What tools can India’s counter-radicalization policy employ? 

Bibhu Prasad Routray



Counter-radicalization measures adopted by countries have typically followed clichéd patterns, although studies reveal that religion plays only a minor role in attracting men to the fold of global jihad.  As India seeks to frame a policy of counter-radicalization, its tools must evolve beyond the ordinary and the policy should employ techniques which will find appeal among the vulnerable lot.  

Muslims India

(Photo courtesy: Indian Express)


Officially New Delhi continues to underplay the fact that close to 200 Indian Muslims have either joined or have attempted to join the Islamic State. The rationale for this is not difficult to understand. Highlighting or even admitting the existence of such yearning to be a part of the global jihad may propel more Muslims to make similar effort. However, in the past months, there is an official course correction of sorts, in the form of a realization that Indian Muslims are not immune to the process of radicalization and efforts must be made to prevent this. Statements have been made by the authorities and funds have been made available to study the reasons for such radicalization which in the Home Minister’s words may ‘degenerate into terrorism’[i]. This paper attempts to provide five critical inputs for any policy that may emerge out of the ongoing discourse to frame an effective counter-radicalization response.

Sheer Diversity

Beginning from 2014, about 4000 foreign fighters converged on the Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria from various parts of the world. Although literature on these journeys made by men and women have helped building the typical profile of a young, educated, affluent, and computer savvy Muslim youth as a fighter of the Islamic State, the sheer diversity of cases frustrates efforts to understand why individuals radicalize. Even though countries around the world have attempted profiling the journeys of individuals who have made it to the hitherto Caliphate, such efforts have produced little actionable inputs. Among the cases in India are young and not so young men from well-to-do as well as lower middleclass families. Some travelled with their families and others who joined the cause had families to care for. Some left their well-paying jobs and some had no jobs. It is important to keep in mind these variations and not focus on a particular group of people as susceptible to radicalization.

A religious counter narrative?

Much emphasis has been laid on developing a counter narrative to the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam. This is important, although by no means adequate. Profiles of Islamic State’s foreign fighters demonstrate that not many of them had a sound understanding of Islam and its principles. A study for the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism released in August 2017 found that despite claiming to protect Muslims, most of the returned fighters were ‘novices’ in their religion and some did not even know how to pray properly. The authors of the report concluded, “Most saw their religion in terms of justice and injustice rather than in terms of piety and spirituality.”[ii] Another study undertaken in Australia showed that more than half of those who have embraced radicalism were born in Australia and were not particularly religious prior to believing in extreme Islamic ideologies.[iii]

This lack of understanding of Islam have found mention in similar studies. A sizeable section of persons convicted of terrorism charges including those who became Islamic State’s foreign fighters came from the class of ‘neo-converts’, people who were born into another religion and had converted. ‘In Britain, converts make up less than 4 percent Muslims, but 12 percent home-grown Jihadists. About a fifth of American Muslims were raised in another religion, yet two-fifths of those arrested on suspicion of being IS recruits in 2015 were converts. In France, Germany and the Netherlands, converts are around four times as likely as lifelong Muslims to go to fight in Syria and Iraq’.[iv] Experts have pointed at the crisis of ‘double marginalization’ to explain this. This indicates that Muslim converts in the West are abhorred by both non-Muslim friends and skeptical native Muslims, leaving them vulnerable to the overtures of radicals.

Similarly, in the Indian context, profiles of most people who have joined or attempted to join the Islamic State clearly indicate that their decisions were hardly influenced by sound understanding of Islam of which they only had cryptic knowledge. Fahad Shaikh, one of the four youths who travelled to Iraq from Kalyan in Maharashtra in 2014 and was later killed while fighting, was reportedly critical of the un-Islamic ways of his family who did not pray five times a day. He criticized his sister who did not wear a veil, listened to music and watched television at home. ‘The time has come and may we all meet in paradise. I cannot live in this country; I am moved to tears watching all of you live a luxurious life style, watching TV, listening to music…’[v], Fahad wrote in a letter to his family before leaving. Such instance of adherence to the conservative version of Islam is, however, rare. On most occasions, journeys to the caliphate have originated from a mix of sense of youthful adventurism, feeling of marginalization, and search for meaning in life. If this is true, the strategy of developing a religious counter narrative to counter radicalization may not be very effective.

