Agency probing ‘love jihad’ angle in conversions of Indian women

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Photo: AFP / Sanjay Kanojia

Are young, gullible non-Muslim women in India being persuaded to embrace Islam, radicalized and used as cannon fodder for terror groups? Is ‘love jihad’, the Islamist strategy of using Muslim youths to lure such women into marriage, a fact or fiction?

India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) is looking for answers to these questions. Last week, the country’s Supreme Court directed the agency to investigate the case of a woman who converted to Islam and married a young man with suspected links to Islamic State (ISIS).

The NIA, which handles terror-related cases, suspects there is a pattern to such conversions. Many believe, however, that such suspicion goes to the heart of society’s intolerance toward interfaith marriages.

The case under investigation relates to Akhila (now Hadiya), 24, a medical graduate from Kottayam, Kerala, who converted to Islam in 2012 and married Shafin Jahan, 27, on December 19 last year. The matter reached the Supreme Court after Jahan challenged the annulment of their marriage by Kerala’s High Court on May 24 this year.

Akhila is living under “house arrest” with her parents, who lead a secluded life as they are too ashamed to step out. She wants to move freely but police won’t allow her to go out, claiming Islamists may target her.

Jahan, who had to quit his job in Oman to attend court proceedings in Kerala, is not allowed to meet her. Even a letter he wrote to her was returned by her father, Ashokan KM.

The NIA, which handles terror-related cases, suspects there is a pattern to such conversions. Many believe, however, that such suspicion goes to the heart of society’s intolerance toward interfaith marriages

“All I want is my daughter back,” says Akhila’s mother, Ponnamma, in a video released to media in which she is seen fighting back tears.

Ponnamma says she felt a change in her daughter the day Akhila told her to convert to Islam if she wanted to reach heaven.

KM Ashokan says he grew suspicious after she expressed a wish to go to Syria. The NIA is investigating the cases of more than 20 radicalized youths from Kerala who have gone to Syria or Afghanistan to fight for ISIS.

Akhila’s life changed after she took a crash course in Islam at the Sathya Sarani religious study center in Malappuram, a Muslim stronghold. There she was introduced to Jahan through a Muslim matrimonial website.

In another case that has been cited by the NIA, Athira, a Hindu girl from northern Kerala, was turned to Islam by her company manager, who introduced her to the speeches of Zakir Naik, a preacher wanted by India’s counter-terrorism authorities. She was then indoctrinated by a man named Naufal. He took her to the same study center Akhila attended and began trying to persuade her to go to Yemen, where she would be able to meet true believers. Naufal is reported to have arranged an emergency passport for her and to have taken her as his third wife.

Athira became alarmed when Naufal began to discuss ISIS and its Keralan connections. She knew he was trying to pack her off to Yemen or Syria and backed out. The NIA suspects Naufal may have fled to Syria.

Meanwhile, another woman – who has remained anonymous – was converted to Islam at the Maunathul Islamic Sabha, a religious center in Kochi, Kerala. The 29-year-old claims teachers belonging to the Islamist organization Jamaat-e-Islami instilled in her the courage to kill or maim kafirs (non-believers) and sacrifice her own life for Islam. They taught her to hate anything Indian and revere Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Like Athira, she realized her mistake only when they tried to pack her off to Yemen or Syria.

The statements from these three women point to certain consistent methods in their conversions:

Islamic centers deny all charges of brainwashing and forced conversion. The NIA will rule on the veracity of these denials and the Supreme Court will pronounce a ruling after studying the NIA’s evidence and holding an in-camera meeting with Akhila.

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