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Posts Tagged ‘ISIS

So what’s countering the climate of hate and intolerance best? Laughter, reports Sonia Sarkar

The fight is between puja and namaaz.

Bhai, a Hindu boy, says, “Our God is the real God.”

“No, it’s not,” Bhaijaan, the Muslim boy, retorts.  “You will know the truth when you die, brother.”

“And you will know after your death,” Bhai fumes.

“What if I kill you and you find out yourself?” Bhaijaan shouts back as he aims a sickle at Bhai.

To this, Bhai brandishes a knife and screams. For the next 10 seconds both make faces at each other, but comically.

  • FUN-DAMENTALISTS: (From top) A scene from BBC Two’s The Real Housewives of ISIS; comic actor Yugvijay Tiwari; Akash Banerjee of Newslaundry

The depiction might be funny but the message in this satirical sketch by 15-year-old comic act Yugvijay Tiwari is strong and unmistakable — the banality of communal fights. Yugvijay, who calls himself the “racist Indian” and has several videos on YouTube, believes comedy is the only tool to fight radical views. “In real life I have seen people fighting like this. They don’t realise what they are doing is wrong. So I decided to draw attention to some serious issues through humour,” says the Class 10 student from Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar.

The teenager is not the only one using humour to hit out at bigotry on social media. Sporting a red ‘tilak’ on his forehead, quite like a member of the right-wing Sangh Parivar, satirist Akash Banerjee too rips apart religious extremists through his spoofs on Newslaundry, a Delhi-based media -watch platform.

Aakash’s show, ‘Why So Serious?’ has been particularly stinging on the Indian Hindu-religious Right, from the ultra nationalists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to self-styled cow-vigilantes.

In one of his shticks, or lampoon acts, he even takes potshots at the union defence minister Manohar Parrikar for crediting the teachings of the RSS to the much-hyped ‘success’ of the surgical strikes against Pakistan last year.

In the opening scene, Akash is seen trying to put his foot into his mouth. He invariably fails and then reasons: “I didn’t go to RSS shakha for physical and ethical dexterity…It prepares you to be supple, so that the most awkward positions become the most comfortable ones like the foot-in-mouth, which is why Parrikar is found in such a pose always.” Banerjee then scans through the RSS supremo M.S. Golwalkar’s anti-Muslim teachings and asks the audience to decide if this parallel drawn by Parrikar is fair.

“In the post-truth world, radical views will keep pouring in and one has to counter them. The best way to do that is through satire,” says Akash, whose videos attract 25,000-plus views on an average.

Graphic artist Orijit Sen says humour strikes a chord with a wider audience. “Often, people don’t understand the long-term effects of extremist views. But when the same has been told with humour laced with irony, it appeals to people. It makes people think about the issue.”

There must be some thrush to it because suddenly satirists across the globe are using humour as a tool to combat extremism. Humorists in the West are fighting Islamic extremism, largely the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Take the case of London-based comedian of Pakistani descent Humza Arshad. He has become a YouTube sensation with his ‘Diary of a Bad Man’ series where he mocks the young boys who joined  ISIS. Birmingham-based British Asian comedian Shazia Mirza is receiving rave reviews for her latest spoof ‘The Kardashians Made Me Do It’ inspired by the jihadi schoolgirls who joined ISIS. Shazia spells out ISIS as Illusion and Seduction in Iraq and Syria.

Recently, BBC Two released a sketch ‘The Real Housewives of ISIS’, yet another satire on the growing trend of women in the West joining ISIS. One of the scenes in the sketch goes like this. A hijab-wearing woman who met her husband online says, “It’s only three days to the beheading and I’ve got no idea what to wear.” Another woman wears a suicide vest and asks her friends, “What do you think? Ahmed surprised me with it yesterday.” The third radicalised wife turns up wearing a similar explosive device and adds, “What a complete b****. She knew I had that jacket.”

Heydon Prowse, the co-writer of ‘The Real Housewives of the ISIS’ tells The Telegraph, “We have spent the last five years taking the p**s out of every major political party, corporate fat cat and inane celebrity. It would have been a bit odd if we hadn’t done a sketch on the genocidal death cult currently spreading fear and misery across the Middle East.”