Religious institutions as partners?

In 2017, India hosted the four-day World Sufi Conference in New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the conference and described Islam as a religion of peace. The conference, coordinated with the help of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, attracted criticism from other Muslim leaders as an attempt to divide the Muslims. Nevertheless, it represented a move to ease concerns that the right-wing government is pursuing a Hindu revivalist agenda. Similarly, the present government as well as its predecessors have repeatedly attempted to search for allies within the Muslims to deal with the threat of terrorism and radicalization. One such prominent body in this regard has been the Deoband Uloom Deoband (in short Deoband), the 150-year old conservative Sunni Muslim seminary. Over the past years clerics associated with Deoband have issued several fatwas(decrees) criticizing terrorism. Similarly, in September 2015, over 1,050 Indian Islamic scholars and clerics issued fatwa against the Islamic State describing its acts and actions as against the basic tenets of Islam.[vi] Such moves have been welcomed by the government. Some experts have even gone to extent of opining that in the fight against terrorism and radicalization, the government and Islamic religious institutions can be allies. However, this may be stretching the argument little too far.

Notwithstanding their views on terrorism, the Deoband and similar other Islamic institutions profess a largely regressive interpretation of Islam, some of which are akin to the views of the Islamic State itself. For instance, Deoband considers singing and music unIslamic and has dissociated itself from Muslim weddings where songs and music are played. In 2018 alone, its edicts include banning Muslims from buying life insurance policies and getting property insured. It has even criticized a Muslim girl who recited verses from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagvat Gita in a contest.[vii] Its earlier edicts have sought to ban photography, right of women to work, and Muslim women marrying outside their religion. It even considers salary earned by bank employees as haramor unIslamic.

Parallels can be drawn from Indonesia, where the NGOs working among the Islamic State returnees have encountered a difficult problem. Highly radicalized men and women who have been deported from Turkey have refused to sign documents declaring their allegiance to the constitution of Indonesia. They also have refused to clap or sing- techniques used by the NGOs to gradually introduce them to a process of deradicalisation- saying that singing of being part of a musical programme is unIslamic.

Given their conservative views on Islam, can the Deoband be a reliable and effective partner in the official counter-radicalization programme remains a valid question. In fact, such views may even provide the radicalized Muslims comfort that the Islamic State indeed represents a true form of Islam. Similar questions also have been raised against the government promoting ‘moderate’ Sufi Islam. Critics point out, basic tenets of Sufism are as conservative as other extremist streams of Islam.

Element of masculinity

Masculinity and sense of adventure remain significant reasons to explain why thousands of men and women either moved to Iraq and Syria or continue to sympathize with the Islamic State while staying back in their home countries. Latest research has indeed attempted to link violent extremism to masculinity. American Sociologist Michael Kimmel’s latest book, ‘Healing From Hate: How Young Men Get Into — and Out of — Violent Extremism,” contends that gender, specifically masculinity, is both “the psychological inspiration” that sends young men into these groups “and the social glue that keeps them involved.”[viii]

Profile of many of the foreign fighters of the Islamic State does prove the point. In July 2014, an 18-year-old from Melbourne blew himself and several others up in a suicide bomb attack in Iraq.[ix] Another 17-year old Australian teenager, named as Abdullah Elmir appeared in a video in October 2014 threatening attacks on Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the US and the UK. Another teenager from Minnesota, United States sold his sneakers, iphone and prized piece of clothing to buy a plane ticket to Turkey.[x]  Others arrested in America for Islamic State-related activities range from a 15-year-old boy to a 47-year-old former soldier. Douglas McCain, an American convert killed while fighting in the countryside of Aleppo province, was once an aspiring rapper. Although in itself an incomplete explanation of why men join the Islamic State, masculinity tends to explain some of the unexplainable cases of people leaving their normal lives to be a part of the effort to establish the caliphate. Peter Neumann of King’s College London in his book ‘Radicalized’ provocatively contends that jihad ‘has become a counter-culture’, and the Jihadists are ‘theologically illiterate, albeit familiar with Salafist rituals and slogans, and only superficially engaged with Islam’.[xi]

