Many of the world’s Muslim rulers have come together in a powerful show of unity which could well bring the increasingly Islamophobic Indian government to its knees. There are many lessons to be learned from this. It may even bring an end to the genocidal tendencies within the world’s largest democracy
Like most epic events, this was triggered by a seemingly innocuous interview with an Indian politician. Nupur Sharma thought it would be a good idea to mock the most revered human being in Islam: Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Whenever anyone insults the Prophet, it is usually to promote an uninspiring book, mediocre film or a meritless drawing in the hope of creating a furore in the Muslim world, headlines in the West and a media storm for a publicity-seeking individual.
Similarly, politicians use Islamophobia as a means to increase their popularity among anti-Muslim groups, right-wing voters and those who hate religion of any kind. If there is a backlash, it is usually led by ordinary Muslims venting their frustration and anger through spontaneous demonstrations and rallies. Most of these community-led reactions are ignored or slapped down by heavy-handed policing.
In recent decades, we Muslims have felt the impact of open hatred against us from bigots around the world. If it has not been addressed at our choice of dress, Islamophobia has often been aimed at halal food, our prayers and even our support for justice in Kashmir and Palestine. Social media is awash with open bigotry, racism and hate. Largely unchecked Islamophobia in India, Myanmar, Palestine and China has been particularly distressing.
It was a refreshing change, therefore, to see swift action being taken when the national spokeswoman of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party insulted the memory of Prophet Muhammad on one of the country’s most-watched television networks, Times Now. Nupur Sharma was duly suspended and the BJP’s high-profile mouthpiece and media chief Naveen Kumar Jindal, who tweeted another offensive comment about the Prophet, was expelled from the party.
Desperately trying to defuse the volatile situation, the BJP issued a statement: “In the history of India, every religion has blossomed and flourished. The BJP respects all religions. The BJP strongly denounces insult of any religious personalities of any religion. The BJP is also strongly against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion. The BJP does not promote such people or philosophy.”
Why would the ruling BJP, which has been blatantly Islamophobic over the past few years, act so swiftly? The party’s government led by Narendra Modi has shown nothing but contempt towards India’s Muslims, spreading understandable fear within the vast community. Muslims make up around 14 per cent of India’s 1.4 billion citizens.
Modi clearly has ambitions to stride the world stage as a respected figure, so has gone out of his way to cultivate strong relations with influential countries from East to West in his bid to grab a greater role for himself. While he has been schmoozing world leaders from Washington, Moscow and Beijing, as well as Europe and the Middle East, back home he has rolled out a number of anti-Muslim policies which prompted Gregory Stanton, the founder and director of Genocide Watch, to warn that there were early “signs and processes” of genocide in the Indian state of Assam and Indian-administered Kashmir.
Little wonder then that both Sharma and Jindal felt emboldened to share their repugnant views on television and social media. Their prime minister has, after all, led by example with his hate-filled example.
He has presided over a government that stripped Kashmiris of the special autonomy they had for seven decades, and introduced the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act. He is also credited with presiding over the genocidal attacks on Gujarat’s Muslim minority community as Chief Minister back in 2002. Two-thousand Muslims were systematically killed, and 200,000 more were displaced.
Modi has deliberately stoked Hindu nationalist sentiment and frequently looked the other way as unbridled hatred towards Indian Muslims has turned to religious violence, killings and destruction.
So why did Modi’s party take swift and uncharacteristic action against Sharma and Jindal? It was not because of any pressure or anger expressed by hundreds of thousands of Muslims around the world, as well as India’s own Muslim citizens; it was because the world’s Muslim leaders have finally found their collective voice and backbone.
In the last week, led by Qatar, the governments in Kuwait, Oman, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, Turkey, Maldives, Iraq, Indonesia, the UAE, Bahrain, Pakistan and Malaysia have all issued statements condemning the comments by the two BJP officials. Similar statements were released by the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
This is the sort of unity that ordinary Muslims around the world have craved for decades when they have come under fire for their faith and beliefs.
The tipping point came as Indian Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu was on a three-day trade mission in Qatar. The Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Soltan Bin Saad Al-Muraikhi issued a statement saying that, “Insulting remarks would lead to incitement of religious hatred and offend more than 2 billion Muslims around the world.” Within hours the influential Times of India was reporting that a #BoycottIndia campaign had begun trending on social media.
Following Qatar’s lead other Muslim countries joined in and various Indian ambassadors were hauled before foreign ministers demanding public apologies. For once the Muslim leaders held their line and Sharma was suspended while key BJP figure Jindal was sacked.
Modi has remained silent on previous occasions over the building of Hindu temples at the site of demolished mosques; hijab bans in schools and colleges in the southern state of Karnataka as well as other Islamophobic legislation.
However, while not expressing an ounce of concern towards Muslim public opinion in his own backyard, he can now see that the damage overseas could be extensive in terms of trade and foreign policy. As a result, his ruling party has ordered officials to be “extremely cautious” when engaging the media about religion or talking on public platforms. According to the Reuters news agency, BJP leaders spoke to 30 senior officials and some federal ministers who are authorised to take part in debates hosted by Indian news channels often broadcast live to millions of viewers.
“We don’t want party officials to speak in a way that hurts the religious sentiments of any community… They must ensure the party’s doctrine gets shared in a sophisticated manner,” said a senior BJP leader and federal minister in New Delhi, reported Reuters.
In my book, there’s nothing sophisticated about public lynching, demolishing mosques or ripping the hijabs off the heads of schoolgirls. Is there?
The BJP boasts around 110 million members making it the largest political party in the world and possibly the most powerful. While it took swift action against two of its key members, including the expulsion of one of them, the party clearly felt that it had gone too far, even for the BJP, but it is worth noting it has taken unified action from governments across the Muslim world to bring this about.
Many Western countries, including America and Britain, are watching with interest to see what will unfold in the coming days. The truth is that such united action must be very disconcerting for Washington, London, Paris and Berlin, especially with threats of trade boycotts. Imagine what could happen if such a muscular Islamic force started demanding justice for Palestine next.
Unity in the Muslim world can be used as a force for good if the rulers would only recognise the strength and power that they can wield simply by holding a strong line together. As Muslims, we don’t need to bear arms to win battles; we just need to stand together firmly and resolutely.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.