The growing phenomenon of demonising Muslims

New Delhi: Ever since the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 (9/11), Muslims all over the world are ‘under siege’. That’s how the Pakistani-American sociologist Akbar Ahmed titled his book Islam Under Siege (2003).  He could see how the tide of Islamophobia soon gripped the United States.  Muslim charities were shut down, veiled women were humiliated, and commentators on Fox TV paralleled the Quran with Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  The editor of the National Review, Richard Lowry, went to the ridiculous extent of asking for the ‘final solution’ by nuking Mecca.

Even after 18 years of 9/1, we do not see any abatement in the phobia. Rather, it has spread beyond America, into Europe, Asia and other places. Muslim refugees from war-torn West Asia are the latest victims.  In Europe, the Muslim question is rife in its politics, TV programmes and social media. Even in our own region, in Hindu-majority India and Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, Muslims are at the receiving end. The phenomenon has given pretexts to many governments to gloss over their failures and pass the buck to Muslims.

Comically, Muslim countries, too, are taking advantage of the situation.  In the name of ‘Islam in danger’, they are tightening their grip over their undemocratic regimes.  Otherwise they could have, particularly those who have so much clout in world politics because of their oil reserves, dented this baloney by putting pressure on the drifting nations.  The Abu Dhabi Summit of the 57-memer Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held in March this year is a case in point.

Far from telling India, even politely, about OIC’s displeasure with what has been happening in India in respect of Muslims’ safety and honour, the organisation invited India’s then External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, as guest of honour and keynote speaker.  That the Summit Declaration did not even thank her, nor took any cognizance of her concern with regard to international terrorism is beside the point.  

What is relevant to note is that the OIC was only interested to take India on board because it is economically vital.  All those who think that international public opinion matters, must be told that they are living in a fool’s paradise. Didn’t America maintain a flourishing trade with Hitler’s Germany two years into the Second World War?  By that time, millions of Jews had already been killed. Our own beloved Subhas Bose was also dealing with the Nazis. Devils can be enemies; devils can also be friends. National narcissism thy name is international politics.

Whatever be the dynamics of international relations, the fact remains that social expressions about Muslims have turned rabidly hostile. Wherever they are in minority, they are considered as religious bigots, who are ardently conservative.  A litany of assumptions follows: that misogyny is in their blood, that their rigid food code only allows halal meat (pork excluded), that they marry non-Muslims only on the condition that the spouse converts to Islam, that their veiled women are security hazards as terrorists can hide behind them, the list continues.

For historical reasons, Muslims are the most dispersed community in the world, even more than Christians who are much more in number (33% to 24%).  Compared with them, Buddhists and Hindus are concentrated in a few pockets, even though Hindus comprise 15% of the world population and Buddhists 9%.  As a result, the Muslim minority question is virtually a global issue, which is not the case with other minorities.

In Western Europe, Muslim presence is essentially post-colonial.  England has a South Asian-African-Muslim diaspora, France has an African-Muslim (including Algerian) diaspora, and Holland an Indonesian-Muslim diaspora.  Besides, all have Muslims from other regions as well. Germany, although not possessing comparable former colonies, has attracted Turks in large numbers 1960s onward.  The present anti-Muslim ire, however, is targeted at recent immigrants, in particular, Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

European anxiety stems from the image that Islamist terrorists tend to create.  These terrorists are quite unlike other terror brands. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) never displayed its Christian card. The Tamil Tigers, who were mostly Hindus, did not wear Hinduism on their sleeves. The latter is particularly notable because they were fighting a Buddhist chauvinistic Sinhala state.

But these mental constructions, both insecurity-driven and culture-centric, do not pose any real danger to European life per se. Some countries where refugees are minuscule, such as Poland and Hungary, are also up in arms against them. Germany, which ‘never had it so good’ economically as per Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own admission, recorded as many as 3,500 anti-refugee incidents in 2016.  