The two-minute skit was viewed more than 21 million times and elicited nearly 90,000 comments on the BBC Two television channel’s Facebook page within three days of its release.  Of course, it also incurred the wrath of a section of viewers.

Heydon thinks extremism is a cultural phenomenon best combated in the cultural sphere.

Jihadi studies expert Amarnath Amarasingam agrees; he ventures that sometimes something very spicy is easier to digest with a spoonful of sugar and that’s the kind of the role comedy plays. Toronto-based, and a distance senior research fellow at the UK’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Amarasingam told us in an e-mail, “The point of comedy is to allow non-extremists in different communities to see themselves as one and the same and to highlight extremism as something outside the norm.”

Across the globe, humour has established a strong connect with the youth through social media. Ahmed Al-Basheer of Iraq has been likened to American political satirist Jon Stewart for his sharp wit. He believes it’s the youth that is getting lured by extremists through social media and therefore one should use the same medium to counter it. “It’s important to tell the youth that extremism should be made fun of via social media because the medium is uninterrupted and uncensored,” says Ahmed from Amman in Jordan.

Worldwide, humour played a huge role in dealing with the political and religious extremists even in the past. Dadaists were the biggest critics of Hitler in Germany. In the recent past, Charlie Hebdo cartoons were regarded as a satirical answer to the religious extremists though many felt they were “irresponsible” and “provocative”. In India too, it was mostly political satire in the form of cartoons and occasional columns that became popular counter-narratives.

Varun Grover of the Indian satire troupe ‘Aisi taisi Democracy’ has been largely inspired by the Indian tradition of “haasya kavi sammelans”. He thinks humour can make a difference today when the space for public debate is shrinking. “People are not engaging with each other. Humour is the only tool to penetrate people’s minds,” he says.

But there is intolerance of humour too. Varun and his team members — Rahul Ram and Sanjay Rajoura — were not allowed to perform in Allahabad by a group of protestors last year. Akash is regularly trolled on Twitter.

Orijit argues that Indian audiences need to evolve. “They are largely conformist and are not ready to accept the fact that positions of power have been publicly ridiculed.”

Akash, however, is optimistic. He says things are changing slowly : “There is an appetite for more.” And for once he isn’t joking.

 

Published in The Telegraph, March 11,2017.

(https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170312/jsp/7days/story_140268.jsp)

IMG_1269IMG_1277Kashmir’s young are no longer just shouting slogans on the streets. Their smartphones are their new battlefield – as well as their ammunition, finds Sonia Sarkar

Like millions of other young teens, Usman Hussain spends considerable time on Facebook and YouTube. But the 13-year-old student of a Srinagar public school surfs for information that is not likely to interest his peers elsewhere in the country. He spends almost seven hours a day on the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and related issues.”I want to know what the world has to say on conflict and Islam. It helps me to understand my identity and role as a Muslim,” Hussain says.Nazir Masood, 22, is glued to the social media, too. But the student of Srinagar’s National Institute of Technology (NIT) doesn’t waste time poking friends or sharing the latest musical hits. He uses the platform to voice his protest against government moves and policies.”This is our platform for resistance. We resist, so we exist. Otherwise nobody would bother to listen to us,” he says.In Srinagar, the stage for resistance has moved from the streets to the Internet. The youth, the police say, is being “radicalised” by the Internet, and expressing their views on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Masood’s Facebook page, for instance, is flooded with photographs, videos and articles against the deployment of security forces on the NIT campus after two groups of students – Kashmiris and those from outside Kashmir – got into a fight over a recent cricket match where India was defeated.

“ISIS is the most searched word on the Internet in Kashmir,” a senior police officer says. “The radicalisation of the youth on the social media is a cause for concern in Kashmir,” adds another senior police official. An eight-member cyber team was set up by the police last year to keep a close check on the social media. So far, the team has only been monitoring the sites.

According to a 2015 report of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, over 35 lakh people in Jammu and Kashmir use the Net, and the state has 97 lakh mobile phones. An internal survey by the ruling Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) reveals that even in villages in Pulwama, Shopian and Anantnag, where electricity is available for only two hours a day on an average, a large number of people own smartphones with 2G connections.

Indeed, almost every young Kashmiri has a smartphone in hand. The phones – once used by the youth to assure their parents that they were safe – help them gather and share information, and voice dissent.

