Ground Zero - In-depth reportage from The Hindu

Mystery of the missing twenty-one

A photo of Hafeezuddin, who went missing from Padanna in Kasargod district.  

Seated on a sofa in the visiting hall of his two-storeyed house in Padanna, Kasaragod, Abdul Hakim struggles to control his emotions. “I am telling you what I told others. If he has gone to join some terrorist organisation, I don’t want to see him again. Not even his body,” he says of his son, who went missing in late May. Hakim stops for a moment to remove his spectacles and wipe his anxious face with one hand. The father in him surfaces again. “He could have gone looking for some spiritual life,” he says with a fond tinge of hope. “If he comes back with a clean chit from the government, he’s welcome.”

His son, 23-year-old Hafeezuddin T.K., is one of  the 21 people who have gone missing from Kerala in recent months. Hafeezuddin left home on May 28, telling his parents that he’s going to study the Koran in Kozhikode. Two days later he told them he was going to Sri Lanka. “Since then, there was no contact till Eid (July 6) when we got a message on the Telegram app that said he and his friends have reached ‘ jannat’ (heaven), where there’s ‘no tax, no interest and no kings’,” says Hakim, who has returned from Dubai, where he runs an automobile workshop.

While Hafeezuddin’s whereabouts are unclear, his family is aware that he has been on some sort of journey for a while now. The college dropout turned ‘spiritual’ a couple of years ago. He grew a beard and kept persuading his father to do likewise. One day, he cut the television cables at home, declaring that music and cinema were haram (forbidden). He went on to stop using the car because it was bought with a loan, which he regarded as un-Islamic. He even demanded that his father sell his business and properties in favour of leading a simple life. “The change was so stark that I felt something was amiss,” recalls Hakim. “After all, this is the same boy who danced at his sister’s wedding a little more than two years ago.”

There is an eerie similarity to the stories narrated by other parents in Kasaragod. At Hamza Sagar House, hardly 100 metres from Hakim’s mansion, Abdul Rahman talks of his two sons — Ijaz Rahman (34), a doctor, and Shihaz Rahman (28), a management graduate. They grew up pretty much like the other boys in the area, but turned extremely religious a few years ago. “They said they wanted to live like the Prophet lived. They were following a strict religious life. They didn’t want any of these luxuries,” he says, gesturing to his bungalow as if it was a symbol of excess that his children had rejected.

Motley group, similar stories

Of the 21 people who have gone missing,  17 are from two nearby villages in Kasaragod — Padanna and Trikaripur. The other four are from Palakkad. Interestingly, all 21 knew each other; some as relations, others as friends.

Take the case of Ijaz and his brother Shihaz. They went missing with their wives and Ijaz’s only son. Shihaz and his wife left Padanna two months ago saying they were moving to Mumbai. Ijaz said he was taking his family to Lakshadweep for a professional assignment before they vanished into thin air. Their cousin Ashfaq Majeed (25) and his friend Abdul Rashid Abdulla (30), a central figure in this mystery, are among those missing.

 If this motley group had planned their departure jointly, they did this outside the gaze of local eyes. “They were a group, but largely they interacted only among themselves,” says a salesman at a stationery shop close to Ashfaq’s house in Padanna. For instance, Palakkad-based Isa (Bexen before he recently converted from Christianity) was a frequent visitor to Padanna to see Rashid and Shihaz. Isa took other members of his family along with him when he went missing — his brother Ehisa (earlier Bestin) and their two wives.

Did the group have a leader? Hakim believes like many others in Padanna that Rashid was the “captain” of the team. Says Rahman, Ijaz and Shihaz’s father: “Rashid has been very strict on religious matters. He is a very knowledgeable person. Shihaz used to hang around with him.”

Getting Rashid’s family to open up proves to be an impossible task. At his house close to the Udumbunthala Juma Masjid in Trikaripur, a short elderly man with a full grey beard refuses to take any questions. “We have nothing more to say to the media,” he declares, cutting this reporter short. “The superintendent of police has also told us to keep our mouths shut.”