Are Muslims alone to be blamed for everything going wrong in Europe? Let us appreciate that refugees are not there for a picnic. Faced with dire circumstances back home, they had to run away.  Can anyone deny that the refugee problem of Europe is intimately linked to America’s security-centric machinations in West Asia? If European nations as members of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) could not play an adequate role in the game, what business do they now have to confuse the consequence with the cause.

It is one thing to be worried about refugees but quite another to play second fiddle to the Americans. The former Foreign Minister of Germany, Joseph Martin ‘Joschka’ Fischer, had once lamented that if at all the European Union wanted to play its rightful role in global politics, it would have to behave like a ‘power’ and not rely only on ‘experience’. So long that does not happen, America’s wars will generate Muslim refugees who will, for sheer geographical reasons, turn up in Europe.

Let Europeans also be advised to peep into their own history before giving sermons to others not to ‘invade’ their continent as immigrants.  I hope their school texts tell their children that between 1846 and 1930, fifty million of them had left the continent to settle in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The natives in those lands certainly did not invite these Europeans nor did they volunteer to be subjugated by them, let alone exterminated.  

The Islamophobia of South Asia is historically different from Europe, but varies little in terms of content. In India, it has much to do with Hindu nationalism, which has at least a hundred years of history. But only in its present form has it become virulent. Today, the mere suspicion that someone is carrying or eating beef can lead to their being lynched by a mob, which then has the audacity to video record the event and circulate it on social media with aplomb.  Just for the heck of it, Muslims are being forced to chant Jai Shri Ram (salutations to Lord Ram). If they refuse, which they have every right to, they are heckled and beaten, sometimes to death.

The matter has reached such ridiculous levels that even App-based services such as Uber (taxi) and Zomato (food delivery) are affected.  There are reports of Hindus cancelling their trips or food orders upon discovering that the taxi driver or the Zomato delivery man has a Muslim name.  The only silver lining is that the Zomato owner, a Hindu, has refused to budge, declaring that it goes against ‘the idea of India’. He has not obliged his customers even though it has caused his company some losses on account of the undelivered food and also generated calls for boycott of Zomato on social media.

At the state level, the worst example of Islamophobia is the way the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being compiled in Assam, with plans to extend the register nation-wide.  The assumption behind the exercise is that Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh (Hindu and Buddhist immigrants are excluded as the government’s statements indicate) are ‘like termites [who] will completely lick off the country’ and must be prevented from doing so.  

One shudders to think what will happen when the NRC report will be out, latest by August 31, 2019.  All reports so far have indicated massive flaws in the data. Reports also talk of widespread human rights violations. One thing is more or less clear: that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party anticipates particular trends in the findings. If the report does not show that the illegal Bangladeshis are overwhelmingly Muslim, and that they are overwhelmingly present in the border districts, then the party’s political game will be lost. They will then have to reinvent their anti-Muslim tirade on some other grounds. They need to placate their Hindu constituency in Assam and the rest of the country, after all.

To have a perspective of the situation, one must understand the area’s history and geography. The region which comprises Assam, Bangladesh, West Bengal, and the several states of India’s North-East was a united Bengal Province until 1874.  There were incessant migratory flows from eastern Bengal to Assam 1900 onwards. Among the contributory factors were, one, the greater density of population in eastern Bengal, and two, the rain-fed alluvial soil of the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys of Assam was ideal for wet paddy cultivation. Neither the political engineering of the Partition of 1947 nor the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 could obliterate these basic realities. In fact, both events triggered large-scale migration because of the violence that preceded and followed them.

To make the perspective even sharper, let us compare it with the U.S.-Mexican situation.  It is for historical and geographical reasons that erstwhile East Bengalis and formerly Mexican nationals are concentrated in the bordering regions.  In America, they are the hyphenated Mexican-Americans. India does not have the system of counting hyphenated ethnic categories.  Still it is common historical sense that such people will be in large numbers in the border districts of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal, just as Mexican-Americans are in large numbers in the bordering states of California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. We will also do well to remember that these states belonged to Mexico and were lost after the 1848 war with the United States. New Mexico, which had seceded from Mexico in 1836, is the exception.

