India’s insult of the Prophet Muhammad is a sign of deeper Islamophobia

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(RNS) — India has been on genocide watch for some time now for its ill treatment of its more than 200 million Muslims. Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party took power in 2014, Muslims have suffered official as well as private and even mob-generated discrimination, ranging from the stripping of citizenship from native-born Muslims and an illegal occupation of Kashmir to lynchings fomented by false rumors of Muslims killing cows.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who heads the BJP, was at one point barred from entering the United States for his role in the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat while he was governor of the state in 2002, earning him the nickname “Butcher of Gujarat.”

But Modi’s anti-Muslim history has conveniently disappeared as international politics and economics — not to mention lucrative arms deals — have convinced U.S. leaders to welcome Modi time and time again with open arms. For years, American Muslims have protested his presence here and his escalating anti-Muslim fascism at home, but we have been largely rebuffed. Even Muslim-majority nations, busy with their own internal politics and unwilling to risk tensions with the Indian government, have met our pleas with silence.


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Somehow that all changed this past week when Nupur Sharma, the BJP’s national spokesperson, crudely insulted the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) on Indian national TV. Qatar quickly issued a condemnation, followed by Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and many other Muslim nations, several of which overcame long and bitter disputes with one another to confront a global superpower. The solidarity is refreshing and long overdue.

Insulting the Prophet almost always signals that a country is attempting to exert dominance over Muslims, either their homegrown minorities or neighbors abroad. When France uses the insult of the Prophet as the marquee issue of freedom of speech, it simultaneously engages in all sorts of repression against the Muslim community that set a chilling tone for the rest of Europe. When racist Israeli settlers march on Jerusalem under the full protection of the state apparatus and chant “Muhammad is dead,” their aim seems to be to see all of his Palestinian Muslim followers dead as well.

China bars Uyghur Muslims from uttering the name “Muhammad,” even as it has put thousands of Muslim men named Muhammad into internment camps unseen by the outside world.

The insulting of the Prophet is sufficient incitement and wrong on its own, but it must always be condemned as the sign of systemic Islamophobia that its expression represents. The portrayal of the Prophet as violent is also meant to caricature Muslims worldwide as inherently in need of being subdued and subjected to discriminatory practices to prevent them from destroying the West.

In the case of India’s most recent insult, a reference to the Prophet’s marriage, Muslims have reacted with global boycotts. These actions seem to result only in getting these governments to take back their words without making real changes. Calls to boycott French products in 2020 forced President Emmanuel Macron to scramble to mollify the Muslim world, but the French government has continued to aggressively shut down mosques and curb Muslim civil liberties.


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This week, as “Boycott India” has been trending in the Muslim world, Modi suspended his spokesperson for her incendiary remarks, seeming to reject the attempt to dehumanize Muslims by attacking their Prophet. It’s important that all Muslims, and all people who believe in religious freedom, not be placated by this gesture and let the world turn its back on Indian Muslims once again.

Unless we intervene, the repression of Muslims at Modi’s hands will only increase.

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