Thursday, Jul. 21, 2011

Shades of Radicalism

'Qaliqut in Mulaybar is visited by vessels from China, Sumatra, Ceylon, the Maldives, Yemen and Fars, and in it gather merchants from all quarters ... We entered the harbour in great pomp, the like of which I have never seen in those lands, but it was bound to be a joy to be followed by distress.'

The port where Ibn Battuta made his grand entrance still welcomes the wide wooden vessels that have plied the Indian Ocean trade for centuries. The boats, called urus, carry construction material instead of coir and spices, and Malabar is now part of the Indian state of Kerala. But the old Calicut harbor is still a symbol of the free exchange of people, goods and ideas that lies at the heart of Kerala's culture.

That tradition of openness goes back to at least the 4th century, when a Syrian Christian merchant arrived in Calicut and was welcomed with a land grant by a Hindu king. Then, in the 7th century, Arab traders inspired a Hindu king to travel to Mecca, where he converted to Islam and became the legendary founding father of Kerala's Muslims. The tradition endured into the 20th century, as Malayalis — people from Kerala are called Malayalis, after their language, Malayalam — joined a new global wave of migrants.

My own Syrian Christian family went to the U.S. in the 1970s, the same time that many Muslims left for Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. They sent money home, propping up a sleepy rural economy, and by the late 1980s, Kerala had achieved first-world health standards and near universal literacy. In 1995 the environmentalist Bill McKibben tried to explain "the enigma of Kerala." He marveled, "Not even the diversity of its population — 60% Hindu, 20% Muslim, 20% Christian, a recipe for chronic low-grade warfare in the rest of India — has stood in its way."

Yet as Ibn Battuta predicted, joy has been followed by distress. The dark currents swirling around the Indian Ocean have brought a new cycle of change to Kerala. Security experts have warned for years that migrants to the Persian Gulf were taking extremist ideology home. The wake-up call came in October 2008, when four young Malayalis were killed by Indian security forces in an alleged jihadi training camp in Kashmir. Last July a different threat emerged when a group of young Muslims cut off the hand of a Christian professor, condemning him for writing an exam question they said insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

How did these islands of radicalism take shape in a place that was once a model of tolerance and prosperity? To find out, I traveled through Malabar, the heart of Kerala's Muslim community, interviewing religious conservatives, political activists and the families of men accused of waging holy war. The extremists, of course, are a tiny minority, but their ideology has taken root, fed on the growing disaffection of those left out of Kerala's economic and social miracle.

Paths to Anger
Heading north along the Kerala coast from Calicut (now called Kozhikode) to Kannur, the roads are dominated by billboards advertising gold jewelry and silk saris and by construction crews building new houses — all the visible signs of wealth from the Gulf. Kannur is where the four men who were killed in Kashmir began their journey. Indian authorities say they made 10 calls to Kerala before they were killed. A yearlong investigation, beginning with those calls, led to charges against 24 people. Police say the four men were taken to Kashmir via safe houses in Hyderabad and New Delhi by the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), whose operatives, investigators assert, directed their activities from Pakistani Kashmir and funded them with money channeled from Oman. (The Indians also blame LeT for the November 2008 assault on Mumbai.)

The alleged link between LeT and Kerala is a Kannur man named Thadiyantevida Naseer. In 2006, Naseer met Sarfaraz Nawaz, a Malayali working in Oman who was on a trip home to Kerala. Authorities say Nawaz, who has been extradited from Oman to Indian custody, is an LeT operative. Based on wire-transfer records and other communications, the police have accused Naseer of recruiting men from Kerala to join the global jihad. "He believes that he is innocent," Naseer's brother Sohail says. "He's not scared. He's only interested in a better life in the next world."

Sohail narrates Naseer's story from the veranda of their family home, built by their father with money earned from 20 years of working in a bakery in Abu Dhabi. Naseer wanted to become an ustad, a religious teacher, but his father insisted he learn a trade, so Naseer spent two years as an air-conditioner mechanic in Saudi Arabia. He sent money home sporadically prior to returning in 2002, subtly changed. "Before, all his friends were people like us. Some of them used to drink and smoke, have a good time," Sohail says. After returning, Naseer found a new group of friends. "We didn't really know who they were."

Back in Kannur, Naseer worked as a painter, leaving home for weeks at a time. His father urged Naseer, "Why don't you go back to Saudi Arabia?" They quarreled, and Naseer moved out. During those years of estrangement, Naseer began leading religious classes for a group called Nooresha Tareeqat. Investigators call it a front to recruit jihadis, but it has a reputation in Kannur for helping lost young men break free of their desire for money and worldly pleasures. Sufiya Muhammad's son Fayas, 22, left for one of its centers in Hyderabad in the early morning of Sept. 10, 2008. Fayas had never held a job, and Sufiya hoped the move would put him on a better path. "I told him, 'Listen, if you get involved in something bad, just don't come back,'" she says. Fayas was killed in Kashmir a few weeks later.

After the deaths, Naseer crossed the border into Bangladesh. He was extradited and has been in Indian custody since mid-2009. Police have charged Naseer with involvement in a 2005 hijacking of two buses to protest the detention of a radical preacher, a 2006 twin bomb blast in Kozhikode to decry the treatment of Muslims accused of violence against Hindus in a 2003 village riot and the 2008 Bangalore blasts. "Allah knows everything," Naseer told his brother. "I haven't done anything against my conscience." As Indian officials see it, Naseer and Nawaz are a textbook case of how extremists prey on migrant workers in the Gulf. "Once they have helped you out, they have got you into their clutches," Home Secretary G.K. Pillai told the Indian magazine Tehelka. But that logic doesn't explain their influence among those, like Fayas, who never left Kerala.

Malayalis can be radicalized at home too. Take the Popular Front of India. Spokesman P. Koya describes it as an antiglobalization, antineoliberalism, pro-poor-Muslim movement. The front has 50,000 members with an average age of 20, Koya says. It was some of them who chopped off the hand of the university professor. Koya is a retired professor of English, and in his library, James Joyce finds a place alongside the Koran. He says the culprits have been suspended: "It is not [our] policy to be a vigilante group." But he does not disavow their anger. Kerala's openness has allowed these young radicals to thrive alongside the traders, the preachers, the migrants and the militants. It isn't clear if Calicut's harbor is still big enough for them all.