With his clenched fists, wild eyes and gnashing teeth he has become the face of Muslim fury, protesting against the enemies of Islam. Shakeel Ahmad Bhat has been on the frontline of political activism in Srinagar, India, for more than a decade. His constant presence, captured by photographers and beamed across the world, has caught the imagination of rightwing bloggers who have dubbed him Islamic Rage Boy and turned him into an internet phenomenon.
But the 30-year-old Kashmiri activist is puzzled, not angered, by his overseas fame. In his first interview with a British newspaper, he says he is carrying out Allah’s wishes. From his home in Fateh Kadal, Malik Angan, he says: “I am not happy with people joking about me or making me into a cartoon, but I have more important things to think about. My protests are for those Muslims who cannot go out onto the streets to cry out against injustice. This is my duty and I believe Allah has decided this for me.”
A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ibrahim Hooper, says: “I find the term Islamic Rage Boy offensive, as would anyone who applied the term to their own faith. It’s an Islamophobic product by Muslim-bashers on internet hate sites.” He compares the cartoon to the anti-semitic imagery of 1930s Nazi Germany. “The cartoon is part of an overall growth of anti-Muslim rhetoric in this country. Someone is trying to link Islam with violence and anger and profiting from it.”
He quotes a recent Newsweek poll, which paints a complicated portrait of US attitudes towards Muslims: 63% of Americans surveyed believe most Muslims do not condone violence and 40% believe the Koran does not condone violence, but 28% believe it does and 41% felt Muslim culture glorifies suicide. Mr Hooper says: “While the majority is not hostile towards Muslims, there is a minority who are, and cartoons like this do not help. You cannot combat one form of extremism with another.”