It’s not every day that the Taliban, Iran or Saudi Arabia get to lecture others on religious tolerance—but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has enabled the impossible and succeeded in uniting the entire Muslim world in condemnation of his country. Geopolitical rivals Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been joined in a common cause.
Facing the chorus of condemnation from the Muslim world—of a kind not seen since the controversies over the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad—the Indian government has been fighting a raging diplomatic fire this week. The source of the outrage is a television debate last month, in which a BJP spokeswoman, Nupur Sharma, insinuated that Prophet Muhammad was a pedophile because of the difference between his age and that of his youngest wife, Aisha. A few days later, another spokesman for the party, Naveen Jindal, said as much in a now deleted tweet.
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The international blowback started about a week later, on June 5, with Qatar, Iran and Kuwait summoning their Indian ambassadors to lodge protests and demand an apology. The list has since expanded to more than 15 countries, including Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Maldives, Pakistan, Bahrain, Libya and Turkey. The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council, a bloc of six West Asian nations, have separately filed formal protests.
Embattled Indian embassies have responded—unconvincingly—that the comments “did not reflect the views of the government” and that the offensive remarks by spokespersons of the country’s governing party were in fact views of “fringe elements.” Both Sharma and Jindal have been removed from their official roles, with Sharma suspended and Jindal expelled from the party.
In a press statement, the party affirmed that it “respects all religions” and that the BJP is “strongly against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
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The BJP is a party with open grievances against India’s inclusive democracy and has a stated goal of recasting the country as a Hindu state. Its rise has been powered by a strategy of mobilizing Hindu voters using the country’s minorities as the bogeyman. India’s 200 million Muslims are the main targets of its supremacist politics. It weaponizes sensitive social issues to polarize voters and its top leadership routinely dehumanizes and demonizes Muslims, deploys Islamophobic political messaging and encourages mob violence against the Muslim community.
The state machinery is increasingly geared to tormenting and brutalizing Muslims. On Monday, a government college suspended 24 Muslim students after they came to class wearing the hijab. The day before, five policemen were found to have tortured to death a 22-year-old Muslim man. “They shoved a stick inside my son’s rectum and gave him repeated electric shock,” alleged his mother.
“Attacks on members of religious minority communities, including killings, assaults, and intimidation, occurred throughout the year” in India, observes the U.S. State Department in its latest annual International Religious Freedom report to Congress. Releasing the report last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised concerns about “rising attacks on people and places of worship.”
Modi’s government brazened out the foreign criticism, as it usually does. It said that Blinken’s comments were “ill-informed” and in turn pointed to “issues of concern” in the U.S., including “racially and ethnically motivated attacks, hate crimes and gun violence.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, during his ceremonial reception on February 20, 2019 in New Delhi, India.
Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Relations between India and Muslim countries
With Modi’s back-to-back election victories, the party has doubled down on its majoritarian project. From open calls for genocide and anti-Muslim pop to dog-whistling by television anchors and name-calling by BJP leaders, hate speech is everywhere. The party incentivizes hate and those with the talent of spreading it, which is how Sharma and Jindal rose in the organization. It takes considerable talent to be called “fanatics” by Afghanistan’s Taliban government.
High on propaganda about Modi’s supposed invincibility, and India’s rise to ever greater heights under his steely guidance, his supporters cannot fathom why the mighty Modi has to sacrifice his lieutenants to please a bunch of Muslim countries. Tweets demanding a war on Qatar and its economic boycott have gone viral. Hashtags like #ShameOnBJP have been trending in recent days, with the party’s own supporters breathing fire at what they see as Modi’s cowardice.
The expectations of Modi’s admirers are divorced from India’s economic and strategic compulsions. The six Persian Gulf countries, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, alone account for 15% of India’s global trade, supply a third of its fuel needs, and employ 9 million Indians, whose wires home account for 65% of India’s annual remittances of more than $80 billion.
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But Muslim countries also value India for its growing economic might, and wouldn’t want to jeopardize relations. The increasing targeting of Muslims in India in the eight years under Modi has, after all, never elicited concern from any Muslim nation. Some, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have in fact actively wooed Modi and strengthened ties with Delhi. But this time, these governments may have been forced to act in order to preempt trouble from religious conservatives at home.
Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque called the BJP spokesperson’s remarks “real terrorism” capable of plunging the whole world into “deadly wars.” The powerful Grand Mufti of Oman termed the BJP’s “obscene rudeness” toward Islam a form of “war” and launched a boycott of Indian goods. In many countries in the Persian Gulf, Indian products have since been removed from the stores. In the Maldives, the controversy has revived an old political campaign against India, with protesters plastering public trash cans with Modi’s picture with boot stamps on them. Governments are anxious that such anger does not escalate into the kind of destabilizing unrest seen across the Muslim world a decade ago, when an Islamophobic film, “Innocence of Muslims”, made similarly vulgar claims about Muhammad.
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Indian Muslims pray that adverse global opinion might finally offer them some protection from the unending nightmare that is Hindu extremist politics. Hounded by the ruling party and abandoned by the so-called secular parties—none of which reacted to the BJP spokespersons’ ugly remarks on Muhammad till Muslim nations raised the issue a week later—it’s reasonable for the beleaguered Muslim community to draw succor from the global outrage. But it is at best temporary.
Commerce with India will take precedence over the dangers facing Indian Muslims once the dust settles. The Modi government will return to its old ways, most likely throwing a few Muslims into jail to establish an imagined conspiracy to malign India as the reason for this sordid saga. The vigilantes and state machinery held back for the moment will be unleashed once more on Muslims. Modi will return to hugging Muslim monarchs on his foreign tours.
As long as nobody mentions the Prophet again, it will be business as usual.