Even before two officials in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made demeaning comments about the Prophet Mohamed, many in the Arab world had begun to worry about India’s abuse of Muslims.
Protests about the offensive remarks in many Arab and Muslim countries this month reflected deeper concerns about Delhi’s increasing anti-Muslim sentiments since the Hindu nationalist BJP came to power in 2014.
Since taking office, the Modi administration has often been accused of stirring up hostility towards Muslims or remaining silent over mounting violence against India’s largest religious minority group and one of the biggest Muslim communities worldwide.
The escalating anti-Muslim drive among Hindu nationalist extremists in India, which has evoked little condemnation from the Modi government, has the potential to undermine India’s historical relationship with the Arab world.
Moreover, the rebooting of Hindu nationalism and its strong anti-Muslim manifestations could have larger geopolitical implications in a volatile Muslim world beset by an identity crisis and regional geostrategic struggles.
The recent backlash followed a new turn of events in Hindu nationalism when BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma commented on the Prophet Mohamed’s youngest wife during a televised debate in India three weeks ago.
A few days later, another BJP official, Naveen Kumar Jindal, made a similar statement targeting the Prophet Mohamed and stirring up more unrest in what seemed to be an orchestrated effort to appease the Hindu nationalists.
The remarks by the BJP officials seemed to touch upon a debate in Islamic history about whether the marriage between the Prophet and his youngest wife Aisha took place when she was still a minor.
Many Muslim scholars dismiss the controversial narrative, which is sometimes used by Islam’s enemies to slander the religion as accepting of paedophilia. But in India’s case, the row has exposed a more serious political issue.
Hindu supremacists in India have been manipulating the story for years to spark fears of demographic erasure by Muslims who constitute a minority of about 200 million among India’s 1.4 billion and mostly Hindu population.
Official data reveal that the country’s one billion-plus Hindus produce more children than Muslims and cases of the marriage of minors among them are much higher than within the Muslim community.
The BJP suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal and issued a statement denouncing the “insulting of any religious personalities from any religion” in the wake of the remarks. However, it fell short of condemning the remarks and failed to contain some Hindus’ religious intolerance against Indian Muslims.
The derogatory remarks against the Prophet sparked outrage among Indian Muslims, who protested in many cities across the sub-continent before their largely peaceful demonstrations were met with violence by police and local Hindu extremists.
The crackdown led to the deaths of two Muslim teenagers and the wounding of dozens of people after the police charged crowds and used batons and arms. Leaders of India’s Muslim community urged their followers to halt their protests to avoid further bloodshed.
Nevertheless, the Indian police escalated the crackdown, showing unprecedented brutality and demonstrating the much-touted “muscular” policy pursued by the BJP.
In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the authorities sent bulldozers to raze the homes of Muslims accused of being involved in Muslim religious protests and arrested their owners.
Similar incidents have been reported in other states despite protests that they are gross violations of constitutional norms, ethics, and international law.
The demolitions are reminiscent of the methods used against the Palestinians by Israel in the Occupied Territories since they came under its control in the 1967 War.
In another case, Indian police savagely beat a group of Muslims in custody after the Muslim men were rounded up and detained by the police after the protests.
In distressing footage that can be seen on the Internet, the Indian police officers can be seen thrashing the men with rods which they swing like baseball bats. The sound of the thwack as each blow lands is punctuated by screams.
The video, which has been viewed by millions, was shared by an elected member of the ruling BJP Party, who praised the police’s brutal actions as a “gift” to the men.
Outside India, the offensive remarks by BJP officials have set off diplomatic protests across the Muslim world, with many governments demanding that Modi’s government end anti-Muslim bigotry.
Government leaders in Pakistan, including President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Shehbaz Shari, condemned the Islamophobic remarks by the two spokespersons of India’s ruling party in the strongest terms.
In Bangladesh, which enjoys close relations with India, protesters demanded a formal condemnation from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a close ally of India.
In the Maldives, another Asian country having close ties with India, protesters against the Modi government’s inaction plastered public rubbish bins with the Indian prime minister’s picture with boot stamps on it.
Iran summoned India’s envoys in Tehran to complain about the remarks.
Several Arab countries including Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that host large Indian expatriate communities condemned the derogatory remarks by the two BJP officials.
Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque, highly revered in the Muslim world, called the BJP officials’ remarks “real terrorism” capable of plunging the world into “deadly wars.” The grand mufti of Oman termed the BJP’s “obscene rudeness” towards Islam a form of “war.”
More significantly, campaigns to boycott Indian goods have been launched in many Arab countries in response to the remarks. In many countries in the Gulf, Indian products have been removed from stores.
An Arabic hashtag had begun trending on Twitter demanding that Indian communities be expelled from the Gulf countries.
Given the shock triggered by the BJP officials’ statements and the fear that they could evolve into a systematic Hindu campaign against Muslims, the crisis is expected to hit Arab-Indian relations with a wide range of political, economic, and social effects.
India has traditionally enjoyed close and friendly ties with the Arab countries. These relations can be traced back to as early as the time of the rise of Islam and the Muslim conquest of the subcontinent in the 7th century.
After it became independent in 1947, India established formal diplomatic relations with the Arab countries, which gradually evolved into partnerships in diverse political, economic, and cultural fields.
Nearly eight million Indians work and live in the Arab Gulf region, sending home remittances. India’s total trade with the Arab world totalled $162 billion in 2020, making it a major trading partner, and there are important Indian investments in several Arab countries.
With no signs that Islamophobia and violence against Muslims are abating under BJP rule, the relationship between India and the Arab world is now expected to deteriorate, especially on the level of Arab and Muslim public opinion.
The “Arab street,” traditionally a force of friendship with secular India, has for years looked on with concern as BJP religious intolerance goes beyond limits and turns India into a Hindu-nationalist state.
Delhi’s decision in 2019 to formally revoke the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy and integrate it fully into India led to indignation among many Arabs, who see India as an occupying force in the largely Muslim state.
India’s cultural ties with the region, in particular through the showing of Indian films, have been eroded by a vicious Hindu campaign against Bollywood Muslim actors and actresses and the production of films apparently demonising Muslims and portraying them as terrorists.
The BJP government may not be taking seriously enough the ways in which anti-Islam Hindu nationalism has started to reshape Arab public opinion on ties with India, possibly because the region is entering a period of uncertainty and geopolitical change.
Of course, India’s reorientation of its policies towards Israel and more recently towards the new landscape created by the so-called “Abraham Accords” between some Arab countries and Israel has been a major factor in India’s indifferent response to the Arab criticism.
However, the Indian political establishment will soon need to take note that the rise of anti-Islam Hindu extremism is not just a domestic issue and that as long as Muslims and their faith continue to be demeaned, business with the Arab world cannot take place as usual.
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.