Do Not Mistake a Pious Muslim for a Terrorist

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Ajmer Rajasthan, India © aluxum

How the war on terror is becoming incorporated into mainstream politics.

Well before Donald Trump was elected and Geert Wilders threatened to close all the mosques in the Netherlands, Muslims have been disproportionately affected by reactionary politicians’ lack of commitment to universal human rights. The annual Human Rights Watch World Report draws particular attention to this issue: an introductory essay on terrorism discussed not the human rights abuses committed by violent extremists, but the human rights abuses committed in the name of the war on terror.

Like any war, this war risks disrupting the peaceful lives of innocent citizens. Unlike other wars, this war is becoming incorporated into mainstream politics.

The UN Security Council Resolution 2178 requires governments to take action to prevent or counter violent extremism (CVE). There are, however, no universal legal definitions for terrorism or violent extremism. Resolution 2178 leaves such definitions open to governments. This open-ended nature of the resolution means that Muslims in general could easily end up suffering for the sins of Islamist extremist groups.

This vagueness is particularly worrisome since preventing radicalization through social and “other” activities is an essential element of CVE. “Radical” behavior does not necessarily involve violence or intended violence. Peaceful expression and association, including religious devotion, may fall within the specter of what states consider radicalization and in need of control.

This potential excess of the use of counterterrorism measures and CVE risks targeting innocent people, and Muslims in particular, whereas Muslims, just as much as non-Muslims, are the victims of violent extremism. Crucially, targeting innocent Muslims has an obvious counterproductive effect, making them more vulnerable to the outreach of extremist ideologies.

Marginalization and Suspicion

Marginalization and suspicion of Muslims in the West is relatively recent, starting with the September 11 attacks and the subsequent war on terror, but rapidly intensifying with the current divisive, sometimes overtly anti-Muslim politics spreading across Europe and the United States. In contrast, Muslims in India have faced marginalization and suspicion for decades, if not centuries. The situation in India can thus function as an example for the West, as the effects of the war on terror may replicate the transformations Indian Muslims go through elsewhere.

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As the influential Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) remarks in a recent report on CVE strategy, various forms of structural conditions (including real and perceived marginalization, experiences of injustice and corruption) can make violent extremist organisations seem appealing. In India, these structural conditions are historically present. In Europe and the US, these conditions are growing due to a wide range of factors—possibly including the very CVE measures that states mobilize to prevent the consequences.

I conducted research in rural West Bengal, between 2011 and 2013, and for shorter periods in 2014 and 2016, in a village I call Joygram. I observed how innocent Muslims could be misidentified as potentially radicalizing. The story I tell here, about Muslims in India, is not directly about the counterproductive effects of CVE, as there were no such measures in place in this rural area when I was there. It is therefore more a cautionary tale on how not to mistake a pious Muslim for a terrorist. However, it is also an example of the potential effects that the marginalization and suspicion of innocent Muslims may have.

Secularizing or Radicalizing?

Muslims in India have been the subject of marginalization and discrimination at least since its postcolonial foundation. Despite the nation’s proud self-identification as secular and democratic, Muslims who defied partition and remained in India are tacitly considered second-class citizens. Their loyalty to the Indian nation is always questioned. Under current Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule, Muslims are openly deemed a “dangerous Other” and a threat to national unity.

This attitude toward Muslims materializes in human rights abuses and actual inequalities. Muslims have less access to governmental resources, including government jobs. They are not only less protected by the police but are also victims of police harassment and violence. They are ghettoized in the cities.

More recently, despite the particularities of Indian Muslim marginalization, the Indian narrative increasingly conflates with a globalized narrative. According to this narrative Muslims are the antithesis to liberal democracy, a disruption of a secular, liberal world order. Terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists groups increasingly legitimize the suspicion of Muslims everywhere. Global terrorism intensifies the already negative attitude toward Muslims in India.

Moreover, the kind of leadership Prime Minister Narendra Modi enacts is gaining global currency. He is an exemplary autocratic leader, purporting to speak in the name of the majority while turning a blind eye toward, if not actively encouraging, human rights abuses against the minority. The election of President Trump and the surge of popularity for Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are just the most recent examples of the populist trend.

As a result, whereas the secular, liberal West seems to increasingly think that Muslims are the greatest threat to peace, for these Muslims that very thought and the measures taken accordingly are a threat to their peace. Many Westerners feel they live under the threat of Islamic terrorism. Muslims everywhere live under the threat of being considered terrorists.


Many Westerners feel they live under the threat of Islamic terrorism. Muslims everywhere live under the threat of being considered terrorists.


This suspicion and concomitant marginalization create a deep sense of disquiet amongst the Muslims I work with. There is anger, and frustration, but foremost a sense of moral failure and responsibility. Paradoxically, perhaps, many of the Muslims in Joygram attempt to gain a sense of peace by converting from the local, non-denominational Islam to the more puritan, reformist Deobandi Islam.

This involves an emphasis on “proper” Sunni Islamic practice (closely following the five pillars of Islam; condemnation of shrine worship); a change in aesthetics (white Muslim dress, Islamic cap and uncut beard and shaven upper lip for men; a salwar kameez instead of sari for women, and in some cases a burka); and changes in everyday habits (as closely as possible following the hadith—the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad).

