On March 17, less than a week before the horrific terrorist attacks in Brussels, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the World Sufi Forum in Delhi. There, he eloquently spoke of the “… 99 names of Allah, none [of which] stand for force and violence, and that the first two names denote compassionate and merciful. Allah is Rahman and Raheem.”

Modi added: “Those who spread terror in the name of religion are anti-religious.”

Much has been said about the All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board’s maiden attempt at holding an international conference, with a little help from the Modi government. Some Muslim scholars, notably Tauqeer Raza Khan of the Barelvi school, have wondered why Muslims would want to sup with a man “accused of killing 3,000 Muslims in Gujarat”, while Arshad Madani, who heads the allegedly pro-Congress faction of the Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind, asked if one “section of Muslims is being held close and others being ignored,” by the state.

Several critics have also pointed out the obvious discordance at the heart of Modi’s policy, which is that it is very well for the prime minister to spend time with a few hundred Sufi scholars over an evening, but what was he planning to do about allaying the fear and insecurity of Indian Muslims?

Despite the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri last year, and Minister of State for Human Resource Development Ram Shankar Katheria’s recent demands that hate-speech related charges against local Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders be dropped, Modi continues to maintain a stony silence.

Muslim outreach

Nevertheless, the parameters of the prime minister’s Muslim outreach are slowly beginning to emerge from conversations with people who have knowledge about these initiatives.

First of all, Modi’s scheduled visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 3 on his way home from the nuclear security summit in New York (on the margins of which he will meet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) is a key link in the chain that connects Modi’s evolving views towards Islam, both at home and abroad.

Modi realises that when he breaks bread with the leaders of the House of Saud, which is also the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina, a powerful message will be sent back to Sunni Muslims in India who comprise about 120 million of the country’s 170 million Muslim population. This will significantly burnish his credentials.

At the Sufi conference, Modi not only spoke eloquently about the peaceful message of Sufi Islam (“Sufism became the face of Islam in India, even as it remained deeply rooted in the Holy Quran, and Hadis. Sufism blossomed in India’s openness and pluralism”), but also about the power of moderate Islam in countering the horror of terrorism that has been unleashed in its name.

“At a time when the dark shadow of violence is becoming longer, you are the noor, or the light of hope,” Modi said at the Sufi Forum. “When young laughter is silenced by guns on the streets, you are the voice that heals.”

With the assault in Brussels at the hands of Islamist jihadists still ringing in the world’s ears, Modi definitely hopes to be representing the world’s third-largest Muslim population when he meets the Saudi leadership. Here it is worth noting that Belgium’s 11.2 million population has spawned 451 Belgian jihadists in Syria and Iraq in contrast with 23 jihadists from India.

“India’s 170 million Muslims and the uniqueness of Indian Islam could teach the 29 million Wahhabi Saudis a thing or two,” a government official said on condition of anonymity.

India’s Islamic inheritance

So as Europe grapples with terrorism, several intelligence chiefs have been trooping to Delhi to ask why and how India keeps its own Muslims safe.

“In the Indian sub-continent, Islam expanded not only against the blade of the invader’s sword, but also through roots that Sufi orders, like the Chishtis, put down in this soil,” said the government official. “[It kept] taking from Hinduism and giving back, until it emerged a uniquely syncretic religion that was inherently tolerant because it had to survive in an alien land.”

The Sufi conference, held at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan and at the Ramlila Maidan over four days, was attended by about 150 representatives of the Sufi khanquahs or orders, the Grand Muftis of Egypt, Baghdad and Syria, as well as a few thousand Muslims, who full-throatedly cheered Modi’s denunciation of terror in the name of Islam.

With the weight of this conference behind him, Modi believes his upcoming meetings in Riyadh will serve as a reminder to the world that India, not Saudi Arabia, is the leader of a much larger and much more diverse Islamic inheritance.

Certainly, there is a churning in the heart of Sunni Islam in West Asia as manifested in the Arab Spring revolutions as well as in the growing belief in several kingdoms that non-state actors (read, terrorists) cannot be allowed to hijack Islam’s moderate message. Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nayhan agreed with India during his recent visit to Delhi that “Indian and UAE models act as strong bulwarks against the forces of extremism and radicalism”.

Certainly, too, Modi has come a long way from the time he undertook a Sadbhavana fast in Ahmedabad in 2011 when he was Gujarat chief minister. There, he refused to wear a skullcap offered to him by Imam Shahi Saiyed, a Muslim cleric from a small dargah in Pirana village on the outskirts of the city. At the time, he explained away his refusal by saying: “If a skullcap is a symbol of unity, then why is it that Mahatma Gandhi didn’t wear any.” He also told the cleric to offer him a shawl instead, which the cleric did and which Modi accepted.

But since he became prime minister nearly two years ago, the Modi government has supported several religious-cultural initiatives, indicating his faith in the inherent strength and stabilising influence offered by India’s religions. Last year, the Vivekananda Foundation – formerly headed by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, a close advisor of Modi’s – held a conference on the confluence between Hinduism and Buddhism. Earlier this month, the prime minister spent quality time at Hindu spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s World Culture Festival in Delhi. The Sufi conference, said to have been supported by Doval, has been in the works for a while.

As to why the prime minister continues to maintain a stony silence around Hindutva groups targeting Muslims, BJP leaders have little to say. Many say that it is not his style to speak up publicly. Others believe that the successful Sufi conference and the Saudi visit are messages to the majoritarian right wing. “Samajhdar ko ishaara kafi hai (Intelligent people understand signals),” they said, adding: “By interacting with Muslim leaders for over two hours at the Sufi conference, the PM has indicated that he is the leader of all Indians.”