The Gulf region's public reaction to the controversial comments on Prophet Muhammad made by two senior officials from India's ruling party is worrying Muslim Indians who feel this intervention might do more harm than good. For the author, the BJP's "ideology of Islamophobia" is the center of the problem.
NEW DELHI — As Muslim countries started condemning the abusive comments two leaders of the ruling BJP party made against the Prophet, a friend’s mother remarked: “We saw what happened to those who protested hate speech against Muslims in Kanpur. Like after every attack, we felt that the highest form of public humiliation of Indian Muslims would be normalized."
She added that when condemnation from foreign governments protesting started pouring in, I was reminded of the story of a swarm of ababeel [swifts] defending the holy Kaaba against an army of wild elephants.”
My friend’s mother was expressing what many Muslims in India might have been feeling at that moment. But contrary to this sentiment, the Gulf region’s public reaction to the BJP’s Islamophobia has created disquiet in some liberal circles in India. They feel that this "external intervention" will do more harm — to the fight against majoritarian politics — than good.
General bias against Muslims
They have reasons to be apprehensive, of course. Barring Indonesia, the countries protesting the recent Islamophobic comments on an Indian TV channel are not even formally secular. If we speak about human rights, their record is not stellar either. So, any sermon from them on these issues lacks credibility. Not only that, it may actually weaken an otherwise strong case.
The second argument is that this international Islamic reaction is bad optics. It will further aggravate problems for Muslim Indians, for it strengthens the Hindutva view about Muslims — that they have "extra-territorial" affinities. Thus, the nationalist credential of the Indian Muslims, always in doubt, will get dented even more. So, if Islamic countries are well-wishers of Indian Muslims, they will serve their cause better by not opening their mouths — by not giving any ground to the Hindutvawadis to create fear among their constituents by showing them this perceived global Islamic threat.
The target of the BJP leaders is not just Muslim Indians. Their hatred is against Islam itself.
This warning is the result of genuine fear. Fear that more silent Hindus might migrate to the army of the Hindutvawadis as this international Islamic move reinforces the general bias against Muslims. But those ringing this alarm bell miss a very crucial point. That the outrage in Islamic countries is not about the plight of Indian Muslims. It is about the ideology of Islamophobia — professed and propagated by the political party, which is now ruling a gigantic country like India. A country which sends thousands of people to the Gulf nations to work and participate in their economies.
These Islamic countries had till recently not spoken a word on the plight of the Muslims in India. Had they done so, it could arguably be interpreted as them treating India’s Muslims as their own and speaking on their behalf. It would have constituted interference in the internal affairs of India. These countries have refrained from doing that.
They have spoken only now, after the blatant display of anti-Islamic feelings on national TV channels by leaders of the ruling parivar and also by anchors. These channels proudly claim that their footprint extends beyond the national boundaries of India. They can be viewed in these Islamic countries too. So, any opinion regarding Islam or its Prophet does not remain a domestic issue. These channels put out their programmes on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. So, any programme which discusses the Quran, the Prophet, etc., is broadcast with full awareness that its viewership will include the Muslims of these countries as well.
Hundreds of Nabipremi people protest against Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal in Sylhet-Bangladesh
Not an isolated case of anti-Muslim rhetoric
The way abusive language is used when Muslims or Islam are discussed by the leaders of the BJP tells you that those doing it have an assurance of impunity. They have obviously been empowered by the political leadership which is ruling India today.
Their target is not just Muslim Indians. Their hatred is against Islam itself, and has larger and graver consequences for the countries which are Islamic or Muslim dominated and where many Indians, especially Hindu Indians work. They live there and have, in a way, even become an important part of those countries. If Islamophobic messaging from India is broadcast to these countries, would it not impact the collective life of Indians there?
Even if we ignore this aspect, Muslim viewers outside India who watch this disgusting demonstration of anti-Islam hatred will obviously wonder whether India has now become a breeding ground for Islamophobia. Yes, it exists in other non-Muslim countries too, but responsible, democratic leaders speak out against it. we recently saw the Canadian political class, led by its prime minister, came out against Islamophobia on the occasion of the anniversary of the killing of a Pakistani-origin Muslim family.
The comments by BJP leaders betray their disgust for Muslim Indians and their faith.
