Story

Two Men, Two Visions of Salafi Islam

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This school is part of the new face of Islam in Kashmir. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.

ONE EARLY morning this fall as the shriveled tree leaves rustled in a cool wind, I set off to interview Mohammad Irshad. A police official and part of the Indian security apparatus fighting the Pakistan-supported Jihadist groups in Indian-controlled Kashmir, he is also a self-acknowledged follower of Salafi Islam. Irshad was straddling a divide in Kashmir that just didn’t cut through religion alone, but was also playing a growing role in the hardening of the region’s politics, putting old relationships under the stress of sectarian enmity and making the already complex politics more volatile.

I drove into the dingy walled compound of a concrete house in a posh suburb of Srinagar, the graceful capital city. Its rutted dirt ground was strewn with trash. A half a dozen, fierce looking policemen stood with guns at the ready as if they were seeing a hostile act in the pageant of life around them.

Though Kashmir remained heavily militarized because of 20 years of violence—now drastically decreased—the presence of Indian troops, blamed for numerous human rights violations, was still a cause for unease among the population. The atmosphere of the place resembled those infamous interrogation centers that still dot the landscape of Kashmir in which the Indian police hold men either suspected of ties to the Islamist militants or to the unarmed protest movement resisting Indian rule.

Irshad—a tall, clean-shaven, strapping man of 38 with short hair, intense eyes and an oddly self-possessed manner—sat back on an overstuffed sofa in a fusty sitting room and denouned Jihadist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), which draws its ideological sustenance from the puritan faith, as a “perversion of the Salafi school of thought.” It was the political aspect of his beliefs that had put him at odds with cohorts in the militant Islamic movement that was spawning rapidly in the Himalayan region.

For many among the Salafists, the cause of freeing the Muslim land from control of “Hindu India,” adopted by the Pakistan-based Jihadist groups fighting in Kashmir, was not only a moral imperative, but also a religious obligation. To them a misrepresentation of this doctrine amounted to apostasy. Men like Irshad, though puritan in the theological sense, were in a political way traitors.

Irshad didn’t see a contradiction in this; he believed instead that the “extremist elements” within the Salafi movement were encouraging a political confrontation with India, but the current Salafist leadership was fighting shy of it. Last April, its leading advocate, Maulana Showkat Ahmad Shah, under whose leadership the Salafists ranks had grown thick and fast, was assassinated in a bomb explosion one Friday afternoon outside a mosque in Srinagar. An investigation by the Indian authorities, and later by Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed the “men within.” Shah wasn’t the first leader of the Salafists to be killed in this fratricidal strife, but the third in the last 15 years.

Shah, just like the other two, fell victim to the doctrine of takfir, (a heretical belief held by some Salafists that calls for excommunication, and in extreme cases the killing of a Muslim thought to have deviated from the right path).

I sat one sunny afternoon, shortly after meeting Irshad, with Mohammad Yusuf, an estranged companion of Shah, on his well-trimmed lawn with tall hedges and potted plants and a spectacular view of the sharp ridges of the Himalayas encircling the capital. Yusuf, a wiry man with a long frizzy beard and a reedy voice, spoke with nostalgia about his association with Shah in the early 1990s.

That period, in the imagination of the Salafists, represented the best hope for the newly arrived Jihadi groups from Pakistan—not only to overwhelm India and force it out of Kashmir, but also to implant the seeds of their puritanical school of thought. Yusuf was struck by the raw energy of Kashmiri men like Shah who were transformed overnight from the soft, easygoing ways of a people blasé about the faith to zealots for whom the pure faith now defined their new identity.

By the late 1990s India had brutally stamped out the threat posed to its military control of Kashmir by the Islamist militants, but it faced a new, irrepressible social reality of Kashmir: Traditional Sufi Islam was losing ground to the Saudi Arabia-backed puritan Salafi faith.

For the Salafists like Yusuf, the intersection of religion and politics was rooted in the traditions of the early days of Islam, and the quest for an Islamic state was a religious obligation to be fulfilled at whatever cost. It was the violation of this principle that caused fissures within the Salafists, marking a split between Yusuf and Shah. Shah, a top commander of one of the jihadist outfits until then, gave up his struggle against India, molded himself into a religious preacher, and maneuvered his way to the top, assuming the command of a then million-strong Salafist movement in Kashmir.

Sitting back on a plastic garden chair, Yusuf was visibly emotional; he felt it was Shah’s betrayal of the core ideology of the Salafi movement in Kashmir, not that of making peace with India, that caused his assassination. He felt the acceptance of takfiris—the extremists who killed Shah —had laid the ground for fratricide, by leaving the practice of takfir—one Muslim declaring another an unbeliever—inviolate.