Monday, May 11, 2015

Lessons from India on how to prevent IS recruiting

In the last three weeks Australia's authorities have uncovered two alleged terrorist plots in Melbourne. The plots are being rolled up but they keep coming.

And the number of people drawn to join the barbarian killers in Syria and Iraq keeps growing. The number of recruits in the nine months to the end of March grew by 71 per cent to an estimated 25,000, according to a report to the UN.

They're drawn from over 100 countries, which is more than half the total number of nations on the planet, according to the expert panel that monitors sanctions against Al Qaeda for the UN.

Most recruits are Muslims, or at least hail from Muslim backgrounds. So can we assume that the nations with the biggest Muslim populations have been the richest sources of jihadi​ recruits to IS?

Absolutely not. Surprising as it may seem, some Western countries with Christian majorities account for more IS recruits than countries with the biggest Muslim populations.

For instance, France has only about 5 million Muslims in its population yet an estimated 1200 French residents have travelled to the killing zone. Russia is home to around 16 million Muslims and accounts for an estimated 1500.

These countries are among the top 10 wellsprings of volunteers for the barbarian force.

Australia has about half a million Muslims yet an estimated 150 to 200 residents have gone to join the fighting, with at least 30 of them killed. "Proportionately, Australia is doing no better than France," says Greg Barton, a global terrorism expert at Monash University.

Yet now consider the two countries with the biggest Muslim populations. First is Indonesia with over 200 million. Indonesian officials say that only about 200 Indonesians have joined IS, though some estimates run as high as 1000 or more. Still, this is likely fewer than the number from Russia or France.

Second is India. Although it has predominantly a Hindu population, with only some 15 per cent of the people identifying as Muslim, India is a big country. It's home to about 180 million Muslims, according to the country's 2011 census.

And the number of people who've​ left to join the fighting? The confirmed number is eight. "Of those, two are dead and one has come back, so we have just five guys out of over 180 million Muslims who are fighting with ISIS," says the executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management in Delhi, Ajai Sahni​. Unofficial estimates run higher, but not much higher, only into the tens.

"It's fascinating," says Sahni​. Could India have some secret that other countries might learn from?

Certainly, for IS, it's frustrating. As the group's leader in India put it, "Why is there no storm in your seas?"

Sahni​ has two explanations to offer. "First, there's no large community support here. Instead, there's been the explicit rejection of ISIS by very senior leaders of the Muslim community.

"Second, India has a very syncretist​ form of Islam. Muslims here are extremely resistant to radicalisation​. Despite provocations, like the Gujarat riots," in which Hindu mobs set upon the Muslim population in 2002 in a three-day rampage that left over 1000 people dead.

"There would not be a single Muslim here so ghettoised​ that he doesn't have daily contact with non-Muslims in interactions of profit to him, so that demonisation​ is very difficult."

"I have seen in parts of Europe that it's possible for people to live without any contact with non-Muslims," Sahni​ adds. Ghettos can harbour radicalised​ cliques that fester and grow, he says: "Europe is doing this very badly; France is doing it worse than anyone else."

It's not that India's Muslims have an easy life: "There's enormous poverty and injustice for Muslims in India," says Sahni​. "But there's enormous poverty and injustice everywhere in India." 

Hindus, Muslims, Christians and the many smaller religious groups in India have their distinct identities yet they are closely entwined with each other. Distinct yet inseparable.

Could it be that India's authorities have a successful deradicalisation​ program? "We haven't​ needed it and thank god the government doesn't get involved, because everything they get involved in they mess up," Sahni​ says. "It would be very crude and badly done if they did it. And look at the UK. They've had an active deradicalisation​ program for decades yet they're one of the biggest per capita contributors to ISIS."

Sahni​ argues that while close integration works to contain Muslim disenchantment and radicalisation​, alienation has the opposite effect.

"If you say women cannot wear the burqa or the veil, it has a dramatically mobilising effect in Muslim communities."

The head of the Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security at Charles Sturt University, Nick O'Brien​, says that Sahni's​ "point about being fully integrated is a good one and we can't​ afford not to look at models in other countries that seem to be working."

But he points out that it's not easy for a country to replicate another's long historical experience: "You can't​ flick a switch and have everyone integrated into a society – it takes years and decades."

Monash's Greg Barton is sceptical of Sahni's​ explanation: "It sounds like wishful thinking by India's elites," he says. "There are a lot of angry Muslims in India."

Barton agrees that "it is a bit of mystery why there are so few," and offers possible alternatives. One is poverty. That most Indian Muslims lack internet access and social media accounts, the prime contact points for IS recruiters. Another is that there could simply be a time lag.

Yet Barton finds his own alternatives less than compelling and concludes that India's success in denying volunteers for IS "is still a mystery".

If so, it's a mystery worthy of closer attention. Because it seems to be working.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor Sydney Morning Herald



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