But who is Rashid? A software engineer who had worked in the Gulf, the 30-year-old was associated with Peace International School, run by an Islamic scholar named M.M. Akbar. “Rashid used to come to train our teachers,” says a staff member of the school. The school has lost one staff member — Mohammed Marvan (23).

Was Rashid operating alone? Or was he part of a larger group and a larger design? These questions are tossed around heatedly in Kasaragod as people huddle together to speculate whether the 21 have signed up to join the Islamic State (IS). A message sent on the Telegram app by Ijaz to his family on Eid to this effect has strengthened such speculation. It declared they have reached Dawlatul Islam, which is how the IS refers to the territories under its control. A few days earlier, Marvan had sent another cryptic message to his family. “I am fighting in the path of Allah,” he said.

Foreign fighters in IS ranks

Over the years, the IS has attracted thousands of youth from around the world. According to a December 2015 report by the Soufan Group, a U.S.-based private intelligence company, the IS had 27,000 to 31,000 foreign fighters from 86 countries. It controls territories in Iraq and Syria and has established a foothold in Afghanistan. Muslims from around the world are urged to declare allegiance to its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and travel to the Caliphate, or Darul Islam, from “Darul Kufr and Darul Harb” (Land of Disbelief and Land of War). Online propaganda magazines and blogs in different languages propagate what is perceived as a textual adherence to Islam.

‘Mujahir’, a blog apparently run by pro-IS Keralites, has 39 articles in Malayalam on life in the IS-held territory. One article is specifically on the duty of every Muslim living in Darul Kufr and Darul Harb to do hijrah (travel to the Caliphate).

Rahman, Ijaz and Shihaz’s father, is convinced his sons have not joined the IS. He thinks that under the influence of Salafi Islam, the boys have gone on a spiritual journey, probably to a place where people live in accordance with its tenets. “They are calm and quiet boys. They simply couldn’t have joined the IS,” he says.

That the missing 21 were heavily influenced by Salafi Islam is beyond doubt. What remains uncertain — something that family members, friends, and even the security establishment agree upon — is whether they have signed up with the IS.

Salafism urges its followers to go back to the text. It has different manifestations, one of them being a puritanical form of Islam inspired by the teachings of the 18th century Arabian scholar Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab.

Sunil Babu, the Deputy Superintendent of Police in Kanhangad, who’s in charge of the investigation, says these youths were influenced by ultra-Salafism. “They used to go to the Salafi mosques, but were not part of any Salafi organisation.” Six of the 21 people are women. Four recently converted to Islam. And almost everybody is middle class or upper middle class. The local police have found no organisational network responsible for their disappearance. But they have not ruled it out either. “We are looking into all aspects of the case,” says Babu.

Salafism in Kerala

The Salafi movement in Kerala has a history of nearly a century, but has hardly been monolithic. It goes back to the formation of Muslim Aikya Sangham (Organisation for Muslim Unity) in 1922. “Aikya Sangham played a key role in the Muslim renaissance in Kerala,” says T.P. Abdulla Koya Madani, president of Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen (KNM).

Sitting in the fifth-floor office of the Mujahid Centre in Kozhikode with two of his colleagues, Madani emphatically lists the achievements of the Salafi movement in Kerala, which is also called the Mujahid movement: “Leaders like K.M. Moulavi and Vakkom Moulavi fought against the superstitions within the Muslim community, and promoted Muslim unity, modernity, women’s education, and communal harmony.” The KNM, founded in 1950, is the successor of the Aikya Sangham and was the principal Salafi organisation in the State until it split in 2002.

