Kafeel Ahmed's story is now part of contemporary history, of how an aeronautical engineer got turned on to radical ideology. His brother and cousin, Dr Sabeel Ahmed and Dr Mohammed Haneef, seemingly traversed the same path. Some of those arrested in the recent bomb blasts in India, including the July 11, '06, blasts in Mumbai's suburban trains, have testified to a systematic indoctrination. Radicalism, extremism, a political view of religion are by no stretch of imagination limited to Islam and Muslims; they permeate every major religion. Yet, it's worth looking at the pattern of how some Muslims give in to the indoctrination.
a SIMI activist held in connection with Mumbai train blasts
Till it was banned in 2001, the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) was one of the many organisations that sought to build an Islamic consciousness. The heightened political sensitivities in the '90s provided a fertile climate for its growth. Inevitably, it turned out to be a hunting ground for terror organisations also. If the Mumbai police are to be believed, SIMI operatives attracted many frustrated young Muslim men to the cause of armed jehad with material and logistical inputs provided by outfits like the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Toiba. Most of the confessions in the July 11 blasts case point to this unholy connection (some have since been retracted in court). Irrespective of the claims being proved in court, it is widely acknowledged even among progressive Muslims that indoctrination and "Islamisation" for jehad appears to be a continuing activity, sub-surface and quiet, nonetheless as real as in a Hindu or Christian fundamentalist organisation.
Now, for the first time, Outlook has managed to draw out three former SIMI members who quit in disgust over the path of violence they were being led down. For understandable reasons, they refused to be photographed. Here are their first-person accounts:
MNC executive: "My Quran tells me fasad fil araz (chaos on earth) is haraam"
"When we enrolled in SIMI, we were just into college, very young, quite impressionable and blissfully unaware of larger geo-political events and our multiple identities. It was okay for a while, we learned about the Quran and Hadith, what we should be doing as Muslims and so on. Later, in late '90s, I found the whole movement was turning radical. At meetings, we would be shown pictures of the Babri Masjid demolition, Muslim riot victims, CDs of hate speeches by Hindu leaders, all of it designed to arouse a sentiment of revenge. Then there were the lectures—on how an Islamic revolution is the only way out, on how democracy and secularism had failed to protect Muslims in India. The SIMI top brass would give talks on how there was no alternative but to struggle to establish the Khilafah, the Islamic political order. Doing so was our duty as Muslims.
"It's not just what they told us but how they told us that coloured many minds, made many believe that armed struggle was part of our duty as Muslims. Those who spoke to us always harped on "sacrifice". When I argued against this and protested that the organisation was for student welfare and character-building, I was hounded and expelled. By then I could see that reason and common sense had been hijacked by extremism. I am convinced that as an Indian Muslim, I have to integrate into this society, work for all-round welfare, not bomb people simply because they are non-Muslim. In fact, my reading of the Quran tells me that fasad fil araz (roughly translated as 'chaos on earth') is haraam. This—creating chaos by killing—is exactly what they are doing in the name of the Quran."
Writer and teacher: "It was like we were hypnotised, being prepared to ‘do or die’"
"I didn't know anything about SIMI but went along with some friends after we saw handbills in our college. The initial days were okay because we made new friends, young Muslim boys like ourselves, but it wasn't so simple. Gradually, we were brainwashed into believing Indian Muslims were to help in establishing a Shariah-based Islamic rule. It sounded scary to me. We were told that Muslims comfortably living under an un-Islamic order would be consigned to Hell, that secularism is inherently anti-Islam, that all other religions and ideologies are sin and their adherents rebels/enemies of God, that Shariah law is the only way because democracy is a set of man-made rules and laws, that we must be hostile to all things/people un-Islamic and expect to be resisted by the enemies of God.
"This is where the armed struggle came in. They talked of sacrifice, how we should dedicate our lives to the cause. We were familiarised with the teachings of Sayyed Abul Ala Maududi, the Jamaat-e-Islami founder who believed Prophet Mohammed's mission was to establish monotheism, the rule of one God. After a series of such meetings, many did agree to work for the cause, some were even emboldened enough to offer to sacrifice their lives. It was like we were being hypnotised. We were hypnotised and religion was the vehicle they used to create a mental preparedness in the willing to 'do or die', preferably 'do and die'. They made posters hailing (Osama) bin Laden after 9/11 and sent footsoldiers to put them up. I got out because I could see where all this was leading to. I am a good Muslim but I don't understand this principle of sacrifice to create Islamic rule."
Accountant-turned-social activist: "Boys ask me, ‘In such an un-Islamic world, why hold our peace?’"
"It was difficult not to feel angry seeing the Babri Masjid demolition or hearing the riot victims in the videos. Some of the speeches they showed of Hindu leaders made us want to pull the trigger then and there. Half of the headlines on CNN and BBC are always anti-Muslim now. It makes me angry, Iraq makes me very angry. But I know Hindus who are angry at this too. So the anger is not exclusively Muslim, it is not just of the fundamentalists alone. Back then, I didn't see it as clearly as this but something was amiss. Islam, Quran, everything was being used to drum up hate-emotions in us. The information they gave us was real but it was coloured.
"We were just frustrated youth, we were told how we should respond, how Islam should be spread. Their speeches and training was on these lines: the anti-Muslims fear death, so show them death. We were told: "Unke dil mein khauf paida karo (Kill so that you create dread in their hearts)." It was easy to fall for the propaganda to succumb to the idea of an Islamic revolution. Our legitimate anger was tapped for religious ends. A few of us protested because we knew Islam does not in any way sanction the death of innocents. We were punished and expelled. I was a marked man, I still am. For them, I am a kafir because I am anti-jehad. For the police, I am still a suspect; cops came searching for me after the July 11 blasts last year.
"The only way out of the miasma is for Muslims to end their self-isolation and integrate, as Indians. I go around talking of Indian brotherhood, not an Islamic brotherhood. One Gujarat, though, puts us back 10 years. When I say at meetings that jehad is not the way, young Muslim boys ask: "In such an anti-Muslim world, why hold our peace and patience?" So that you don't become a Kafeel Ahmed, I now tell them. There are outfits hailing him as a hero; here I denounce him and his path."