“Our children have been caged for years in Kashmir. Social media sites give them the wings to reach out to the outside world,” says Masood’s father, a Srinagar businessman. “But they shouldn’t do anything that would create trouble for them and us.”

But the police have been sniffing trouble – though they seek to stress that there is little danger of Kashmiri youth moving to outfits such as the ISIS. Some of the popular Facebook pages in Kashmir are Pulwama Live, Islamic Jamiat Talba and Tral – the Land of Martyrs, and Burhan the Fighter. Burhan is a reference to Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the 21-year-old commander of the militant group, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

The pages have 3,500 to 12,000 followers, and carry photographs and videos of militants posing with Kalashnikovs, funerals of militants and videos of militants calling for violence.

Among the popular hashtags on Twitter, frequently retweeted by Kashmiris, are GoIndiaGoBack, Indianoppressedkashmir, Kashmirbleeds, IamBurhan and FreeKashmir.

The Kashmir police have blocked 186 pages which portrayed militants as heroes and propagated anti-India sentiments in the last one year. Among them were FB pages such as India ki Mout, Rahii Mir, Mujahideen-e-Islam and Tral Tigers Tigers.

Social scientists fear that young Kashmiris, who have always been on the forefront of the movement for secession, are now looking at Islamic movements across the globe and showing a readiness to embrace radical forms of Islam.

“Kashmir’s youth are looking for a global Islamic identity,” stresses sociologist Farah Qayoom of Kashmir University. “More and more young men and women are turning towards [the ultra conservative] Salafism. And they are using the social media for a selective interpretation of Islam.”

What attracts the young to the social media are parallels that they see across the world – of struggles for nationhood, police and army action against the youth and uprisings. “Social networking for Kashmiris is all about telling their story of alienation in India and also connecting to those who have similar stories to tell,” points out Srinagar-based psychiatrist Mushtaq Margoub.

Indeed, when a 12-year-old Palestinian girl who had been jailed by Israel was released recently, the news was widely shared by Kashmiri youngsters on Facebook. “We relate to it because children have been picked up by the police and kept in custody for months in Kashmir,” Kashmir University student Nadeem Muhammad says.

There are several other reasons why social media sites are becoming more and more popular in Kashmir. For one, Kashmiris tend not to trust mainstream media, especially television, and look at Internet as a source for news.

There was a time when Kashmiris had few channels for expressing their anger. Those days, people would write their grievances in sealed envelopes and leave them at the UN observers’ office in Srinagar, recalls artist Masood Hussain. “While dropping the envelopes, people used to chant, ‘azaadi‘.” The situation changed with the advent of the world press corps. The Kashmiri’s angry voice was carried abroad by representatives of international news groups who reported extensively from Kashmir.

Now social media sites have replaced the world press. “The mainstream media censor our grievances, so we share our stories on social media with the world,” says Zaraq Jahan, an undergraduate student at Kashmir University. “My mother often says, I’ve heard such-and-such thing has happened. Just check it out on the Internet,” adds another student.

Continuing police and army action against Kashmiris has fanned the simmering anger among the young, politicians stress. Waheed Rehman Parra, the youth wing president of the PDP, believes that the killing of children by security forces in 2010, the hanging of Afzal Guru (convicted for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament) in 2013 and other such incidents have “exacerbated the simmering anger and hatred” against the Centre. “What we see on social media is the manifestation of this anger and hatred,” he says.

Qayoom adds, “This generation of Kashmiris has grown up witnessing frisking, crackdowns, disappearances, summons to police stations and killings. So resistance on social media seems an obvious way for them to express their anger.”

Attacks on Muslims in other parts of the country, such as the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri, have also added to the Kashmiri’s sense of alienation, a police officer admits. Kashmiri students have been attacked, too – in Rajasthan, Meerut, Mohali and Greater Noida in recent times.

“Even after witnessing such incidents against Kashmiris, if we don’t become radical now, then when,” asks Mushin Khan, a student of Kashmir University.

It’s not just angry posts that flood the sites. Black humour also crops up often. Mir Suhail, a 26-year-old cartoonist, has been taking potshots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In one cartoon, he shows the PM standing behind his wax statue, recently unveiled by Madame Tussauds, watching a man hanging from a tree. “This man represents anyone who is oppressed in India – cattle traders, Dalits or farmers,” Suhail says.