“The Salafi role in reforming a community that was educationally and socially backward a century ago was very critical,” says Ashraf A. Kadakkal, who teaches Islamic History at the University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. But since the 1990s the Salafi movement in Kerala has increasingly come under the influence of its counterpart in the Gulf. Keralites who migrated to the Gulf and worked with the Salafi movements there came back and questioned the progressive stream in Kerala’s Mujahid movement. “These differences grew into a major ideological conflict that led to the split of the KNM,” says Kadakkal.

The KNM has split several times thereafter. The man who represented the conservative wing in the 2002 split was Zubair Mankada, an Islamic scholar and teacher. He later began an exclusive Salafi commune in Nilambur, Malappuram district, in 2007 for those who want to live the “pure Islamic life”. “Their idea was to recreate the life the Prophet lived 1,400 years ago. That’s some kind of text fetishism,” says Kadakkal. “Most of these new Salafis find it difficult to live a pure Islamic life in a secular, pluralistic country like India. That’s why they are leaving for religious communes in and outside the country. In my view, this neo-Salafism is a psychological disorder,” he adds.

Firoz P.K. of the youth wing of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), an ally of the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kerala, echoes a similar view. “Their extreme spirituality is basically superstitious. There are such Salafis everywhere. There’s a commune in Sri Lanka. There’s one in Yemen’s Dammaj. Someone may have indoctrinated them,” he says. IUML, the largest Muslim party in Kerala, is ideologically opposed to Salafism. “They may not have gone to join the IS,” says Firoz, “but even then, the growing influence of Salafism has to be checked. It’s misleading our youth.”

According to O. Abdurahman, Editor of Madhyamam daily and Group Editor of MediaOne channel, both run by Jamaat-e-Islami Hind Kerala, the problem with Salafis is that they are taking the “holy text literally”. “The world has changed. If one says he wants to live in the same way as the Prophet did to become a true Muslim, that’s nothing but text worshipping,” he says.

But there are those who believe it is wrong to blame Salafism for the disappearances. For instance, Hussain Madavoor, leader of the KNM (Markazudawa), the moderate faction, says the entire episode is wrapped in mystery. He denies that any of them belonged to his Salafi organisations. “If one wants to live like the Prophet, there’s nothing wrong in it as long as it’s at a personal level. But if it gains an organisational form, imposes its ideals on others, then it’s an issue… We don’t know exactly what the missing people subscribe to.”

Madani of the KNM also believes dragging the Salafi movement in Kerala into the controversy is an injustice to those who “led the renaissance among Kerala Muslims”. He says: “It’s the duty of the government to clear the air. They have to carry out an independent inquiry and bring out the facts about the disappearances.”

Here, there and nowhere

Intelligence officials seem to have no clue about the present location of the missing. They know some of them had gone to Sri Lanka earlier for religious studies. One intelligence official says there is evidence that some members of the group had briefly visited a Salafi organisation in Sri Lanka. But they are not there now, and the possibility of them being in Dammaj is also slim as it was overrun by Shia Houthi rebels in 2014. “Some of them booked tickets to Tehran. But we are yet to conclude whether they actually landed there,” says an official, adding that the focus of the investigation is the possible IS link. “There are many ways to travel to IS-controlled areas in Iraq and Afghanistan from Iran via road.”

But there is evidence that other youth from Kerala have travelled to Syria to join Islamist groups in the civil war against President Bashar al-Assad. For instance, there’s a Facebook page, Olivin Charath, which has updates in Malayalam, including pictures from Syria’s battle zone. Some updates say those who run the page are not part of the IS, but with another Islamic group in northern Syria. The Nusra Front, the Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda, controls territories in Northern Syria. The page owners also glorify the Islamic way of life they are living in Syria, and occasionally attack the Muslim organisations in Kerala.

Warns Kadakkal: “The road from Salafi spiritual extremism to religious extremism and terrorism is a very short one. Their ultimate goal is to live in some imaginary Islamic life. If they can’t find that by other means, they could turn violent. In some sense, this is exactly what is happening today in Syria and Iraq.”

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 12:26:57 AM |

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