Moreover, what was done by two senior leaders of the BJP cannot be seen in isolation. One of them, Naveen Kumar Jindal, had regularly been mocking and ridiculing Islam, the Prophet and Islamic practices. The leader had his timeline on social media filled with anti-Muslim jibes.
In the heart of Delhi, several press conferences have been held, meetings organised where open calls for war against Islam have been given. The Quran has been denigrated. Hindutva activists and leaders keep making despicable remarks about the life of the Prophet.
These are not and have never been isolated or sporadic incidents. They have become an almost daily affair. Sadly, most Hindus don’t feel revolted enough by the fact that such comments are being made by Hindu saints, babas, sadhvis and leaders. It appears that even judges find this behaviour tolerable, asking us to appreciate the context in which they are uttered. Thus, a BJP minister’s call to "shoot the traitors" was only his way of mobilising supporters in an election. It was only a speech device and not something which he meant, according to a recent observation by a court.
In a Catch-22
Barring a handful of honourable exceptions, almost no major party or high-profile political leader has found it necessary to condemn such regular public displays of anti-Muslim hatred.
As Alishan Jafri notes, the comments by BJP leaders betray their disgust for Muslim Indians and their faith. It is not only their words but their body language and facial expression from which this anti-Islam hatred drips.
Should it surprise us then that Muslims watching all this from outside India would be shocked by the filth and viciousness of the comments? And that they would react angrily?
Why is it that it had to be a Muslim journalist to start talking about Nupur Sharma’s comments? Why is it that the burden of observing, recording and documenting this dangerous Islamophobia falls mainly on the vulnerable shoulders of Muslims?
Why is it that only Muslims decided to demonstrate against this hateful campaign? And when they tried to do that they faced severe repression from the state. This has a background. One may ask why did the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) not spur even our secular parties into collective protest? Why did it have to be Muslims who started protesting? And when they did so, they faced bullets and imprisonment.
We called the CAA an attack on secularism but the secular opposition and protest was missing. When Muslims started to protest, they were advised to ensure it did not look like a Muslim affair.
This logic is being repeated again. The argument being made is that the protest against Islamophobia should be – and look — secular. That any protest which comes from the Muslim community is self-defeating as it proves the charge that Muslims act only as members of the Muslim community.
Against this backdrop, Muslims can be forgiven for failing to understand what it is that they are supposed to do. The protest from Islamic countries naturally gave them some solace as they did not hear words of solidarity from within their own country. When you are attacked and humiliated you need sympathy. When your neighbours refuse to empathise with you, is it your fault? When you hear a word of sympathy coming from afar, it comes as comfort, a drop of water to a parched throat.
Muslims know that this will hardly change the ground situation but the skeptics want to snatch even this moment of relief from them. So they advise them not to celebrate this demonstration of international recognition of Islamophobia in India.
Muslims might well ask whether Modi has ever tried to be their prime minister as well?
They also say that insults to the Prophet should not lead us to demand that this blasphemy be criminalised. It is against free speech, they say. But India has multiple blasphemy laws being actively enforced. The so-called anti-"love jihad" laws, anti-cow slaughter laws and anti-conversion laws are all essentially anti-blasphemy laws. Count the number of Hindus charged or arrested under these laws. The mob lynching of Muslims is mass enactment of other, unwritten blasphemy laws.
Those who caution us from looking outside assume that the protest against the BJP’s remarks on the Prophet is communal, not nationalist. That is why they also say that Indian Muslims should protest against the way the photographs of the prime minister have been treated globally, in the wake of protests. "After all he is our PM! How dare they insult him?," so goes this underlying assumption.
Of course, Muslims might well ask whether Modi has ever tried to be their prime minister as well? If he openly or cunningly distances himself from Muslims, if he keeps creating a majoritarian Hindu vote bank where Muslims are the other pole, why should they treat him as their PM?
This demand to Muslims that they must not rejoice at the support from outside or that they should wait for a "secular" battle to begin is disingenuous. If hands are extended to me, even from outside, it proves that I am worthy of sympathy even if is not sufficient to lift me out of where I am. Similarly, when I resist insult and repression, even if it means further suppression, it proves that I exist. These acts of empathy and resistance affirm my humanity. Victory is not material here. For Muslims, these demonstrations of solidarity are only an affirmation, in their own eyes of their humanity, that they have not ceased to exist.
*Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.
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