a “grave one”. The Nadvathul Mujahideen, the most conservative Salafi organisation in the state, has asked the government to investigate the matter of the missing Keralites at the earliest.
“We cannot tolerate the IS at any cost,” said Abdullah Koya Madhani, state president of the Salafist group. “If someone is going to IS hoping that is real Islam, then it’s a big mistake and a great danger for all of us. We need everyone to get together and find a solution to this problem. It is up to us to stop our youngsters.”
Some names have been changed on request.