In India, profiles of the Islamic State fighters, real as well as aspiring, point significantly at the element of masculinity. In fact, if Kimmel’s theory of masculinity is right, rehabilitation of these men would have to involve engaging these men to challenge violent extremism, instead of trying to convince them that an ideology they may have embraced is flawed. The state will have find ways for these men to prove their masculinity and to feel that their lives have purpose.

Over-emphasizing online radicalization?

In the wake of terror attacks, especially with regard to the Islamic State, it is commonplace for the debate to focus on the group’s online activities, used to radicalize, recruit, plan attacks among a host of other activities. India, like many other countries, has attempted to focus on the challenge posed by radicalization of youth happening in the cyber space. In 2015, for instance, Home Minister Rajnath Singh called for effort to curb such activities. “Today, due to technology and internet, a person living in a remote area can have access to such information by which he can indulge in an act of terror, despite not being associated with any terror group.”[xii]To meet the challenge posed by online radicalization, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) reportedly launched Operation Chukravyuhin late 2014. IB officers reportedly posed as Islamic State recruiters on Twitter and attempted to communicate with Indian youths who intended to join the outfit. The results produced by the initiative are not known. The IB, in any event, continues to suffer from large number of vacancies in its ranks which include, in this instance, Arabic translators. Notwithstanding the temporary excitement the project generated among select media personnel, such endeavor would always have been limited in its scale.

The fact that several groups of men indeed managed to travel out of India to join the Islamic State also points at the fact that emphasis on countering web-based radicalization alone may not be an effective response to the support for Islamic State. The role of recruiters who have used the emaciated, yet existing networks of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and Indian Mujahideen to spread the message of the Islamic State cannot be ignored. In fact, the August 2017 report for the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism found that among surveyed fighters of the Islamic State, the internet played “a far less significant role as an independent source of radicalization than is generally assumed, and certainly a far less significant role than real life contact”. The authors found that would-be jihadis went online to confirm and strengthen ideas that were already taking root, adding: “The internet then played a key role in reinforcing a decision that had in part been taken already.”[xiii] More than internet, friendship circles and social networks formed around mosques, prisons, schools, universities, neighbourhoods or the workplace fed radicalization. This is supported by the fact that the Islamic State recruits have always migrated in a group, with friends and relatives.

Therefore, content-based regulation, such as blocking websites or removing extremist propaganda, blocking social media outlets and urging Twitter and Facebook to do more may be useful, but certainly not sufficient. Countering the Islamic State would require the government to combine its efforts, both online as well as offline to launch counter-messaging campaigns that help frame the narrative and reach the right audience. Online ventures can raise awareness and promote offline participation, while real-world actions increase interaction and encourage people to become involved.

A lesson of how to achieve this can possibly be drawn from the “Share a Coke”-campaign launched by the Coca Cola company in Australia in 2011 and replicated worldwide subsequently. “In an effort to reach young adults, the campaign incorporated social media and employed the hashtag #ShareACoke across various platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The company also promoted the message through more traditional means, like roving kiosks and interactive advertisements. For example, the company encouraged people to text the name of an individual they wished to share a Coke with; the names were then displayed on Sydney’s iconic billboard at King’s Cross. The idea resulted in 110,000 submissions and was seen by 820 million people.’[xiv]That summer, Coke sold more than 250 million named bottles and cans in a nation of just under 23 million people.[xv]When launched in the United States, the campaign increased the sale of Coca Cola by two percent. Counter-radicalization measures need to be innovative and wide-scale, rather than following clichéd models that hardly have relevance and do not connect with men seeking meaning in their lives through recourse to violence.