The Islamophobia of Sri Lanka is comparatively new.  It can be explained through a binary sociology. In the construction of Sinhala nationalism, besides a focus on Buddhism and the Sinhala language, it was also necessary to find an ‘other’.  That ‘other’ could be either the Sri Lanka Tamil community or the Muslim community, both of which are Tamil-speaking. As long as the Sri Lankan civil war was raging between the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lanka state and the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Ealam (LTTE), Muslims sided with the state.  This in turn drew the ire of the LTTE, which reduced many of them to refugees by evicting them from places where they were in good numbers.

But once the LTTE was defeated in May 2009, a new punching bag was required to sustain Sinhala nationalism.  Because of Islamophobia around the world, including in India, the situation was conducive for anti-Muslimism.  One of the early pieces of evidences is the way Tsunami relief politics played out. Hambantota in the Southern Province, which was predominantly Sinhalese-Buddhist and also the constituency of Prime Minister/President Mahinda Rajapaksa, received much greater relief assistance than Ampara in the Eastern Province which had a Muslim majority. The latter suffered LTTE wrath also.

After the recent attacks on churches by a local Muslim terrorist outfit, anti-Muslim politics is in its most vocal form, bolstering Buddhist militancy led by Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) that has been terrorising Muslims for the past few years.  Even an online campaign has been launched to scuttle the Sirisena Government’s move to set up the Sharia University, supposed to be Asia’s biggest.  

Rajapaksa’s People’s Front (Podujana Peramuna) is now all set to play its time-tested Sinhala-Buddhist card in the forthcoming presidential election.  It is to be seen what kind of Muslim militancy it will result in. That there is a connection between majority highhandedness and minority extremism is well documented.  If anyone thinks that Tamil insurgency had nothing to do with Buddhist chauvinism of the fifties, as displayed through its ‘Sinhala Only’ language policy, one indeed has no sense of history.  

Talking about sense of history, I am amazed to see how little we learn from history which constantly warns us against arrogance, of the kind displayed by most majorities in most places.  But they forget that the same majority is a minority somewhere else or at some point in history. After the Jews, Indians today are the most prosperous ethnicity in the United States. But less than a century ago (1929) they were reviled as ‘illegal’ immigrants.  ‘The menacing spread of Hindus’ frightened the American state. Even Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore was subjected to such humiliation by the US immigration officials that he cut short his sojourn and returned home early.

Also intriguing is the notion that democracy is the solution to all societal problems. Strangely however, the majority-minority cleavages seem to be sharper in democracies than in other systems. I recall an interesting conversation I had in Kathmandu in 2005 with a Muslim politician. Reflecting on the fall of the Hindu monarchy and the arrival of democracy in Nepal, he felt that since only votes mattered for the latter, the Muslim minority had reasons to worry.  Many years have passed since then but nothing has happened. Still, given the Hindu resurgence next door in India, inter-communal peace in Nepal may not remain undisturbed for long.

It may as well be recalled that it was the Hindu Maharaja of Kashmir who had introduced a rule in 1927 according to which no outsider could buy land in the state.  It was meant to protect the poor masses of the state, mostly Muslim, from the richer Punjabis next door who otherwise could have dispossessed them from their lands by offering big prices.  But today’s democratically elected government of India has done away with this age-old regulation so as to allow anybody to settle in the state. 

Abraham Lincoln has given us the simplest definition of democracy: a government of the people, by the people, for the people. But seeing the majority-minority cleavages all over the world this definition needs some tweaking.  Let it read now as: Democracy is a political contraption through which different communities, big or small, deal with one another so as to truly create a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The writer is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. The views are personal