The role of the West in the plight of India’s Muslims

by Abbas Adil

India’s Muslim population of about 204 million, remains uniquely invisible to the world despite increasingly becoming one of the most hostile places for minorities.
The national spokesperson of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nupur Sharma recently came under fire for her derogatory comments against the Prophet Muhammad on national television.

Amidst growing international pressure, the BJP distanced itself from her remarks, describing it as the views of the fringe.

In the wake of the international debate sparked by this event, far-right Dutch politician and lawmaker Geert Wilders, known for his anti-immigrant and anti-Islam stance, expressed his support for Sharma calling it brave and heroic. Wilders views were quickly circulated on social media platforms and mainstream media alike. Many prominent Indian news channels went on to give a platform to Wilders on their prime time debates where he was given space to openly express his anti-Muslim views.

There is a visible convergence of narratives across Europe, the US and Asia into a language anchored around the Muslim faith with anti-Islam sentiment increasingly becoming the organisational principle for far-right politics and a vehicle for its global expansion.

The establishment of the Muslim figure as the opponent of democratic values, an infiltrator and a polluter of cultures can be traced back to a vocabulary that was produced in the post-9/11 era against the backdrop of the global “War on Terror”.

Increasingly, the logic of securing borders from Muslim “invaders” is also being exported to South Asia, with the key difference being that Muslims who have lived for centuries on these lands are being declared as outsiders.

There is a common perception of Islamophobia as a problem specific to Western countries with Muslim immigrant populations, but this obscures the increasingly hostile conditions of the countries of the Global South.

A similar event in recent history might put things in a better perspective.

In 2019, the leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, met with the ardent anti-immigrant Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. The two leaders highlighted that one of the greatest challenges for both countries and their respective regions was “migration… both regions have seen the emergence of the issue of coexistence with continuously growing Muslim populations.”

Rohingyas have lived in Myanmar for centuries but are denied citizenship and classified as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Aung San Suu Kyi made no attempts to condemn the violent military crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya minority in 2017 – leading to rape and killing of thousands of Rohingya in what the UN described as “textbook ethnic cleansing”.

And India could be on a similar path, as noted by genocide expert Gregory Stanton, who said that a genocide of Muslims in India could be about to take place. Stanton had predicted the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda years before it took place in 1994.

In India, attacks against minorities in the last few years have surged, with new fronts of populism grounded in an anti-Muslim stance. From being hounded on the street by hateful mobs for any visible identity markers to now being hammered with laws that criminalise public appearance of Muslimness, the very existence of Indian Muslims is being erased from the cultural ethos of their country.

Hindutva, the central ideology of the ruling party of India, cannot be exhausted through its religious character. Hindutva, or Hindu Nationalism, is a deeply territorial and racial idea of citizenship. To use the words of the founder of this ideology, “To be a Hindu means a person who sees this land, from the Indus River to the sea, as his country but also as his Holy Land,” according to which Muslims and Christians are forever seen as outsiders with no real claim to citizenship.

Something very fundamental is changing in the way different religious communities have coexisted in India as a post-truth discourse has overtaken the country. The protracted period of quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic served as a catalyst for the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment.

Deep-seated beliefs about Muslims have entered the path to codification, with little criticism from India’s larger civil society. These include the unconstitutional revocation of the special status given to a Muslim-majority region of India-administered Kashmir, the enactment of a discriminatory citizenship law that excludes Muslims, and now with the fresh politics of deploying bulldozers against Muslim properties.

Anti-Muslim sentiments have already traversed through the closed networks of few dedicated right-wing figures and entered into the psyche of an average Indian.

The ease with which the state takes steps against Muslims with little criticism from India’s larger civil society says a lot about the implicit links that have already been built between Muslim names and mental registers of criminality.

This opening to the larger public domain comes through many reasons, including, importantly, the erosion of a liberal language of defence that existed earlier. The constant source of BJP’s power over its leading opposition party has been a clear attack on its claim of minority appeasement politics practised by the Congress at the cost of downplaying the needs of the majority.

The effects of this can also be seen in the larger political events unfolding in the country. A joint letter written by heads of many opposition parties in the wake of rising anti-Muslim violence did not even mention the word “Muslim” in it.

The intellectual ballast required to support the claims made by Hindutva radicals came from the language provided by the so-called global “War on Terror”. Hindu nationalists seized the opening created by an all-pervasive international media and political discourse of Islamophobia, alarm about “terrorists in our midst,” which provided the fundamental premises to criminalise Muslim existence by declaring Islam — and Muslims — an enemy of democracy and the modern world.

The impunity for this bigotry comes not through the guard of right-wing nationalists, but through a buffer provided by Indian liberals who refuse to acknowledge the gravity of structural anti-Muslim violence and dismiss it as a two-sided cultural conflict between Hindus and Muslims.

The role of prominent leaders of the west, in normalising the image of Modi, cannot be overstated, who didn’t just remain silent as Modi ascended to power but also actively endorsed this shift in Indian politics admiring Modi as a hero of progress.

He is the same man who had been banned from many Western countries, including the United States, because of his role in the Gujarat pogrom, which was all conveniently forgotten as he became the Prime Minister.

Modi has received immense admiration not just from someone like Trump who called him “a great man and a great leader” committed to protecting “innocent civilians from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism” at the Howdy Modi rally held in Houston, but also from a leader like Barack Obama who has openly shown his admiration for Modi’s work ethic.

Boris Johnson, on the other hand, on his trip to India recently, went as far as making a visit to a company that manufactures bulldozers while also staging a photoshoot of him posing on bulldozers. This comes right after Indian state has openly started using Bulldozers to raze Muslim homes.

In many European nations also, Modi has been given a grand welcome, the effect of which in undermining the voices of resistance trying to tell the story of their persecution is incalculable.

A history of oriental scholarship has also facilitated in producing the caricature of the invader Muslim man. The seeds of Hindutva radicalization are at least a century old, and have managed to remain dormant for all these years, held back by a constitutional morality which seems to be eroding as a new politics of hatred is taking over.

Today again it is the language of the imperialists that has facilitated the demarking of Muslims as a foreign barbaric community and in legitimising their subordination.

Resultantly, the paranoia that exists in Hindu nationalists roots itself in a contradictory anxiety around Muslims, which is partly historical and partly a product of current circumstances. In the imagination of a Hindu nationalist, the Muslim is simultaneously an all-powerful imperial force as well as a resourceless disease carrying burden.

The idea of what represents Indian culture in the West however, remains largely an imagination of the upper caste Hindu diaspora, the overwhelming majority of whom upholds the Hindu nationalist ideology. It is high time that the cultures of resistance that are being produced in India replace it.

Indian Muslims are developing a political language of resistance that is uniquely new to the subcontinent. It is not just a battle of our physical survival after all, it has become a battle of who gets to define Muslims, and who gets to write their stories. It is a battle against a colonial definition of the Muslim identity.

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