What promotes radicalization is indeed difficult to ascertain and may vary significantly from case to case. However, there is a context within which radicalization occurs. Islamophobia and identity politics are certainly two of the important factors that help create such context.  In December 2017, Singapore’s Home Affairs minister put it rightly when he said, “Islamophobia … increases the risk of violence both from terrorists who kill in the name of Islam, and from those who want to attack Muslims.”[xvi]In India, where 180 million Muslims live, Islamophobia may not have been significant. However, marginalization certainly is. This is evident not only in the barely three percent representation of Muslims in educational institutions and government sector, but also a skeletal presence of merely 23 Members of Parliament (MPs) in the current Lower of House of Parliament which has a maximum official strength of 552. One can argue, the nature of electoral politics fails to ensure election of candidates belonging to the minority community. However, the fact remains all political parties have repeatedly fielded less candidates from minority community in the elections.

Identity politics has played a key role in radicalization. For instance, the UN study listed bad governance, especially disregard for the rule of law, discriminatory social policies, political exclusion of certain communities as the factors contributing to ‘feelings of despair, resentment, and animosity towards the government and provide fertile ground for the terrorist recruiter.’[xvii]Such findings have relevance for India. While the state indeed cannot entirely prevent all men from becoming radicalized, without affirmative actions and strict adherence to rule of law, the problem can assume serious proportions. Educational institutions, the civil society, media, and the intelligentsia have important roles to play in this endeavor.

End Notes

[i]“Radicalisation in the Northeast may lead to terrorism: Rajnath Singh”, Indian Express, 16 May 2017, Accessed 10 April 2018.

[ii]“ISIS: UN study finds foreign fighters in Syria ‘lack basic understanding of Islam’”, Independent, 4 August 2017, Accessed 12 March 2018.

[iii]“Who are Australia’s radicalised Muslims?”, BBC, 12 March 2015, Accessed 2 April 2018.

[iv]“Converts to Islam are likelier to radicalise than native Muslims”, Economist, Accessed 2 April 2018.

[v]“I don’t want to live in this sinful country: Indian ISIS recruit”, Rediff, 15 July 2014, Accessed 2 April 2018.

[vi]“Over 1000 Islamic clerics and organisations issue fatwa against ISIS”, DNA, 9 September 2015, Accessed 3 April 2018.

[vii]“Now, Deoband seminary says it will not conduct weddings that incorporate ‘un-Islamic’ dance, music”, Times of India, 2 April 2018.

[viii]Dina Temple-Raston, “How masculinity, not ideology, drives violent extremism”, Washington Post, 22 March 2018, Accessed 1 April 2018.

[ix]“Who are Australia’s radicalised Muslims?”, BBC, 12 March 2015, Accessed 12 March 2018.

[x]“How masculinity, not ideology, drives violent extremism”.

[xi] Review of the book can be found at, Peter Neumann, ‘Radicalised’, 6 December 2016, Accessed on 2 April 2018.

[xii]“Rajnath raises concern over ‘online radicalisation’ attempts”, The Hindu, 5 November 2015, Accessed 23 March 2018.

[xiii]“ISIS: UN study finds foreign fighters in Syria ‘lack basic understanding of Islam’”.

[xiv]Katerina Papatheodorou, “What CVE Can Learn from Guerrilla Marketing”, Lawfare, 15 October 2017, Accessed 1 April 2018.

[xv]Jay Moye, “Share a Coke: How the Groundbreaking Campaign Got Its Start ‘Down Under’”, Innovation, 25 September 2014, Accessed 3 April 2018.

[xvi]“Islamophobia growing around the world, Singapore must keep it out of the country: Shanmugam”, Channel News Asia, 31 December 2017, Accessed 12 March 2018.

[xvii]“ISIS: UN study finds foreign fighters in Syria ‘lack basic understanding of Islam’”.

(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is Director, Mantraya. This analysis is published under Mantraya’s ongoing  “Islamic State in South Asia” Project. All Mantraya publications are peer reviewed. He can be reached at

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