Al-Qaeda’s leader has quashed speculation about his death with the release of a video in which he gives unwelcome support to a campaign in India to allow Muslim girls to wear hijabs at college.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, 70, praised Muskan Khan, who was heckled by a crowd of Hindus at a pro-hijab protest in Karnataka, south India, last month.
Zawahiri was last seen in a video released in September in which he failed to mention the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban a month earlier, fuelling speculation that the recording was old and that he was dead.
In his latest video, Zawahiri praised Khan for having “challenged a mob of Hindu polytheists with defiant slogans of Takbeer [God is the Greatest] . . . May Allah reward her for showing a moral lesson to sisters plagued by an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the decadent western world”.
His intervention has not gone down well with Khan and her family. “I don’t even know who he is . . . I am happy in my country. We do not need al-Qaeda to speak about our country’s issue. They are just spoiling our peace,” Mohammed Hussain, her father, said.
Al-Zawahiri also urged Indians to “avoid being deceived by the pagan Hindu democracy of India which, to begin with, was never more than a tool to oppress Muslims”.
The video was instantly used by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Karnataka to vindicate its allegation that Muslim extremists, rather than genuinely aggrieved local women, had instigated the hijab protests.
“We have been saying this from the beginning . . . the possibility of some unseen hands behind the hijab row and now it is proved because al-Qaeda people are releasing videos,” Araga Jnanendra, the BJP state home minister, said.
The hijab controversy began last year when some college principals refused to allow the hijab in the classroom. Protests followed across the state, by Muslim students against the ban and by Hindu groups, backed by the BJP, supporting it on the grounds that it upheld the rule that all students must wear the same uniform.
A ruling by the Karnataka High Court last month went in favour of the ban but the final decision will be taken by the Indian Supreme Court. If the verdict goes against the hijab, it will have big implications for India’s 200 million Muslims as it could lay open other aspects of how they practise their faith to legal interpretation.