One of Suhail’s cartoons, criticising the hanging of Guru, was pulled down by Facebook in February this year.

The government, too, has on occasion banned Internet in the Valley. When the news of a Handwara girl who had allegedly been molested by security forces spread last month, Internet was disconnected for three days. Last year, too, Internet lines were severed for three days when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad threatened to impose an economic blockade on Kashmir if cows were slaughtered for Eid.

There is concern in political quarters about the trend. “The Kashmir conflict was always political. But now many young Kashmiris are trying to give it a religious colour after being influenced by the conflict in West Asia,” says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman, Awami Action Committee. “It has influenced them so much that they don’t listen to us when we try to dissuade them from moving towards this ideology.”

The police say they are now planning to use the social media to foil the radicals. “But we have just taken baby steps,” a senior police officer admits. “And whatever we do, the youth will be much ahead of us when it comes to using social media sites.”

The use of the social media has so far hampered the administration only in one way. Word spreads fast about police raids or search operations, and the youth reach the spot almost at once. “Sometimes we’ve had to abandon our operations because of the crowds,” the police official says.

There have been sporadic incidents of masked men waving ISIS flags in the Valley in recent times. A 23-year-old man from Ganderbal in Kashmir, who was in Dubai, was arrested in January this year by the National Investigation Agency for alleged links with the ISIS. But the police stress that they are not worried about radicalism leading to a rise in militancy in Kashmir.

“Not all those who have been radicalised on social media are joining militancy,” says the inspector-general of police, Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani. “It is easier to be a Facebook jihadi than to fight on the ground.”

But for young Kashmiris, the arena for the battle is indeed shifting. And people like Suhail are not going to give up their campaign on the social media. The cartoonist says his friends often warn him that the security forces may target him for his “radical” art.

“But the security forces don’t understand that what is radical for them is the reality for us,” he says.

Facebook pages blocked by police

186 pages blocked since 2015. Some of them are:

  • India ki Mout
  • Qaidai Azamm
  • Tral The Land of Martyrs
  • AK Burhan
  • Malik malik [burhan bhai]
  • Mujahideen-e-islam
  • Tral Tigers Tigers
  • Tral The Beauty Land

Popular hashtags on Twitter

#GoIndiaGoBack, #Indianoppressedkashmir,  #Kashmirbleeds,  #IamBurhan, #IamKashmir,  #RagdaRagda,  #AndOccupation,  #FreeKashmir,  #BlackDay  #Illegaloccupation

( Some names have been changed to protect identities)

A longer version of the story is published in The Telegraph on May 8, 2015


Skinny jeans and dead bodies, billiard tables and teen soldiers — Karbala
is a story of conflicting images. Sonia Sarkar visits the holy city in Iraq and
finds that another war is being waged

  • AND LIFE GOES ON:  A garment shop in Karbala

Friday evenings at the Al Kawthar shopping complex on Al-Jumhuriya Street in Karbala are busy. Less than 100 metres from the shrine of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali, burqa clad women shop for leather bags, skinny jeans and heart-shaped soft toys. A few yards away, cheerful young men play billiards inside a noisy cafeteria. By the Nahr-al-Furat – the Euphrates – families unwind.

But it doesn’t take much to change the mood in Karbala. A group of young men in uniform, carrying three dead bodies, marches towards the Karbala shrine. The dead are men killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Daesh, in war-ravaged Fallujah, 120km from Karbala, home to 1.86 million Iraqis.

Just 100km from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, Karbala is a picture of contrasting images. On the one hand, there are five-star hotels, shopping malls, theme parks, 5D theatres and apartments. On the other hand, huge billboards with photographs of young men killed by the ISIS, cavalcades of armoured vehicles and video clips from the warfront on television remind visitors that the country is still at war.

  • An 8-year-old boy, whose father was killed by the ISIS, celebrates his birthday at a camp

“The two images of Karbala could be contrasting but they are a part of each other. Both represent today’s reality of Iraq,” Muhammad Alawadi Al Musawi, lecturer, department of history, University of Karbala, points out.

Karbala is where Hussein Ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was believed to have been killed by the ruler of the Umayyad dynasty, Yazid, in 680 AD. Some 50 million tourists visit it every year.

