Samir Kalra, Managing Director of the Hindu American Foundation, spoke to participants in an August 31 Middle East Forum webinar (video) to discuss Islamist groups waging a sophisticated U.S. media and lobbying effort to support South Asian terror groups, in particular Jamaat-e-Islami, to whitewash their attacks on Hindus and other religious minorities, and to undermine U.S.- India relations.
Kalra's foundation, which tracks Islamist activity in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India's union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, maintains that many of the conflicts in South Asia are fueled by political, ideological or logistical support from Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist groups.
Jamaat-e-Islami "is one of the most powerful, widespread, and influential groups in South Asia, as well as here in the U.S. in Islamic circles," said Kalra. Founded by an Islamic cleric, Abul A'la Maududi, in 1941 in pre-partition India, Jamaat was inspired by the extremist Deobandi school of Islam. The Deobandis provided ideological support to regional terror groups such as Hizbul Mujahideen, a U.S. State Department foreign terrorist-designated organization active in Jammu and Kashmir, and the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attack.
Following India's partition in 1947, Jamaat-e-Islami formed independent branches in India, as well as in Bangladesh. During the Bangladeshi war for independence in 1971, Jamaat-e-Islami militias, in conjunction with the West Pakistani military, committed war crimes against both the ethnic Bengali population and the local Hindu community, which was held responsible for influencing the Bengali drive for succession.
Thanks to the support of its vast bank of voters, Jamaat-e-Islami has played a political role in independent Bangladesh by forming an alliance with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. It has been responsible for "many anti-Hindu and anti-minority riots." Jamaat-e-Islami controls many madrassas and is financially solvent due to its control of informal banking networks in the region and its receipt of petro-dollars from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Whether Jamaat-e-Islami is involved in influencing politics or in overt violence, it supports the "ideological, political, and recruitment" efforts of "other transnational terrorist groups in the region."
Jamaat-e-Islami also has a U.S. presence in Queens, New York, where some individuals accused of committing war crimes during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence sought refuge. These individuals have accrued influence in the Muslim community and worked to "create propaganda narratives" against India "in the media, as well as in ... local, state, and federal government," and "particularly towards Hindus."
Prominent Jamaat-e-Islami groups in the U.S. include the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and the Indian American Muslim Council. Another group recently emerged, Stand with Kashmir, but the "origins of this group ... and who is behind this group are unclear." They have found a powerful ally in the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an Islamist group whose focus on the Middle East and Israel "veers into anti-Semitism," which has now turned its sites and media savvy onto issues dealing with India.
An example of Jamaat-e-Islami-affiliated Islamist groups in the U.S. exerting their influence with "counter-narratives" was when the Indian Government abrogated Article 370 of its constitution, which had granted "disproportionate autonomy" to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, empowered "a few corrupt political families," and endangered minorities there. Article 370 "helped to further integrate the state of Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian union ... [so that] all of India's laws applied equally to the people of Jammu and Kashmir."
The Jamaat-e-Islami-affiliated Islamist groups' counter-narrative took center stage during House Foreign Affairs Committee hearings on Kashmir last year. The Islamist groups promoted "witnesses" claiming that India was "occupying Kashmir" to deny rights to its majority Muslim population.
Kalra challenged this revisionism, explaining that from "1989 to 1991 there was ... ethnic cleansing of ... 350,000 Hindus from the Kashmir Valley." The Hindus were "driven out," but the Islamist groups "whitewashed" the truth, claiming there was no ethnic cleansing and that the Hindus left "of their own free will." The Islamist counter-narrative extended to "demonizing the Indian state [and] demonizing Hindus as the aggressors, when in fact in Kashmir they had been the victims."
Islamists are "demonizing the Indian state [and] demonizing Hindus as the aggressors" in Kashmir.
Further evidence of Jamaat-e-Islami-affiliated Islamist groups whitewashing terror activities is the case of Riyaz Naikoo, a high-level commander of the terror group Hizbul-Mujahideen, who was killed by Indian government security forces in May 2020. The counter-narrative pushed by Islamist groups is that Naikoo was "an innocent Kashmiri" murdered by the Indian state.
Another target of Islamist propaganda was last year's Citizenship Amendment Act, a human rights bill the Indian government passed to fast-track citizenship for religious minorities [Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain] that had fled persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan and languished in refugee camps. Islamist groups "created a hysteria" with claims that this bill was "going to take away the rights of 200 ... million Muslim citizens, when it had no impact on the actual rights of Indian Muslims."
In short, according to propaganda pushed by Islamist groups, "Hindus are always the aggressor" and "Muslims are not capable of doing anything wrong," said Kalra. "It's black and white. There's no middle ground. There's no actual discussion of ... policies and issues."
The propaganda is spread not only at the federal level, but also state and local levels, resulting in local city councils passing anti-India resolutions dealing with Kashmir.
The impact of Islamist propaganda is being felt by the Hindu American community, which is experiencing harassment. Hindus are having to justify their religion and being put on the defensive.
On a national level, the Islamist groups threaten to "impact, in a negative way, U.S. policy in South Asia," said Kalra. "We are at a time now where we need India more than ever, with China becoming increasingly aggressive and India really being one of the only counterweights to China in the region." Kalra believes it is crucial for the U.S. to "maintain [its] strong partnership with the only democratic ally in the region, which is India."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.