About seven kilometres from Nilambur town in Malappuram district of Kerala are the Athikkad hills where a group of Salafi families were leading a quiet life for over a decade. But the news about 21 people leaving Kerala in a suspected bid to join the Islamic State, and about their links with the Salafi commune here, has suddenly turned the spotlight on this place. Now, it is often frequented by the police and intelligence agencies.
There are 18 houses in the Salafi commune surrounded by rubber estates and teak plantations. Among those residing at the commune are doctors, engineers and school teachers. The commune was founded by Subair Maankada, a school teacher, who had bought three acres of land at Athikkad some 13 years ago. He later divided the land into small plots and sold it to likeminded people to build houses. The commune has a mosque and a research centre for young people willing to follow the Salafi style of living, akin to the seventh century milieu in which Prophet Mohammed lived.
Subair himself had to leave Athikkad in 2013 following a split in the Salafi group here. According to Musthafa, another teacher living here, Subair was not leading the life that he had preached earlier, and this was a cause for dissension.
Musthafa confirmed that some of the missing youngsters had visited the Salafi commune at Athikkad to learn the Salafi way of life. “I do not know if they joined the IS but I am sure that they have left as life in Kerala has become unbearable. Our fight is not against other religions. We cannot tolerate Muslims who are not practising true Islam,” he says.
According to Salim Idid Thangal, a former correspondent with the daily Thejus, the Athikkad commune came about as a result of split some 15 years ago among Mujahideens who follow the Salafi/ Wahabi way of living.
“Some of those who wished to live the life lived during the time of the Prophet moved to Athikkad and even reared goats, while some moved to Yemen and Saudi Arabia because goats should be reared in the deserts as was done by the Prophet.”
He adds that the community in Athikkad had strong links with Salafi communities in other countries, with scholars from Yemen and Sri Lanka visiting Athikkad until two years ago. Children from Athikkad were also sent to Sri Lanka to learn more about Salafi thought.
But observers are reluctant to paint the whole community with a single brush. Fazal Gafoor of the Muslim Education Society, for instance, calls the departure of the missing 21 an aberration, and insists that in every community, there is a minority open to radicalisation.
“At least 5% of people belonging to every community behave and think differently. They first become fanatics and end up as terrorists. This is the case with the missing youths. I am not sure if all the missing people have joined the Islamic State terrorists. But there is a possibility of it. It is some kind of aberration that has led the youths to leave Kerala,” he says.
He does, however, place the responsibility for curbing such radicalisation on the heads of communities, insisting that they should act to counter extremist Salafi scholars and false literature propagated on the internet and through videos.
PT Nazar, a senior TV journalist explains that extreme religious thought has been spreading among the Salafi Mujahideen since 2001, in the aftermath of the split in the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen(KNM).
“Even the KNM was an offshoot of radical thinking among the Sunnis. But it was step to bring about positive changes among Muslims, which included education for women. But today everything has changed and the extreme line adopted by the Salafi groups pose a great threat to society itself.”
Most noteworthy in this phenomenon he says is the absence of reliable authorities or scholars among the radicalised sections. “What is most surprising is that none of the missing youths have learned religion from any known scholars. They are brainwashed by fake scholars, who think everything should be as it was during the time of the Prophet. Such thought can only endanger the social fabric of the state,” he says.
So it is that parents and relatives of those missing from Padna and Thrikkaripur in the northernmost district of Kasargod say that the behaviour of the missing youngsters had changed in many ways in the last two years. Men started growing long beards and wearing short pants. They tried to distance themselves from family members and neighbours. They arranged separate prayer meetings and also attempted to police the behaviour of their families, trying to forbid impure behaviour or habits such as watching television.
“The change in the behaviour of my nephew over the past two years was amazing,” says Abdul Salam, a maternal uncle of Hafizuddeen, one of the missing youngsters. “He was like any other youth here. He loved music very much and had arranged a music programme at the wedding function of his sister barely three years ago. But the same Hafizuddeen along with Shihas, a graduate in business management, had cut the cables of a local cable TV network to stop relatives from watching TV programmes,” he says.
Meanwhile, with reports of the NIA taking up the probe into the missing cases and their suspected ISIS link, the so-called official wing of the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahiddin(KNM) led by TP Abdulla Koya Madani is on a face-saving exercise, putting all the blame on extremist Sufi ideology. The KNM organised a convention in Kozhikode recently to explain its innocence. Addressing the convention titled "Extreme spirituality – Sufist terrorism", Madani said that “extremist” Sufist and fascist forces were trying to sabotage the renaissance in the Muslim community brought about by the Mujahideen movement in Kerala. He also blamed the right-wing media for teaming up with some officials and the Sangh Parivar to destroy the movement.
However, it is interesting that the KNM faction led by Hussain Madavoor and the various other splinter groups are yet to react to the present situation. They don't even admit to the truth of which group had banned celebrating Onam and lighting of the traditional lamp. Moreover, neither the Madavoor faction nor any splinter groups have come out with any explanation of why and how youths are being driven to extremist ideologies.
An interesting point about the new revolution among the Muslims is the war over what they call true religion and practice. Promoters of the Caliphates believe that seeking the help of a mediator (whom they address as Shirk or Jinn) be it a so-called holy man or a woman is a sin. It amounts to practicing idolatry or polytheism. The split in the Mujahideen movement in Kerala is based on the latest indoctrination they have received from the latest self-styled Sufi teachers and scholars such as Zakir Naik, Qureshi and others.