On Thursday, thousands of protesters marched toward the American Center in Kolkata, demanding a ban and an apology for the Innocence of Muslims film trailer that has sparked anti-American protests around the world. It was one of the larger spasms of unrest that have erupted in India since the storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, with Muslim protesters taking to the streets in Kashmir and the southern city of Chennai earlier in the month as well.
And though the American Center and other U.S. government facilities have been forced to temporarily shutter — the U.S. consulate in the southern city of Chennai closed for a week — the tenor of this month’s protests in India has been markedly different from those in other parts of the world. Part of that is because a protest in the country doesn’t capture as much attention as it might in other parts of the world; at any given moment, somebody is raising a fist in India over anything from nuclear power to the price of onions. Last week, for instance, the day before over two dozen people were killed in anti-American protests in Pakistan, an India-wide strike was held over a recent diesel price hike and allowing foreign brands like Tesco and Walmart into India’s retail sector. As Mujibur Rehman, a professor at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, told the Global Post last week: “If you compare the current protests with the protests against President Bush’s visit in 2008, those were far more widespread.”
Another important distinction is who has been behind the handful of demonstrations that have happened. Or, to put it another way, who has not been behind them. As Bobby Ghosh writes in this week’s magazine, a worrying development that has come to the fore in the past month is the emergence of the street power of radicalized Salafi Muslims who have instigated some of the fiercest demonstrations in Libya and Tunisia. “In the two weeks following Sept. 11, Muslims of various sects and political groupings launched dozens of protests around the Muslim world,” he writes. “But it was the Salafis, at the heart of the largest and most violent demonstrations, who won the more-outraged-than-thou contest.”
There are between 20 million and 30 million Salafis in India, according to Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadees Hind, an India-wide Salafi organization. And while they may have taken center stage in the violence elsewhere, Salafis played a less pronounced role in India’s protests, with some leaders outright condemning the action. Near Jamia Millia Islamia University, in a quiet, grassy compound dominated by a large new mosque, Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadees Hind holds a very different view on how to react to disparaging depictions of their Prophet. “When the Koran is burned, or this kind of film is made, we don’t like it, but we don’t support what [the protesters] are doing,” says Maulana Asghar Ali, the general secretary of the organization. “We are strict followers of the Prophet’s teaching. All the things the protesters are doing — taking to the streets, destroying things — the Prophet has not taught us.”
Ali says his group has come under criticism from other Muslim groups in India for not joining in. The sizable Salafi community in the southern state of Kerala also eschewed the protests, instead calling meetings at which followers could air their frustration over the infamous film. “If we are able to be good Muslims, the propaganda will not succeed,” says Hussain Madavoor, general secretary of the Indian Islahi Movement, a Salafi group in Kerala. “More efforts should be exerted among intellectuals and media [to disseminate] the true picture of Islam so that these willful attacks would be staved off.”
(MORE: The Rise of the Salafis)
Even in Kashmir, where tensions have been brewing between Salafis’ fundamental interpretation of Islam and the beliefs of Sufi Muslims who have lived in the valley for centuries, it was not the Salafis who were the first to join the call to protest. A conglomeration of Sufi organizations says it was the first group in Kashmir to react to the spreading news of the anti-Islam trailer and that the Salafis and other Islamic groups followed.
So can India consider itself immune to the worrying trend of Salafis growing more assertive — and dangerous — in other parts of the world? Obviously not. India is as vulnerable to the perils of extremism as any nation, and large-scale violence gets sparked in the country faster and fiercer than in most parts of the world. But India is also vast, both physically and psychologically, and the inherent diversity even in one religious minority may be helping prevent the same kind of tinderbox we’ve seen elsewhere from forming.
Whether that can last, particularly in charged places like Kashmir, is unclear. “We’re not anti-U.S., but it is so painful for us that people [in the U.S.] make fun of our Prophet,” says Maulana Gulam Nabi Shah, a senior Salafi leader in Kashmir. Maulana Shah says his organization called on followers to protest peacefully this month, but their strike quickly devolved into thousands of people throwing stones, burning U.S. flags and shouting anti-U.S. slogans. Police eventually dispersed the crowds with tear gas. “When it comes to our beloved Prophet we all are together. We’ll sacrifice our lives even to protect the honor and holiness of Prophet Muhammad’s shoe.”
— With reporting from S.N. Hussain / New Delhi and Areepatta Mannil Abdussalam / Calicut