India’s complex position on Islamophobia

T. S. Tirumurti, India’s Ambassador to the U.N.

T. S. Tirumurti, India’s Ambassador to the U.N. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Last week, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a consensus Resolution declaring March 15 annually as the ‘International Day to Combat Islamophobia’. Introducing the draft document on behalf of its main sponsor, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the UN, Munir Akram, said that the OIC had “extensively” discussed the proposal with interested delegations for a year and the same process continued once a draft text was introduced in February this year. There is little doubt that India and the European Union (EU), which had major difficulties with the very basis of the proposal, would have discussed it with the OIC, but obviously could not persuade it to their viewpoints.

Concessions by OIC

Islamophobia connotes fear of and prejudice, discrimination and hate speech against Islam. Muslims worldwide complain about negative stereotyping of their faith which has got exacerbated since the al Qaeda’s 9/11 terrorist attacks and other instances of terrorist violence undertaken by Islamist groups. They assert that these acts are not in keeping with Islam. They also emphasise, as Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan did during his address to the UNGA in 2019, that “…that there is no such thing as radical Islam (and) there are radical fringes in every society”. Mr. Khan also regretted that “suicide attacks are equated with Islam” and the marginalisation of Muslims in European countries. He admitted, though, that the Western world does not “look at religion the way that we do”.

It is obvious that the OIC made many concessions till the last moment in order to achieve consensus. It stuck to its desire to get a resolution on combating Islamophobia, but in the process, had to place it in within the framework of previous resolutions of a general nature which seek to promote tolerance and religious freedoms and combat discrimination and violence flowing from a variety of reasons. In the Resolution’s operative part, the OIC had to agree to a call for a dialogue for peace based on “respect for human rights and diversity of religions and beliefs”. And significantly, while submitting the Resolution, the OIC had to withdraw its call for “high-visibility events” by member states, for curbing Islamophobia. It now only wants the observation of March 15 in “an appropriate manner”.

India’s stand

Immediately after the Resolution’s adoption, India’s Permanent Representative T.S. Tirumuti exercised his right to explain India’s stand. His statement criticising the Resolution has attracted media attention. The fact that by not breaking the consensus India, at least formally, accepted the Resolution, has become somewhat obscured. India’s basic contention was encapsulated in these words “It is time that we acknowledged the prevalence of religiophobia, rather than single out just one”. This was an entirely valid assertion. So was the contention that ‘phobias’ are just not against Abrahamic faiths but also against non-Abrahamic religions. Discriminatory, prejudicial and violent acts have taken place, as mentioned by Mr. Tirumurti, against Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. Non-Abrahamic faiths, though, perhaps do not evoke the same degree of fear and negativity worldwide but especially in the West as does Islam.

Mr. Tirumurti also mentioned India’s historical track record of giving refuge to the prosecuted members of different faiths. He specifically mentioned Zoroastrians, Jews and Buddhists. The reference to Buddhists was a not-so-subtle one to the Dalai Lama and his followers. While all this was fine, what was absent from Mr. Tirumurti’s intervention was any reference to Indian Muslims. This would not go without notice, especially as the Indian Muslim community is the second or third largest in the world.

Mr. Tirumurti did “condemn” Islamophobia along with all other religiophobia, but at that point he could have specifically added that India cannot but be concerned with Islamophobia because Muslims form a substantial part of the country’s plural society. Such a reference would have been appropriate for two other reasons too: one, the complaint that despite India’s desire, the word “pluralism” does not find any mention in the Resolution; and, two, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of India’s polity and society and the path of progress he aspires to lies in “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas and sabka prayas”. That necessarily includes Indian Muslims as the ruling dispensation itself stresses to ward off allegations of anti-minorities bias. And a reference to Indian Muslims would not have detracted from Mr. Tirumurti’s basic warning that a focus on a single religion may lead to divisiveness when it is imperative that the UN is not divided into “religious camps”. India’s views in international fora have to be promoted with finesse and grace.

Like India, the EU’s opposition to the Resolution stemmed from “singling out a particular confession”, but its philosophical underpinnings were different. The EU placed its focus on individual rights and freedoms and not on protection of religions per se. Thus, its emphasis was on the rights of non-believers. The gulf between the EU and the OIC on the ambit of the freedom of expression is long standing and will not be easily bridged for, as Mr. Khan noted, the West does not see religion as “we do”. The EU’s views on an individual’s right to change religion may also not coincide with the view of traditional Islam which does not accept apostasy.

China’s position

The politics surrounding the Resolution was best illustrated by the late entry of China as among its sponsors. China’s abysmal record of treatment of its Muslims, especially the Uighurs, is well known. Yet, the OIC has always adopted a soft approach towards China. It has essentially overlooked the persecution of its Muslim minorities, particularly of the Uighurs who have been ‘re-educated’ in large camps. Thus, China’s approach to the Resolution was brazen. Perhaps as a quid pro quo, the OIC once again gave China a free pass during its Foreign Minister’s meeting in Islamabad on March 22-23; the Chinese mistreatment of its Muslims does not find any mention in the Islamabad declaration. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was invited as a special guest at this meeting. In this context it is useful to recall Pakistan’s great opposition to the UAE inviting the then External Affairs Minister the late Sushma Swaraj in 2019 as guest of honour to the Abu Dhabi OIC Foreign Minister’s meeting.

Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer

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Printable version | Mar 26, 2022 11:19:50 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/indias-complex-position-on-islamophobia/article65260510.ece