Last month, al-Qaeda’s chief released a video message promising to “raise the flag of jihad” across South Asia. No one really batted an eyelid. All it did was make the group look increasingly desperate. Al Qaeda’s reach has been dwindling since Osama’s death is 2011. Today, it is overshadowed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a group which has attracted volunteer fighters from across the region and the world. Analysts fear that Pakistan and Afghanistan will soon fall to the brutal regime. Yet no one fears spread of these groups into neighbouring India, namely IS or Al Qaeda.

India is the third largest Muslim country in the world. Its Muslim population is large, but moderate. While only 15% of the population, its 180 million match the population of Pakistan. Many are disgruntled – In Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state, its people have been affected my decades of heavy-handed Indian security forces, and protests are frequent. Terror attacks occasionally occur in Indian cities, often blamed on the Indian Mujahideen.

The February 2013 attack in Hyderabad killed 16 people. But the occurrence of these attacks have been dwindling and becoming less spectacular, perhaps because Pakistani support has decreased in recent years. India also has bursts of religious violence, most recently last year in the northern town of Muzaffarnagar which resulted in the death of 40 people. India’s Muslims defainalty have reasons to feel disenfranchised: they generally suffer lower levels of income, education, government jobs and political representation than the majority Hindu population.

Yet consistently, Indian Muslims have remained moderate, tolerant and quick to speak out against religious violence and their communities are intertwined with other faith groups. When you compare this to the sectarian bloodbath and growing extremism in neighbouring Pakistan, the contrast is it is quite remarkable.

Why are India’s Muslims so moderate? It’s probably a combination of factors.

South Asian Islam has historically been dominated by Sufis who have long integrated with Hindus, sharing a number of cultural practices. Pakistan has seen decades of high level migration along the Gulf, as well as deepening political and diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia who practice stricter forms of Sunni Islam, which has notably seen the spread of Wahibism and madrases in Pakistan.

By contrast, Indian migrants to the Gulf, mostly from Kerala, have not been able to import the same kind of extreme Islam back to India. Madrasas in India are more carefully monitored by the state.

It is also significant that India has remained a functioning democracy, something which is not the case in other Muslim-dominated countries. The Indian constitution allows for the sizeable Muslim minority in India to have a stake in the political system.

It can also be argued that many are extremely proud to be Indian. Backward welfare programs in India offer assistance to Muslims groups too. While Hindu Nationalist Prime Minister elect Narendra Modi has not been cheered by Muslims collectively, his promise to treat the secular constitution as his bible helps to quash anxieties.

Perhaps most importantly, Muslims in India are spread widely across the country. They are small, but not insignificant minorities, so Hindus and Muslims everywhere largely peacefully coexist, as extremism would be a disruptive force for everyone.

The moderation that we see amongst Indian Muslims is positive, and it acts as a preventer for communal violence. Even Kashmir, though flaring up in recent weeks, has seen consecutive years without notable violence.

A small number of Indian recruits are said to have joined IS in the Middle East, but these number are negligible. A handful of people out of 180 million means close to nothing.

However it should be said that the moderation does not guarantee against the rise of extreme Islam in India. Another reason given for Indian Muslim’s moderation is the relatively low literacy and numeracy levels and incomes, leaving them largely isolated from global forces such as jihadist websites, the kind of forces that contribute to rage elsewhere.

Increased literacy, an ever growing population and higher incomes and access to information might see extremism rise. Conservative ideologies from the Gulf might permeate given the flows of migration.

Just as should the Hindu nationalists in power develop an iron fist, a backlash in the form of extreme Islam is definitely imaginable. Stability in India given all other variances is a remarkable achievement. This luck will hopefully see extremist leaders like al-Zawahiri fail in their ambitions to influence South Asia. It also means preserving stability in India is now more important than ever.

Source: The Economist