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.
Typing his nickname into a search engine yields more than 75Â 000 results. He has inspired a cartoon character and merchandise. 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 on to the streets to cry out against injustice. This is my duty and I believe Allah has decided this for me.”
Bhat, a school dropout and former militant with a pro-Pakistan rebel group, has been arrested more than 300 times. He spends days away from his widowed mother, four brothers and his sister, travelling to protests or attending court hearings. But his family, he says, is used to it.
Neighbours describe Bhat as well mannered, sincere and dedicated. He walks to a protest if it is within 10km of his home and hitchhikes or catches a bus if it is further. Sometimes he is the only protester.
Thousands of kilometres away in the US, the two bloggers who re-imagined Bhat as a cartoon character have put Islamic Rage Boy on T-shirts, beer mugs, hoodies and Valentine cards in a variety of bloodthirsty and furious poses, and copyrighted it.
The bushy beard, scowl and crooked nose bear an uncanny resemblance to Bhat, but his creators deny the image is Islamophobic or based directly on him.
Buckley F Williams, from the “conservative leaning” satirical news blog The Nose on Your Face, says: “We’re anti-Muslim-extremism, the loudest voice of the Muslim world right now, which would lead one to believe it is the dominant voice of the Muslim faith.
“Believe me, we want to be proven wrong. It isn’t as though we were sitting around at our monthly Ku Klux Klan meetings and drawing religions out of a hat to see who would become the object of our scorn and ridicule next.”
He and his co-blogger Potfry, both assumed names, have seen a significant rise in traffic to their site since the launch of Islamic Rage Boy, from 1Â 000 to 5Â 000 hits a day. They first spotted Bhat last September.
Williams says: “We didn’t go looking for him because he was always in the news. We made him Islamic Rage Boy shortly after that and it became a subculture.”
It was, he says, less about Bhat and more a composite representation. “We’ve seen so many pictures of Muslims protesting and there’s a faction that’s perennially angry.”
The intention of the cartoon is, he claims, to open up debate. “Muslim fanaticism is the problem, not Muslims. Islam is not coming across, to the average person, as a friendly or inviting religion. There must be many Muslims who don’t like what’s going on, but we’re not hearing it.”
A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ibrahim Hooper, is unconvinced. 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 Qur’an does not condone violence, but 28% believe it does and 41% felt Muslim culture glorifies suicide.
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.”
Bhat, unaware of the row he has fuelled, vows to carry on protesting. Undeterred by being locked away or being laughed at, he says: “I do not like being called Islamic Rage Boy, it is not nice; but why should I care what people think of me in this life? The afterlife will decide my fate, not a mousemat.” — Â