Fresh controversy over India hijab ban as Al Qaeda leader resurfaces to incite 'battle'

Ayman Al Zawahiri's comments rejected by family of college student who was filmed standing up to people heckling her for wearing the Islamic head covering

Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahri appears in a video issued by As Sahab, the terrorist group's media branch, on April 5. AP
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Al Qaeda terrorist group chief Ayman Al Zawahiri praise of an Indian Muslim student for protesting against a ban on the wearing the hijab in classrooms in india stirred fresh controversy over the issue and prompted a strong rebuttal from the student’s family.

The terrorist group's fugitive leader, who was believed to be dead, released a nine-minute video in which he hailed the college student as a “noblewoman of India” for confronting a Hindu mob who heckled her for wearing the traditional Islamic head covering.

Al Zawahiri addressed the student, Muskan Khan, by name and said that her “defiance” of the mob had “emboldened the spirit of jihad” and “reawakened the Muslim community”.

“Our Muslim Ummah in the Indian subcontinent, our battle today is a battle of awareness, a battle of discerning illusion from reality,” said Al Zawahiri, who spoke in Arabic, according to the Site intelligence group that monitors extremist websites.

He urged Muslims in India to use the media and weapons against the enemies of Islam.

But the student’s father, Mohammed Hussain, who runs a gymnasium, castigated Al Zawahiri for using his daughter’s actions to incite passions against India.

“I don’t even know him. I have heard of him for the first time. He has said something about my daughter and people are talking about it … he is wrong,” Mr Hussain, 50, told The National.

“I feel bad because a simple demand for hijab has become this big controversy. Local politicians are creating an unnecessary issue. They should have solved it quietly but this has been exaggerated,” he said.

Ms Khan was part of a group of Muslim students who were demanding the right to wear the hijab after the government enforced bans on wearing it in classrooms on the grounds that that it violated uniform rules.

She was heckled in February by Hindu male students chanting “Jai Shri Ram” — a traditional Hindu salutation that has in recent years become a war cry for far-right groups.

She responded by shouting “Allahu Akbar”.

The video of her confronting the mob went viral on social media.

The state government in Karnataka, ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has maintained that protests over the hijab ban were planned by Islamist groups to disturb the peace.

Karnataka home minister Araga Jnanendra said Al Zawahiri's video proved the involvement of “unseen hands” in the controversy, which abated after the state's High Court upheld the ban.

The southern state has witnessed rising tensions between its Hindu and Muslim communities in recent months, with the ban on the hijab followed by demands to ban halal meat and the use of loudspeakers for the Muslim call to prayer.

More than 200 million Indians are Muslim, but they have largely shunned attempts to woo them by global extremist groups, including Al Qaeda's creation of a regional chapter called Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent in 2014.

Al Zawahiri’s video commenting on a current issue dispels rumours that he died of natural causes in 2020 and has prompted debate about his whereabouts.

Updated: April 07, 2022, 4:16 PM