Modi government plans seminars, scholar exchange with Arab world to devise counter to ISIS ideology

Modi government plans seminars, scholar exchange with Arab world to devise counter to ISIS ideology

By: || Updated: 21 Dec 2015 01:09 PM
New Delhi: When Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in August, terrorism from Pakistan was the public focus of his discussions and his address to a 50,000-strong Indian-origin audience.

But behind closed doors, in talks involving national security adviser Ajit Doval, Modi's delegation debated another threat as intensively, and a plan to counter it. This related to the Islamic State's propaganda bombardment and its potential impact on Indian youth.

That plan - for an exchange of religious scholars to discuss ways of countering radicalisation - is one of several soft tools India is quietly devising with its Arab friends to stop the terror group from gaining roots in the country.

Several Indian Muslim leaders, who have led protests against the Islamic State, are sceptical about the possible gains from some of the government's plans, though.

Besides, less than 20 people from India, home to the world's second-largest Muslim population, have so far travelled to Syria or Iraq to join the Islamic State compared with hundreds from smaller European nations.

Still, the decision to counter the group's social-media-driven, often below-the-radar campaigns for recruits reflects the deep concern within India's strategic establishment that the Islamic State, if unchallenged, may make serious inroads here too.

"They (the Islamic State) have not succeeded so far in attracting many Indian boys and girls, but that doesn't mean it can't happen," junior minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi told The Telegraph. "We've got to remain careful, and that's why we're making these plans."

India's government has largely avoided commenting on the military campaigns that the West, Arab nations and Russia have been leading against the Islamic State, mentioning, if pressed, only a desire for a "coordinated approach" against the group.

That policy derives from a conviction many senior officials in the foreign policy establishment share. The terror group has had negligible success so far in attracting Indians, and has focused its attacks on countries that are bombing it - a combination that kills any incentive for New Delhi to appear on the frontlines, diplomatically or militarily, against the group.

The decision not to advertise the new coordination with Arab nations on soft strategies to counter the group's ideology is in keeping with that policy, officials confirmed.

The strategies include a series of conferences and seminars, to be put together with diplomatic allies, to devise ways of delivering a counter narrative to the Islamic State ideology.

In October, Hatem Tageldin, Egypt's ambassador in India, invited Naqvi to a conference in Luxor, Egypt, on countering radicalism.

"Such seminars and conferences are important to try and discuss tactics and practices that are helpful to both nations," Tageldin told this newspaper. "Egypt is always willing to cooperate with India."

Religious scholars and preachers from over 50 countries participated in the Luxor conclave, which Naqvi attended.

In January next year, New Delhi hopes to facilitate a similar conference of Islamic leaders and scholars to discuss how to use their religious scholarship to counter the terror group's views. The Vivekananda International Foundation, a think tank deemed close to the current government, will host the summit.

Key safeguards against radicalisation already exist in Indian Islam, community leaders and scholars said, and only need to be built upon through the strategies the government is contemplating.

"Islam in India has a heavy Sufi influence which, combined with the broader values of India - of tolerance and co-existence - defines the region here," said Mahmood Madani, general secretary of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, India's largest group of Muslim clerics, which held a public protest here after the Paris terror attacks in November.

"That's why groups like the Islamic State or al Qaida have never gained a foothold here. Young Muslims know their elders won't back that thinking."

Most major Muslim organisations, including the influential Deoband seminary, have condemned the group.

Zafarul Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, an umbrella organisation of Muslim bodies, however, argued that Indian Islam's response to the Islamic State makes any scholar exchange programme pointless.

"What can we learn from them?" asked Khan, accusing Muslims in West Asia of "compromising true Islam".

But Madani cautioned that India's success in containing the attraction of the Islamic State and al Qaida should not be viewed purely in terms of the schools of thought that have influenced Islam in this country.

The Taliban, for instance, stress their Deobandi roots while Chechen fighters follow an Islam almost completely Sufi in its origins and very distant from the Wahhabi cult observed in Saudi Arabia, Madani said.

"How each country deals with these problems is what is more important than looking just at different schools of thought," he said.

"That's why, while I'm not sure how much we'll gain from foreign scholars, I wouldn't oppose it (the exchange programme)."

For India, with its large strategic interests in West Asia and a Muslim population of 150 million, the challenge isn't how to beat the Islamic State with bombs and guns in Syria and Iraq, former diplomat Hardeep Puri said at a lecture here this past week.

"The IS (Islamic State) is also an ideology," Puri said. "That's what we've got to defeat."

The Telegraph, Kolkata

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