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Salafis are people who believe that the right way of life was the one led by the early Muslims, those who lived within 400 years of Prophet Mohammed's death

The Salafist campaign in Kerala How the missing youngsters became ultra-conservatives
news Radicalisation Tuesday, July 12, 2016 - 16:29

Bewilderment, more than anything else, dominates the minds of the families of 21 people from Kerala who have left their homes without any explanation. They don’t understand why these people have left, where they are, or if they will return. What is clear however, is that they had become followers of the Salafi thought in the past three years, absorbed in the strict rules it advocated as the tenets of “true Islam”.

Salafis are people who believe that the right way of life was the one led by the early Muslims, those who lived within 400 years of Prophet Mohammed's death. They believe the lives of people of that time were worth emulating, down to the last detail, hence the focus on religious scriptures. 

Sitting in the porch of their home in Padanna, Hafeesudheen’s uncle Salim says that his nephew always spoke about Saudi Arabia, Dubai and their Islamic way of life in bad light.

23-year-old Hafeesudheen is one among the people missing from Kerala. His family says he was never overtly religious, and made occasional visits to the mosque. But it was around 3 years back that he began speaking of true Islam. This was when he began going to a Salafi mosque. 

“Initially he would say that he wanted to go to Egypt to learn about Islam, but we confiscated his passport in the fear that he would get away, when his appeals became persistent,” Salim, who works in Dubai says.

While some family members follow the Salafi movement, others like Salim are atheists.

“Apart from regular visits to the mosque, our family has never compelled the children to be religious,” he says.

 “But Hafeez became religious. True Islam, he would say, is practiced in a land where there is Haleem, a land surrounded by four seas where there is peace. But we dismissed all that thinking it as the ramblings of a young man,” Salim admits.

He dropped out of BBM course without explaining much to his family and left home on May 28 saying that he was going to Kozhikode to attend Quran classes. On June 6, he informed the family that he had reached Sri Lanka and would return after a month. The family, who were expecting him a month later, received only a stray message- “As-salamu alaykum”.  

The family then contacted the families of the other missing youths, who also confirmed of receiving such messages. And they came to the conclusion that all of the had gone together.

“There is no doubt that they all went together. All of them were friends, Hafeez and our neighbor used to go a Salafi mosque. Rashid was Shihaz’s friend. They used to even watch some preacher’s videos regularly, though we do not know his name,” another uncle said.

Shihaz, Rashid and their wives too have been missing for more than a month.

Salim however dismisses any link with terrorist outfits saying that Hafeez would not even watch Rajinikant’s action films. “He was that light-hearted…to think that he might have joined the IS…it is unbelievable. We hadn’t suspected anything until one of the missing youth sent a message saying they were all together and that they had joined the Islamic State,” Salim says.

Hafeez had tried to convince his wife to follow his way of thinking, but the family says that his wife took the bold decision to disagree. “Probably that’s why he didn’t take her along with him when he went off this time,” the family says.

Hafeez’s father Hakeem was aware of the rapid changes in his son’s attitude. “He wanted me to sell my house and all my belongings. The Islam he vouched for, is not the same as ours. It was different, stifling,” Hakeem said. "He has gone for classes in various places, he said it was a quest to learn more," Hakeem added.

***

Less than a hundred meters from Hafeez’s house is a family whose 5 members went missing. Dr.Ijaz, his wife Rihaila and 2 year-old child, Ijaz’s brother Shihaz and his wife. Their cousin Ashfaq and his wife have also gone missing.

Shihaz left two months ago without a word. His brother Ijaz and family left a month later, saying that they were going to Hyderabad and then to Laksadweep. The family has not heard from the two brothers since then, apart from stray messages on Telegram app saying that “they had reached where they wanted to reach”.

Ijaz’s family holds Rashid’s influence on the youth to be instrumental in their religious inclination. Ijaz used to be a practicing doctor, a good one at that, a family member says.

The families are uncertain how the brothers knew Rashid, but says that it is after knowing him that the brothers started talking about abandoning everything and leading a simple life.

“They wanted to spend their lives going to the mosque, telling prayers and repeat the same thing again. We did not understand that kind of a devotion to Islam at all, so we insisted that Rashid was a bad influence. Shihaz, is a BBM graduate who studied in Bangalore, who had possibilities of landing a good job anywhere in the country.

But he chose to join Peace foundation in the purchase department at Rashid’s instruction,” Mujeeb, their uncle says.

Mujeeb recollects an episode from a couple of months ago, when he had forcefully asked Rashid to leave the house when he came looking for Shihaz. The family says that all of the missing youths would hang around at Rashid’s house in Udumbanthara, only a few kilometers away.

The family remembers Rashid as a quiet man, who never indulged in much conversation with any of the family members. A relative adds that Rashid had come back from his well-paying job abroad to settle in Thrikaripur a few years back. 

***

A few kilometers away, in Udumbanthala, Rashid’s parents sit in their living room surrounded by an investigation team. The family narrates everything they know to the team, in the hope that it would help find them.

Rashid’s brother, however, informs that the police have advised the family against speaking to the media.

When asked about Rashid, a few old men walk away, pointing to his house. A neighbour, who did not wish to be named, says that Rashid was a quiet man, who would not cause any trouble in the neighbourhood.

For most of Rashid’s friends, his Salafi views and quest for finding purity has come across as a huge surprise.

Many who knew Rashid as a student of the St Joseph’s College in Pala say that he was one among the brightest students in the batch, also an active member of IEEE chapter of the college. “Once we parted from our college, he moved into more Islamic ways. His posts on Facebook were highly challenging and radical,” he says.

Rashid’s wife Ayesha’s (Sonia Sebastian by birth) friend from Christ college says that she came to know that Sonia had converted to Islam only from her posts on Facebook. 

Another friend informed that while Sonia had done most of her school education in Bahrain, her parents are still settled there.

*****

Even as Kerala police and central authorities try to piece together the sequence of events and how people from four or five difference districts in the state have gone missing at the same time, in Kasargod, there is palpable fear.

“We decided to inform everything to the police. They may have left, but the rest of the families live here. We cannot afford to be ostracized,” said Ijaz’s relative.

“It is not like they were all naïve, all of them were highly educated. But we still believe that they must have gone to undertake religious studies or pilgrimage. Why would they go with their wives and children if they had gone to fight? Three of the women were even pregnant,” Mujeeb says.

Mujeeb is echoing the thought of all the families. That those missing have gone in search of Islam, and not joined terrorist outfits.

 

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