When the notorious Kashmiri "separatist leader" Syed Ali Shah Geelani died in early September at the age of 91, Western Islamists offered loud public outpourings of grief. And yet Geelani was not a champion of self-determination; he was a segregationist and a theocrat, tied to brutal Kashmiri terrorists and the most unsavory elements on the Pakistani regime, and opposed to actual Kashmiri independence.
In recent years, Western Islamists have been careful to keep quiet their sympathies for many of the most unpleasant radicals in the Middle East. Many Western Islamists are less reserved, however, about their support for extremists in South Asia, perhaps due to a broad (and foolish) Western uninterest in the specifics of Islamism in the region. The case of Geelani illustrates a particularly strong example of this phenomenon.
Who was Geelani?
From the very beginning, Geelani was an Islamist. In the 1950s, he "discovered the writings" of the 20th century radical ideologue Abul A'la Mawdudi, leading him to join Jamaat-e-Islami, the violent South Asian movement established by Mawdudi. For decades, Geelani served as a leading Islamist activist, who was jailed on numerous occasions for his radical activities. As the New York Times notes, Indian security officials long regarded Geelani "as a major hurdle in resolving the region's violence."
By the 1990s, Geelani officially adopted violent struggle as the means by which he believed Kashmir could remove itself from Indian rule. At various times he was described as the "head of jihad" for Jamaat-e-Islami's branch in Kashmir. In 1992, Geelani called on Pakistanis "to stand up determinedly and assist their Kashmiri brethren in their action of jihad." He also added, according to scholar Yoginder Sikand, that jihad was "incumbent not just on the Pakistani Muslims but, rather, the entire worldwide Muslim ummah."
Since at least 2000, Geelani was also involved with Hizbul Mujahedeen, a brutal Jamaat-aligned terrorist organization designated by the U.S. government. In its obituary for Geelani, Al Jazeera described him as the terrorist group's "spiritual leader."
In 1993, Geelani also established the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a Pakistani regime-backed coalition of Kashmiri organizations. For almost three decades, Geelani used the organization to consolidate his leadership of Kashmiri opposition to India, and to coordinate actions between various militant and terroristic Kashmiri and Pakistani groups.
Following the catastrophic terrorist attack on Indian troops in Pulwama in 2019, however, Indian efforts to crack down on those involved with such terrorism has led to the effective collapse of the Hurriyat group, along with the apparent withdrawal of support from Pakistani's intelligence services, who reportedly felt unable to control the increasingly erratic Geelani.
As analyst Praveen Swami observes, Geelani's loss of control of the Hurriyat was "read as a signal from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate that it no longer trusted Geelani's Hurriyat — and its armed wing, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen — to stand at the vanguard of jihad in Kashmir."
Geelani favored the absorption of Jammu and Kashmir into Pakistan, not their independence.
Geelani was an advocate for Pakistan. To describe him merely as a "separatist" – as every major newspaper has done in their recent obituaries – is an interesting choice, given that he overtly opposed an independent Kashmir. Instead, and without shame, he and Hizbul Mujahideen favored the absorption of the entire of Jammu and Kashmir into Pakistan. Geelani's view of "azadi [freedom]", notes Sikand, must mean "both accession to Pakistan as well as unrelenting opposition to an independent Jammu and Kashmir" and that Kashmir must live under theocratic Islamic rule, free of Hindus. Prominent Indian journalist Aarti Tikoo and others accuse Geelani of "ethnic cleansing."
Geelani's Western Cheerleaders
Despite all this, Geelani has long enjoyed Western supporters. For many years, Ghazala Habib, a Houston-based activist who runs a global network of Islamist and Pakistani operatives in coordination with the Pakistani regime, served as the official "representative" of Geelani and his Hurriyat colleague, Asiya Andrabi (who runs jihadist outfit Dukhtaran-e-Millat). Habib's network operated in cooperation with dozens of prominent American Islamist organizations.
These same organizations have been more than willing to eulogize Geelani. On September 9, branches of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) helped to organize a "remembrance event" for Geelani. CAIR's national headquarters in Washington D.C. plugged the event, referring to Geelani as a "freedom fighter and hero."
The event was co-organized or sponsored by the World Kashmir Awareness Forum (an organization closely tied to the Pakistani regime); the International Humanitarian Foundation (a Pakistani regime proxy); the Islamic Circle of North America (the main branch of Jamaat-e-Islami in the United States); and a number of prominent mosques.
Even Amnesty International supported the event.
Imagine that: a dozen 501(c) organizations – public charities – all gathered to celebrate the life of a designated terrorist organization's "spiritual leader."
These were hardly the only groups. The U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), an umbrella group of America's leading Islamist organizations (and a few clueless Muslim fellow travelers), published a post praising Geelani as the "symbol of resistance" who was ostensibly persecuted by "Hindu-Chauvinist Indian authorities". USCMO and Muslims, the USCMO claims, "mourn the loss of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and uphold his dream of a Free Kashmir." The list of examples goes on.
Geelani led Kashmiri Muslims to their deaths, all in pursuit of subjugation under a theocratic Pakistan, and in opposition to both democratic Indian rule and even Kashmiri self-determination. Now, Western Islamists and their feckless fellow travelers are celebrating that agenda. Geelani's death offers a useful reminder that there are plenty of groups in the West that remain, at heart, supporters of terror and theocracy.
Abha Shankar of the Investigative Project on Terrorism has published an excellent, extensive article - also on Geelani and the American Islamist response to his death. Read it here.
Sam Westrop is director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch project.