Efforts are on to erase the picture of violence that is today associated with Iraq. And the movement is being spearheaded by the shrine, whose coffers are rich.

“We want to make Karbala a world class city and change the face of Iraq. The world believes Iraq is all about war but we want to change the image of Iraq through Karbala,” says Fawzy Al-Shaher, general manager, Khayrat Al-Sobtayn, an investment company floated by the shrine. “We want to make Karbala the next developed city after Baghdad in Iraq.”

With a two-year budget of US $500 million, it has started several projects. One of the biggest is the construction of the Imam Hussein International Airport with help from China. Currently, all major airlines operate from the Najaf airport, 76km from Karbala.

Old-timers point out that Karbala, which witnessed Shia unrest against former President Saddam Hussein in 1979, was a neglected city during his regime. But now it is unrecognisable. With construction galore, land rates are shooting up as malls, restaurants and auditoriums come up.

  • A jewellery shop

“The effort is to tell the world that Iraq is beyond sectarian divide between the Shias and Sunnis,” says Sheikh Mahdi Al Karbalai, the chief cleric of the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussain.

Ironically, war cannot be taken out of the lives of the people of Karbala – or of Iraq. Iraq has been ravaged by war several times in the past 35 years. In 1980, the protracted Iran-Iraq war began as Saddam attacked Iran. In 1991, he invaded Kuwait in what was to be known as the Gulf War. Iraq was forced to retreat and economic sanctions were imposed on it. In 2003, US forces invaded Iraq, supposedly to destroy weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was captured and executed in 2006.

In 2014, a new war began, as the ISIS seized huge swathes of areas in northern and western Iraq, including the cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit. The town of Jurf al-Sakhar, 60km from Karbala, was captured by the ISIS but recaptured by Iraqi forces in 2014.

Karbala has been relatively safe, but there was an incident in 2007 when 12 men from Qods Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, disguised as US soldiers, entered the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala and killed five US army men.

But the shadow of the war continues to loom over Karbala. Even toy shops are not spared.

“Every child wants to buy a toy gun or a military tank,” says Sala Al Hashmi, owner of a toy shop in Karbala. “Children see visuals of men in uniform brandishing guns and want to be like them.”

Children, as young as eight, speak of defeating the ISIS. “I want to fight Daesh,” says eight-year-old Murtaba Rahim, who is celebrating his birthday in a military camp in Karbala. His father was killed by the ISIS four years ago while he was protecting the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in Syria, the centre of religious studies for Shias.

Teenagers have been making a beeline for the mobilisation force, al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which was formed in 2014 after the Shiite cleric, the grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, gave out a call to civilians to fight the ISIS. Civilians are now trained in using weapons such as Kalashnikovs, Tabuk sniper rifles and M2 Browning machine guns by the Iraqi army under the supervision of military advisers from the US, Canada and Iran.

Sixteen-year-old Ali Fadal Abbas is among the 1.2 lakh civilians to have joined the force. Son of a daily wage earner, Abbas has been promised a monthly salary of Rs 40,106 (US$600) but has not received any wages for the past three months because of a fund crunch.

“But that doesn’t stop us from fighting. The ISIS has attacked our homes; we have to save our homes,” he says.

  • Men playing billards

But Iraq is not just about battling enemies. Azhar Talafar owns a garment shop in Karbala and likes to play billiards in the evenings. For him, life is “normal”, he says.

“I will also go [join the forces] when there is need. Till then, I can relax,” he says.

Muhammad Youssif is not overly worried about the ISIS either. He is celebrating the grand wedding of a cousin in a five-star hotel, where the room tariff for a night is around Rs 11,695. “We can afford this. And a wedding is special,” Youssif says.

Life in parts of Iraq is changing rapidly, and there are some concerns, too.

Elders are worried about drug addiction among the youth. In 2012, the city police had shut down the cafés and billiard halls in the city, holding that they were being used by drug dealers. The other emerging problem is of the use of alcohol – outlawed by Islamic law. Reports of trucks loaded with alcohol being seized by the administration often appear in local newspapers. Rehabilitation centres have come up in the city, too, to deal with drug and alcohol abuse.

“These are the new challenges besides the war. We have to deal with them firmly,” Al Musawi says.

War, clearly, is an unending metaphor.

