A recent article by the president of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) favouring the Turkish President Erdogan’s move to convert Hagia Sophia to a mosque has raised many eyebrows in the political circles in Kerala. Considering that the IUML has in the past chosen to maintain a tactical silence on contentious issues such as the demolition of Babri Masjid, this open support for Erdogan’s move is surprising.
What could have prompted the IUML to take this position, which is being viewed as a hara-kiri in “secular” politics? One has to take the trans-regional dynamics that shape Muslim politics in Kerala to gain some understanding of the IUML move.
Unlike in northern India, the political imagination of Muslims in Kerala developed around the trade-induced cosmopolitanism connecting various places in the Indian Ocean region. The element of globality that the cross-regional trade brought in helped to introduce and popularise alternative practices of “national” politics transcending the geographical boundaries of India. This influence was so pertinent that Arakkal, the only Muslim princely dynasty in Kerala, maintained close political and strategic ties with far-flung Turkey and Oman on par with other princely states of India. Turkey has occupied a pivotal position in this transnational political imagination since the establishment of the Ottoman empire.
When the nationalist movement gathered momentum among the Mappila Muslims of Malabar, its leaders such as Abdur Rahiman Sahib successfully utilised the tradition-oriented Sunni Muslims’ sentimental bonds with the Ottoman Sultans as the chief promoters of Sufi Islam of various shades. Though he endorsed Salafism theologically, Sahib nurtured a strong inclination towards the idea of khilafat that continued to exert a key role in framing his anti-British ideology despite his strong personal dislike of Sufism. So was the case with most of the early Salafi leaders who were active in the national movement. Endorsing the Saudi brand of Salafism theologically did not mean that they were unaware of the perils that their Saudi-Wahhabi counterparts created politically. Though they valued the contributions of Saudi scholars, they kept a safe distance from Saudi-Wahhabi tradition because of its anti-Ottoman posture. This was more of a political tactic to avoid the wrath of Sunni Muslims, who were otherwise apprehensive of the reform initiatives of any sort for their alleged anti-Sufi content.
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In the 1950s and 60s, developments in the Arab world prompted a reorientation of Muslim politics in Kerala. A tacit alliance developed between Salafis of Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt as a counter-movement against the growing popularity of Arab Socialism under the leadership of Jamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. This move was a part of a broader pan-Islamist strategy developed by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, which had some resonance in Kerala as many Muslim organisations considered Arab socialism as a movement against the spirit of Islam. The situation was conducive to a rise in the popularity of Saudi-sponsored pan-Islamism even among its arch rival, the Jama’t e-Islami al-Hind (JIH).
Almost parallelly, the universities in Saudi Arabia began to reserve seats for Indian students, resulting in many Salafi graduates returning with the mission of popularising Saudi-Salafi brand of Islam in Kerala. The physical sign of Saudi’s export of Salafism in the later period was more explicit in the construction of large mosques in remote corners of Kerala, rapid development of a market for tafsirs (interpretations of the Quran) published in Saudi Arabia and the easy availability of inexpensive literature and audio and video cassettes on Salafism.
Since the 1970s, migration of Kerala Muslims to the Gulf countries functions as a major means of political bartering between the community and the wider Islamic world. Almost all political developments of the region have made a ripple via this linkage. The 1979 Iranian Revolution, for instance, found substantial resonance with increased fondness for Islamic political activism among various Muslim organisations including JIH. As elsewhere in the Islamic world, audio-cassettes with recorded speeches of the leaders of Islamist organisations brought from the GCC countries emerged as a major tool for massive ideological indoctrination and a vehicle for transmission of political directives.
The transnational dimension of Muslim politics in Kerala since the 1990s is, arguably, a result of different forms of ambiguities experienced by the community vis-à-vis the rise of Hindu communalism. Different kinds of networks were formed forging connections between organisations in Kerala and West Asia. Of such networks, transnational Sufi orders connecting Turkey and Kerala enjoyed substantial following. Though these operated mainly in the fields of education and charity, these brotherhoods became instrumental in revitalising the Kerala Muslim’s sentimental bond with Turkey.
Erdogan’s strategy of combining Islamist politics and pragmatic Islam initially appealed to a wide spectrum of Muslim organisations including the IUML and JIH. His defiant attitude towards Saudi Arabia in politically important matters and his open support to Iran elevated the status of Turkey, though the recent crackdown on the Sufi network hizmet invited the displeasure of Sunni groups.
Kerala has now become a theatre for ideological battle between Saudi Arabia and Turkey to win over the minds of ordinary Muslims. Each issue in the contemporary Muslim politics of Kerala, therefore, necessitates a re-conceptualisation of the politics of the community away from the conventional understanding of it as a set of practices pertaining to Kerala. The response to Hagia Sophia imbroglio demonstrates this transnational dimension well.
When Erdogan makes an attempt to revive the role of Turkey in global Islamic politics though a series of popular measures such as the conversion of Hagia Sophia, the responses in Kerala vary — while Sunni factions and JIH speak in favour, Salafi groups have come out against Erdogan. This rift has made IUML’s choices more complex as the survival of the party is dependent on balancing the interests of two warring constituencies — Sunnis and Salafis. The tilt this time is clearly in favour of the Sunni majority, whose theological and emotional attachment with Turkey the IUML has sought to address.
(The writer is professor and director, School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.)