JUNE 9, 2022 9:31 AM EDT
It’s not every day that the Taliban, Iran or Saudi Arabia get to lecture others on religious tolerance—but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has enabled the impossible and succeeded in uniting the entire Muslim world in condemnation of his country. Geopolitical rivals Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been joined in a common cause.
Facing the chorus of condemnation from the Muslim world—of a kind not seen since the controversies over the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad—the Indian government has been fighting a raging diplomatic fire this week. The source of the outrage is a television debate last month, in which a BJP spokeswoman, Nupur Sharma, insinuated that Prophet Muhammad was a pedophile because of the difference between his age and that of his youngest wife, Aisha. A few days later, another spokesman for the party, Naveen Jindal, said as much in a now deleted tweet.
The international blowback started about a week later, on June 5, with Qatar, Iran and Kuwait summoning their Indian ambassadors to lodge protests and demand an apology. The list has since expanded to more than 15 countries, including Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Maldives, Pakistan, Bahrain, Libya and Turkey. The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council, a bloc of six West Asian nations, have separately filed formal protests.
Embattled Indian embassies have responded—unconvincingly—that the comments “did not reflect the views of the government” and that the offensive remarks by spokespersons of the country’s governing party were in fact views of “fringe elements.” Both Sharma and Jindal have been removed from their official roles, with Sharma suspended and Jindal expelled from the party.
In a press statement, the party affirmed that it “respects all religions” and that the BJP is “strongly against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Read more: Is India Headed for an Anti-Muslim Genocide?
The BJP is a party with open grievances against India’s inclusive democracy and has a stated goal of recasting the country as a Hindu state. Its rise has been powered by a strategy of mobilizing Hindu voters using the country’s minorities as the bogeyman. India’s 200 million Muslims are the main targets of its supremacist politics. It weaponizes sensitive social issues to polarize voters and its top leadership routinely dehumanizes and demonizes Muslims, deploys Islamophobic political messaging and encourages mob violence against the Muslim community.
The state machinery is increasingly geared to tormenting and brutalizing Muslims. On Monday, a government college suspended 24 Muslim students after they came to class wearing the hijab. The day before, five policemen were found to have tortured to death a 22-year-old Muslim man. “They shoved a stick inside my son’s rectum and gave him repeated electric shock,” alleged his mother.
“Attacks on members of religious minority communities, including killings, assaults, and intimidation, occurred throughout the year” in India, observes the U.S. State Department in its latest annual International Religious Freedom report to Congress. Releasing the report last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised concerns about “rising attacks on people and places of worship.”
The author: Debasish Roy Chowdhury is the co-author of To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism
Additional reading about the Prophet Muhammad and his marriage to Aisha