The reporter visited Karbala at the invitation of the administrators of the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussain

mams in India are using social media to reach out to young Muslims and to counter online extremism, says Sonia Sarkar

His smartphone never stops buzzing, but Maulana Mohammad Yaqoob, 67, is happy. The imam of the Khalilullah Masjid in Delhi’s Batla House is on WhatsApp, the popular site for chats and group chats on mobile phones. He is flooded with text messages too. But that’s how Yaqoob connects with young Muslims.

“That’s the best way to catch the interest of the young,” Yaqoob says. “To remain connected to them, we have to use their ways of communication.”

The Indian Muslim preacher is at a crossroads today. The mosque is not where the young like to congregate – they’d rather connect with ideologues on the Internet. As a section of Muslim youths gets attracted to radical thinking propagated on the Internet, religious leaders are looking at ways of bringing the young back into their fold. And the tool for that, they believe, is the Internet.

Like Yaqoob, many imams – who lead prayers in mosques – have been using social media to reach out to young Muslims. They are active on online platforms such as WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Efforts, clearly, are on to preach in a language that appeals to the young.

Take the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind. One of the largest organisations of Indian Islamic scholars, it is planning to produce animated videos with lessons from the Quran.

“We have a lot of reading material but the effect of audio-visual material is always stronger. We plan to build a studio where a trained person will be appointed to make animated films carrying messages from the Quran. We can circulate those videos on social networking sites later,” says Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind general secretary Maulana Mahmood Madani, whose Facebook page has over 8,700 “likes”.

There is a growing belief that online extremism has to be urgently countered. Over 18 months or so, the police have arrested at least 20 Indian Muslims who were said to have been keen to join the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Concern has been expressed that young Indian Muslims are showing an interest in the ISIS and are mostly being radicalised on the Internet. The online magazine of the ISIS, Dabiq, is said to be popular among a section of Indian Muslim youths.

Many of those being lured by ISIS, the Delhi police say, are not madrasa-educated men, but educated professionals such as computer engineers, doctors and MBAs with easy access to the Internet.

“The problem is that the Internet is their imam and Google is their mufti (Muslim legal expert),” says imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, chief imam, All India Organisation of Imams of Mosques.

Islamic scholars believe that the young have to be steered away from what they see as dangerous propaganda. Take the word jihad, says Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. “The word has nowhere been used in the Quran to mean war in the sense of launching an offensive. Instead, it is used to mean peaceful struggle with oneself to control one’s negative and undesirable feelings. It also means to communicate the message of God to all human beings with full compassion and well wishing,” he says. “It is important to tell the youth this.”

In many parts of the world, this is exactly what scholars and other experts are doing. Young Muslims being indoctrinated on the Internet is a worldwide phenomenon that some nations are already seeking to counter.

“There is a rise in ‘freelance’ religious figures who often have little depth in traditional religious disciplines but are charismatic speakers and often use modern communications tools to propagate their messages to wider audiences,” says Alejandro Beutel, a researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of Maryland, US.

That’s one of the reasons Indian imams feel that the youth have to be addressed through platforms that they access, with a language that counters that of the extremists.

These concerns came up at a two-day conference on “Opportunities for Public-Private Partnership in Countering Online Extremism and Recruitment”, organised by a Delhi-based think tank in November. Religious leaders who attended the meeting urged Facebook to help them use social media for counter-speech – a term used for logically countering extremist positions.

“Counter-speech is an important part of responding to terrorism and we work hard to protect it,” says Monika Bickert, global head of product policy, Facebook, who was also present at the Delhi conference. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of non-government organisations (NGOs), community groups and student groups interested in creating and promoting positive speech against extremism,” she adds.

India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), which is supposed to keep an eye on extremist activities within the country, believes that it is important for religious leaders to approach young Muslim men and women. “We cannot work in isolation. If the imams take a step forward to connect with the youth of the community, they can be dissuaded from joining radical groups,” an IB officer says.

It’s already happening elsewhere. A group of imams in London started a website, imamsonline.com, and an online magazine, Haqiqah (The Reality), in March to “reclaim the Internet” from extremists. Imams and working professionals in the US and Canada started a website called virtualmosque.com. The imam of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, Suhaib Webb, is on Twitter with over 81,000 followers, and seeks to engage young audiences with practical religious teachings.

