Even before two officials from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made demeaning comments about the Prophet Muhammad, many in the Arab world had begun to worry about the abuses inflicted on Muslims by the India.
Protests over the offensive remarks in many Arab and Muslim countries this month reflected deeper concerns about growing anti-Muslim sentiments in Delhi since Hindu nationalist BJP came to power in 2014.
Since taking office, the Modi administration has often been accused of stoking hostility towards Muslims or remaining silent in the face of growing violence against India’s largest religious minority group and one of the most major Muslim communities in the world.
The anti-Muslim escalation among Hindu nationalist extremists in India, which has drawn little condemnation from the Modi government, has the potential to undermine India’s historic relationship with the Arab world.
Moreover, the reboot of Hindu nationalism and its strong anti-Muslim manifestations could have greater geopolitical implications in an unstable Muslim world plagued by an identity crisis and regional geostrategic struggles.
The recent backlash followed a new twist 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.
Days later, another BJP official, Naveen Kumar Jindal, made a similar statement targeting the Prophet Mohamed and causing further unrest in what appeared to be an orchestrated effort to appease Hindu nationalists.
The remarks by BJP officials appeared to touch on a debate in Islamic history over whether the marriage between the Prophet and his youngest wife Aisha took place when she was still a minor.
Many Muslim scholars reject the controversial narrative, which is sometimes used by enemies of Islam to slander the religion as condoning paedophilia. But in the case of India, the dispute revealed a more serious political problem.
Hindu supremacists in India have manipulated history for years to spark fears of demographic erasure by Muslims who make up an estimated 200 million minority of India’s 1.4 billion mostly Hindu people.
Official data reveals that the more than one billion Hindus in the country produce more children than Muslims and the cases of underage marriage among them are much higher than among the Muslim community.
The BJP suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal and issued a statement decrying “insult to any religious figure of any religion” following the remarks. However, he did not condemn the remarks and failed to contain the religious intolerance of some Hindus against Indian Muslims.
The derogatory remarks against the Prophet sparked outrage among Indian Muslims, who demonstrated in many cities across the subcontinent before their largely peaceful protests were met with violence from police and local Hindu extremists.
The crackdown left two Muslim teenagers dead and dozens injured after police charged into the crowd and used batons and weapons. Indian Muslim community leaders have urged their supporters to halt their protests to avoid further bloodshed.
Nevertheless, the Indian police have stepped up the crackdown, demonstrating unprecedented brutality and demonstrating the much-vaunted “tough” policy pursued by the BJP.
In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, authorities sent bulldozers to raze the homes of Muslims accused of involvement 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 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 arrested and detained by police following protests.
In distressing footage that can be seen on the internet, the Indian policemen are seen beating the men with sticks which they swing like baseball bats. The sound of the thwack with each hit is punctuated by screams.
The video, which has been viewed by millions, was shared by an elected member of the ruling BJP party, who hailed the brutal police actions as a “gift” for the men.
Outside India, the offensive remarks by BJP officials sparked diplomatic protests across the Muslim world, with many governments demanding that Modi’s government end anti-Muslim bigotry.
Pakistani government leaders, including President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Shehbaz Shari, have condemned in the strongest terms the Islamophobic remarks of India’s two ruling party spokespersons.
In Bangladesh, which has close ties with India, protesters demanded a formal condemnation from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a close ally of India.
In the Maldives, another Asian country with close ties to India, protesters against the Modi government’s inaction plastered public trash cans with the picture of India’s prime minister with boot stamps.
Iran summoned Indian envoys to Tehran to complain about the remarks.
Several Arab countries including Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia which host large Indian expatriate communities condemned the derogatory remarks of the two BJP officials.
Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque, highly revered in the Muslim world, called the BJP officials’ remarks “genuine terrorism” capable of plunging the world into “deadly wars”. Oman’s Grand Mufti called the BJP’s “lewd rudeness” towards Islam a form of “war”.
More importantly, campaigns to boycott Indian products have been launched in many Arab countries in response to these remarks. In many Gulf countries, Indian products have been pulled from stores.
An Arab hashtag had started spreading on Twitter demanding that Indian communities be expelled from Gulf countries.
Given the shock triggered by the statements of BJP officials and the fear that they could turn into a systematic Hindu campaign against Muslims, the crisis is expected to hit Arab-Indian relations with a wide range of effects political, economic and social.
India traditionally maintains close and friendly ties with Arab countries. These relations date back to the time of the rise of Islam and the Muslim conquest of the subcontinent in the 7th century.
After its independence in 1947, India established formal diplomatic relations with Arab countries, which gradually evolved into partnerships in various political, economic and cultural fields.
Nearly eight million Indians work and live in the Arabian Gulf region, sending remittances home. India’s total trade with the Arab world totaled $162 billion in 2020, making it a major trading partner, and there are significant Indian investments in several Arab countries.
With no signs that Islamophobia and violence against Muslims are diminishing under the BJP regime, relations between India and the Arab world are now expected to deteriorate, especially at the level of Arab public opinion and Muslim.
The ‘Arab street’, traditionally a force of friendship with secular India, has watched with concern for years as the BJP’s religious intolerance crosses the line and transforms 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 fully integrate it into India sparked outrage among many Arabs, who see India as a occupying force in this predominantly Muslim state.
India’s cultural ties to the region, particularly through the showing of Indian films, have been eroded by a vicious Hindu campaign against Muslim actors and actresses in Bollywood and the production of films that apparently demonize Muslims and portray them as terrorists.
The BJP government may not be taking seriously enough the way anti-Islam Hindu nationalism has begun to reshape Arab public opinion on ties with India, perhaps because the region is entering a period uncertainty and geopolitical change.
Of course, the reorientation of Indian policy 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 Arab critics.
However, India’s political establishment will soon have to realize that the rise of anti-Hindu Islam extremism is not just a national problem and that as long as Muslims and their faith continue to be belittled, business with the world Arabic will not be able to take place as usual.
A version of this article appeared in the June 23, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.