Video which emerged this past week of a Naperville, Illinois area teenager setting a Quran aflame and throwing it on the ground has not only disturbed the local Muslim community but caused many to speculate it exemplifies increasing Islamophobic radicalization within the region’s large Indian-American Hindu community.
Local sources strongly suggest that the perpetrator in question is a 16-year-old Indian-American Hindu boy who, two years ago, participated in a mass opposition campaign to the building of a new mosque in the area. Records from Naperville City show his presumed mother similarly expressing opposition to the mosque. Contacted for comment about the current incident, the woman believed to be his mother claimed that “rumors” are being spread about “my son.”
According to sources, the family has already come forward in the local community and admitted that their son — whose name I am withholding — is the perpetrator.
In 2021, when the Islamic Center of Naperville submitted an expansion proposal to the city, opposition elements mobilized thousands of in-person speakers and letter writers to the city council. Local Muslim sources strongly believe that the opposition campaign was primarily spearheaded by the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), an American Hindu nationalist outfit, and records show that the vast majority — perhaps 75 percent or more — of people registering opposition were of Indian-American and likely Hindu origin. While most comments followed what appeared to be a carefully tailored script focusing on concerns about traffic increases, opposition to the mosque falls in line with the Islamophobic agenda of the HSS and its Indian parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The RSS is a paramilitary founded in India in 1925 with the express purpose of unifying, homogenizing, and militarizing Hindus. Its founders were particularly disdainful of Indian Christians and Muslims, saying that the latter should be treated the same way as German Jews. They described both communities as “traitors” to India based on the belief that only Hindus can be true patriotic Indians.
Since 2014, elements linked to the RSS have controlled India’s national government and calls for social boycotts, economic boycotts, and even eradication of Muslims have become routine in the country.
RSS activity is not confined to India, however. The HSS, a registered US nonprofit deriving inspiration from the RSS, serves as that group’s American wing. With 230 chapters nationwide, HSS has a heavy presence of 11 chapters in Illinois, including one chapter just 10 miles away from Naperville.
The city itself has a long history of platforming and praising the HSS in a variety of ways. Most recently, in August 2023, the HSS was welcomed by the Naperville Fire and Police Departments to celebrate a Hindu festival with them. At the event, the mayor applauded his city’s “collaboration” with the group.
A recent investigation by The Nation uncovered that countless local governments and elected officials around the country have engaged in similar interactions with the HSS. Yet, upon reaching out to over 80 and speaking with 15, the outlet discovered that not a single one was aware of the HSS’s links to the RSS or, in the words of one mayor, “the political interests of the HSS.”
HSS’s political interests, however, appear to run deep, both in the US and in India.
In 2014, top HSS leaders in America led large campaigns to support the election of Narendra Modi, an RSS member, as Prime Minister of India. HSS-linked outfits have been key sponsors behind campaigns to change how American school curriculum teaches about India, Hinduism, and related topics, including Islam. HSS has also been linked to Chicagoland US Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, who has not only keynoted some of their events but also taken hundreds of thousands in campaign donations from people linked to the outfit or one of its affiliates.
HSS, which is present globally while maintaining its links with the RSS, also runs educational camps for children. At one such, in the United Kingdom in 2016, an on-camera sting operation revealed that a visiting instructor from India was teaching Islamophobic content which was regurgitated by the young students.
The teacher called Islam “the world’s worst religion.” The only good Muslims, he said, “can be counted on fingers.” Muslims, he agreed with students, are the biggest problem in Britain for “everybody.” Various students claim that “you can’t unify with Muslims,” suggest bombing Muslims, and state: “I hate Muslims…. We should keep them out of society without killing them.” One student admits, “We’re equated as, like, Hitler Youth.”
Links between Hindu nationalism (or Hindutva) and Western fascism trace back to the RSS’s origins, when its founders modeled the outfit on the same lines as the fledging movements in Italy and Germany. They continue to this day.
In the UK, the HSS has had links with nationalist groups since its origins in that country, while the far-right English Defence League has repeatedly associated with Hindutva elements due, apparently, to their shared platform of Islamophobia. In the US, the Hindu American Foundation — many of whose leaders have been linked to various entities within the family of Hindu nationalist organizations to which the RSS/HSS belong — has cultivated a collaborativerelationship with the Middle East Forum, a group which has been described as both “a right-wing anti-Islam think tank” and “an extremist policy organization that has produced and distributed anti-Muslim and anti-Arab policies.”
Meanwhile, this year, we witnessed the first attack on American soil by an apparently radicalized Hindu teenager.
In May 2023, 19-year-old Sai Kandula rammed a truck into barriers outside the White House. He then got out and waved a Nazi flag. Once in custody, he reportedly said he was trying to assassinate the president and praised Hitler.
While Kandula’s case remains a bit of a mystery, it wouldn’t be the first example of modern-day affinity between white nationalism and Hindu nationalism. In 2011, Norwegian white supremacist terrorist Anders Breivik — who has tragically inspired a host of copycat killers —infamously praised the RSS for “often riot[ing] and [attack]ing Muslims,” even calling for mutual learning and cooperation.
The incident in Naperville, thus, raises questions about the presence of Hindutva ideology in America and its influence especially on youth.
In a video circulating on social media, which appears to show a confrontation at a school between the boy in question and other students who are angry at him for burning the Quran, he admits, “I was stupid to do that.” Whether it was this incident or his opposition — at the age of 14, according to his own remarks, as recorded by the City of Naperville — to installation of a mosque, one can argue that the true blame for such manifestations of hatred can be placed on the parental or educational environment. Yet the whole affair must raise red flags about how Hindutva appears to be spreading in our own American backyard.
In that case, considering especially its links to the RSS and its past exposure in the UK as a breeding ground for Islamophobic brainwashing, one wonders if the influence of the HSS in Naperville had anything to do with this sad situation.
While in the latest video, the boy appears to claim that he has “already apologized,” it’s important to contextualize that claim. First, apologizing because one got caught is not the same thing as being sorry; second, this issue is about far more than the actions of a single individual, but rather should raise questions about potential radicalization into Hindutva ideology occurring in our own suburban American backyards.
Pieter Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in analysis of South Asian affairs. He is the author of Sikh Caucus: Siege in Delhi, Surrender in Washington and Saffron Fascists: India’s Hindu Nationalist Rulers as well as co-author of Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent. Discover more by him at PieterFriedrich.net.