Madani says that his organisation is now reaching out to a group of imams in the US to know more about the use of the social media.

“We have a saying, ‘you snooze, you lose’. Those who reject modern communication technology will lose out to those who embrace them. Sadly violent extremists have embraced these technologies,” says Jennifer S. Bryson, director of the US-based think tank Zephyr Institute, which works for religious freedom. “So it is very urgent for Muslim religious leaders to be, or become, familiar with the pulse of young Muslims.”

Imams in India admit that they have failed to do so, or capture the imagination of the youth. “Our popularity is going down and the gap between imams and the youth is increasing,” Madani rues.

The prayer leaders point out that there was a time when Muslim youths went to mosques regularly. But in recent years, technology has given a new platform to new-age preachers. The Mumbai-based televangelist Zakir Naik, for instance, became hugely popular with his television appearances and videos uploaded on the video-sharing platform, YouTube.

While other religions may also feel the need to reach out to the young through social media sites, Muslim religious leaders feel the pressure more because of the growth and spread of Islamist groups – and anti-Muslim sentiments – across the world.

“There is a sense of insecurity among Muslim religious leaders because of growing Islamophobia across the world,” contends Rakesh Batabayal, professor at the Centre for Media Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Imams are using social media sites to assert that they exist, and that they can fight growing radicalism.”

But the gap between the youth and their religious leaders hasn’t happened overnight, experts point out. For long years, the youth have been seeking answers to questions about their identity, the importance of Islam vis-à-vis the world, Islamic state, role of a minority in a democratic country, and moral and human values of Muslim society, says Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed, principal advisor, All India Organisation of Imams of Mosques.

“But these questions have never been answered. The traditional clergymen do not have the knowledge required to address such issues,” he says.

Yaqoob points out that just 10 or 12 young men attend Friday prayers in mosques these days. “Also, not many have the patience to listen tokhutbah (Islamic preaching before Friday prayers),” he says.

  • The Internet is their imam and Google is their mufti
    — Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, Chief imam, All India Organisation of Imams of Mosques, on young Muslim men

But then, as Madani admits, imams speak in a language and style that is not popular among the youth. “They feel that the imams are trying to impose their thoughts upon them,” he says.

To counter the dwindling numbers and interest, the imams are now planning to make their speeches available to the young (and others) through social media sites. “We could record the khutbah and send it to young people through WhatsApp groups to ensure that they listen to it even if they are not physically present in the mosque,” Maulana Mohibullah Nadvi, imam of the New Delhi Jama Masjid, says. “Tele-conferences on burning issues could also be organised using the social media.”

The moves are being welcomed. Delhi student Ramiz Abdul Wadood calls the move “progressive” and says these will create space for conversation and debate. “It is important that the imams motivate us and fill the void that we have been feeling currently,” Wadood, 17, says. He is a fan of Pakistani religious and Islamic scholar Tariq Jameel, whom he watches on YouTube.

What impact has all these had so far? It’s perhaps too early to assess this. Some imams opened Facebook accounts two years ago, some still don’t have any but are planning on opening accounts. Says Ashum Gupta, professor, department of psychology, Delhi University, “Young Muslims who have moved away from the ideologies and teachings of traditional clergy would, at least, acknowledge their existence now. But it is early to say if they will accept them in their current form.” Adds Farhan Ali, a Class XII student at a south Delhi school, who follows Madani on Facebook, “If we have any queries, we know that there is someone to answer them. Also, I listen to his video-recorded speeches, which may not be possible otherwise.”

But, of course, there is concern that the situation won’t change merely on the strength of the Internet. Islamic scholar Khan, for instance, stresses that imams’ attitude and mindset have to change, too. “Imams need to correct their self-righteousness and be more open. The young mind is reason-based and wants objectivity. Imams should keep that in mind,” says Khan, who heads the Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Peace and Spirituality.

Social scientist Zubair Meenai of Jamia Millia Islamia has a word of caution for the preachers. “They should learn how to deal with trolls. They should be ready for public abuse, too,” the professor in the department of social work points out.

Yaqoob looks concerned. ” Kabhi kabhi Internet aafat lagta hai(Sometimes, the Internet seems like a menace),” he says. “We have to be careful.”