Calicut, Kerala - “I was very happy, excited, on September 11th. Someone called me to switch on BBC and I saw the aircraft crashing into the World Trade Center and I saw it crumbling down -- down like the United States and I was laughing… Osama Bin Laden gave Americans back what they had done to the world. It was a wonderful thing! What else can a helpless people do? There should be more of it [terrorism] in U.S. Why not?”
P. Koya is one of the 13 Supreme Council members of the National Democratic Front (NDF), an Islamic organization based in Calicut, Kerala. He is also one of the founding members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was banned by the BJP government in 2001 for supporting terror and was accused of involvement in the 2003 train bombings in Mumbai.
But Koya doesn’t look radical. He sits in a small wood-paned office behind a desk stacked with Western magazines like Time and The Economist. He looks like Richard Pryor with a bushy mustache, wearing a checked brown button-down shirt. And he addresses me casually, as though we’d met many times before.
He was once an English professor and speaks English authoritatively, adjusting his thin metal-framed glasses after finishing each point -- reminding me of my college professors. And he loves to talk about books: Arundhati Roy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Dickens. Chomsky, Sartre, Camus, Pilger.
But why this violent hatred? I ask him.
“Understand this,” Koya begins, “I grew up loving America. I thought it was the single greatest nation…I was enamored by Kennedy. He was so handsome. Just like a film star. I wept when he died.” Koya was keen on visiting the U.S. one day. At age 15 he entered college and studied English language and literature. It was 1965, and Koya says he was an independent-minded atheist despite two dull hours a day of after-school Qur'anic study.
Koya's family was religious but not fervently so. His childhood lack of faith bothered his father, but no action was taken against it. He came from an upper-middle-class home; his father owned a clothing store in the small town of Kunnamangalam, ten kilometers from Calicut. Koya's siblings are now spread out across Kerala and the Gulf working as engineers, doctors and scientists. His parents are dead, but they lived long, healthy lives.
From what Koya tells me, he has had a remarkably stable life. He lived in the same house since he was born and attended schools in the vicinity first as a student and then a teacher. Even after an arranged marriage at 29 and the birth of his three children, he remained in his childhood home. He’s now 57 and likes writing, teaching and watching American movies with his children. Aladdin, A Bugs Life, The Lion King and Pirates of the Caribbean are his favorites.
Koya tells me that his attraction to religion began at age 20 while he studied at St. George’s Christian College. Every afternoon after class, he’d relax by sipping tea with friends in the town bazaar. In a local tea-stall, he made many older friends, one of whom was 20 years his senior who worked at his neighborhood mosque with Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, an Islamic organization spun off from the more radical Pakistan original.
The mentor, who Koya didn’t name, would sit chatting with him and his friends for hours. “We all became close friends,” says Koya. “Of course, there were heated arguments. I would say to him, you cannot prove God through science, but he would say you cannot prove atheism either."
“Slowly, slowly he took me into the fold…My return to the faith was something very gradual. I can’t say why. It happened to me.” By Koya’s account, it took two years before he was visiting the mosque regularly. Soon after, he joined Jamaat-e-Islami as a student activist. His father was pleased.
Koya believes that the organization opened up a new world for him. “My circle enlarged, I had many more friends, Islamic friends, I knew them better than before. I belonged more than before.” After graduating college he decided to join a weekly Muslim magazine run by Jamaat-e-Islami. Through it, he interacted with party members across the country. On the Jamaat-e-Islami dime, he left Kerala for the first time in his life and journeyed from Delhi to Calcutta dozens of times.
Life on the road increased his sense of purpose, he says. He encountered disenfranchised Muslims up north, and felt a growing responsibility to aid them, to “establish an Islamic society in India” and “spread justice for the Muslims.”
He also paid closer attention to history and current global events, feeling a growing sense that his Islamic community was at odds with America. “Gradually I moved from love to love-hate to pure hate for the U.S.” He and his friends talked about Israel’s 1967 war, saw the struggles of Muslims in India, read news reports and thought of themselves as part of a global quest to aid Muslims around the world. They grew more radical in their views, and eventually Koya and others broke off from the parent organization and formed SIMI.
Koya says that he then left the magazine and joined Kozhikode College as a full-time English professor, working four hours each morning teaching English and using his free afternoons to develop SIMI. He traveled throughout the Gulf to meet with like-minded people (and reportedly to collect funds, which Koya denies).
After the Babri Masjid was destroyed in 1993, many SIMI members -- who’d outgrown the organization's 30-year-old age cap -- and others broke off to form the National Development Front to fight against what Koya calls a “nexus of interests coming together: Hindutva extremists, America, Israel, the Indian elite and all of their neo-liberal policies.” He says that these forces were bent on undercutting the Islamic way of life.
NDF found support in northern Kerala and now has 30,000 active members and over 100,000 more supporters, according to Koya. It is chasing the more moderate Muslim League in the north of Kerala to become the dominant Muslim political force in the state.
“You praise Bin Laden, but would you encourage your youth to kill Americans?” I ask Koya.
“I wouldn’t encourage it. How can you encourage it?” he begins, and then changes course, “But dying is not a bad thing either. It depends on how you view things. Americans eulogize their soldiers after they kill children in Iraq. Young African Americans die for their country. Young Muslims die for their belief.”
“Should America worry about Kerala?” I ask.
“There will be no terrorism here. India is a democracy so we can protest and vote when we disagree. We don’t need to kill. But India is coming after Muslims slowly and if we lose our rights, our right to think even, we will be left with no other choice. Islam is not hypocritical in that way. Violence can be justified. But India is a democracy so we have other means for now, don’t worry.” He raises his eyebrows again, smiles and asks, “Are you worried?”