These visible changes make many non-Muslim Indians suspicious. It looks like reformist Muslims become “more Muslim,” and by implication “less Indian.” The more Muslim they become, the more they (allegedly) reject liberal values and instead (ostensibly) show allegiance to extremist Islamic ideologies.

This is a radical misunderstanding of the project of reformation as explained and practiced by Deobandi Muslims themselves. For them, this conversion to reformist Islam is a holistic ethical transformation: a response to the moral degradation of politics and society (including of Muslims themselves); an attempt to withstand the pervasive corruption implicating every Indian in an immoral economy; an almost desperate attempt to revive virtue in one’s personal, social, economic and political life—as a Muslim, but also as an Indian citizen.

Indeed, Islamic reformism is, from their perspective, the basis for becoming a virtuous, secular Indian citizen, and for claims for equal inclusion in the democratic nation. To them, virtuosity implies living in harmony with others, contributing to the Indian democracy and abiding by national law. So perhaps paradoxically to secular liberal ears, a new, reformed Islam becomes the basis of secularism.

The ethical framework of Muslims in Joygram is not rigidly stuck in time but has gradually incorporated secular liberal values. This ethical framework is called Islam only because India has a long history of reducing holistic moralities to narrow religious and communal modes of identification. Living morally should imply living peacefully, by following Islamic prescripts, locally specific rules of sociality, and the Indian constitution alike. Becoming a reformist Muslim is therefore a public statement showing: I do not engage in any immoral or unlawful activities.

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Terrorist, No!

Alas, political and public discourse often positions Islam in contradistinction to secular liberalism. These processes of ethical transformation can therefore be too easily mistaken for processes of radicalisation. This mistake would fit with the conveyer belt theory of radicalization. This theory would presume that reformist Muslims are indeed covering the first steps toward becoming violent extremists. Prominent scholars have widely discredited this theory yet it is still prevalent in certain circles. Other circles, such as the CSIS, follow the evidence that there is no direct link between religious conservatism or reformism and violent extremism.

We cannot easily predict whether these Muslims are on the road to radicalization. Radicalization has more to do with external factors—marginalization, experiences of injustice—than with currently prevalent intentions or sentiments. Suspicion of reformist Muslims is particularly problematic since increased religious devotion may in fact reflect efforts to challenge Islamic extremism. The CSIS, for instance, recognizes that religious fluency can be helpful in challenging extremist ideas and narratives. And, I would add, can help individuals to contribute to secular harmony.

Suspicion of radicalization is a major motivation to join the proselytizing movement the Tablighi Jamaat. The Tablighi Jamaat is an apolitical, non-violent Islamic organization. This was the case for Farid, who joined the Tablighi Jamaat to demonstrate that Muslims are peaceful. Farid fiercely condemns any terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam; those people are not worthy a Muslim title.

When I introduced Farid to a British friend, Farid immediately pre-empted any suspicion that his Islamic aesthetics may provoke. Imitating shooting an AK-47, and then waving his hand in rejection, he says to my friend, “Terrorist, no! No bombs! We Muslim, shanti (peaceful).” Farid learns and spreads an Islam of peace on the proselytizing tours with the Tablighi Jamaat. Becoming more fluent in this Islam helps him to challenge violence committed in the name of Islam.

Similarly, Deobandi imams preach that is the duty of Indian Muslims to contribute to India’s national identity. An identity captured in the slogan “Unity and Diversity.” Religious devotion includes being welcoming to strangers of whichever community. To pick up a rock on the road to avoid an accident unknowing of who the affected may be. Donning the Islamic garb is a way of demonstrating one’s commitment to this ethical attitude of tolerance and solidarity.

In other words, the turn to reformist Islam is not a rejection of secular liberal values. Instead, it is a response to the failure of secular liberal governance. This failure is painfully visible in the rampantly unequal distribution of resources and rights. It is a response to purposively divisive and corrupt political practice: A politics that fails to secure universal human rights and substantive citizenship. It is a response to the kind of politics that we increasingly see in the US and in Europe.

Joygrami Muslims work hard to become pious Muslims and devoted Indian citizens. Yet fellow Indian citizens suspect them for extremist sentiments. This creates ever more frustration. The ethical transformation that these Muslims engage in further alienates them from the Indian nation state. It makes them ever more suspect of anti-Indian and anti-global secular world order sentiments.

According to some CVE programs in the US and the UK, a perceived sense of being treated unjustly, expressions of hopelessness, futility and connection to group identity (including religion) are criteria suggesting that people are at risk of radicalization.

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Most of the Muslims I worked with would easily meet all these three criteria. They feel treated unjustly, because the politicians and police marginalize Muslims on the basis of their religious identity. They feel hopeless because the very measures they take to demonstrate that they are peaceful are counterproductive. Their struggle for inclusion in the Indian nation state instead raises suspicion. They increasingly connect to their religious identity—firstly, because Islam offers them the tools for living ethically and peacefully; secondly, because they feel excluded from claims to the Indian group identity.

Yet their ethical transformation should not in any way be misunderstood as radicalization. It is the misunderstanding of their ethical journey that may incite a very different and otherwise unrelated journey—a journey toward radicalization. Hence a warning: Do not mistake a pious Muslim for a terrorist.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: aluxum

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