In rare video appearance, Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praises Muslim student in India hijab row

Terrorist group al-Qaeda has released a rare video of its chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in which he praises an Indian Muslim woman who defied a ban on Islamic headscarves.

In February, Muslim students wearing hijab were heckled and hounded by large groups of people wearing saffron scarves – a colour associated with the Hindutva ideology in India’s southwestern state of Karnataka.

A student from Mandya district shouted “allah-hu-akbar” as the Hindu radicals jeered at her with “jai shree ram [hail lord ram]”.

The video released on Tuesday by As-Sahab Media, Al-Qaeda’s official media wing, and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, shows al-Zawahiri praising the student – calling her the “noble woman of India” and “a sister”.

“May Allah reward her for showing a moral lesson to sisters plagued by an inferiority complex via-a-vis the decadent Western world,” he says in the video.

Although there is no indication of al-Zawahri’s location from the video, he is shown in a white headscarf beside a poster praising “the noble woman of India”.

Rumours of al-Zawahri’s death had been circulating as previous videos did not clearly identify the time when they were shot, leading to speculation that he may be dead.

Al-Zawahri took over leadership of al-Qaeda after 9/11 terror attack mastermind Osama bin Laden was killed by the US in 2011. He has been rumoured to be in Afghanistan’s northwestern Kunar and Badakhshan provinces on the border with Pakistan.

The video has given rise to fresh concerns about al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban has committed to fight terrorist groups and deny them space in the country.

Meanwhile, Karnataka home minister and member of Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Araga Jnanendra, said the al-Qaeda video proved that “unseen hands” were behind the hijab row.

“We have been saying this from the beginning, and the High Court too during the hijab verdict had suggested the possibility of some unseen hands behind the hijab row…now it is proved, because al-Qaeda people are now releasing videos,” he said.

The hijab row began in December last year with protests against a ban on headscarves following a stand-off between authorities and students at the Pre-University College in Udupi, where Muslim students were barred from attending college wearing the headgear.

The issue soon snowballed into a face-off between right wing groups and Muslim women wanting to wear hijabs as other colleges in the state also enforced similar bans.

In March, the high court in Karnatka upheld a ban on the Islamic headscarves, ruling that the hijab is a matter of attire and cannot be treated as fundamental to Islamic faith.

The ruling led activists and citizens to take to social media to say that the order was another example of denying democratic freedoms to India’s Muslims.

Additional reporting by agencies