The many faces of Islamophobia

The state’s responses pose a threat to the secular fabric of India

September 02, 2023 12:08 am | Updated 10:31 am IST

A protest in New Delhi against violent attacks across the country targetting Muslims minority. File

A protest in New Delhi against violent attacks across the country targetting Muslims minority. File | Photo Credit: AP

A video clip of an incident that happened in Khubbapur village in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, where a Muslim boy was slapped by his classmates on the instruction of their teacher is Islamophobic. In this case, the victim and the perpetrator belong to the Tyagi clan. Despite hailing from different religions they share a cultural bond. Their neighbourhood was not directly affected during the Muzaffarnagar riots in U.P. in 2013 and has an established history of social harmony between the Hindu Tyagis and Muslim Tyagis. This is why reconciliation could happen so swiftly. It also highlights the roots of the indigenous Indian Islam. Yet, Islamophobia has reared its ugly head and left the sacred trust between teacher and student broken. This is how much India has changed.

Concepts and explanations

Islamophobia is a global phenomenon. But the sources and issues from which it emanates vary from region to region. What is being witnessed in India is quite different from what is seen in the West. In India, Islamophobia, communalism and intolerance are some of the key concepts used to explain the troubled Hindu-Muslim relations. Of the three, the use of the notion of communalism has disproportionately dominated scholarly works particularly during the 20th century. In a Rawlsian sense, each is a freestanding concept, but possesses overlapping attributes. It is only by unravelling these attributes that the threat that Islamophobia poses to India’s secular social order can be understood. With its pejorative connotation, the concept of communalism is applied exclusively in a South Asian context; the concepts of Islamophobia and intolerance are universal in usage.

How does the Indian brand of Islamophobia vary from the western one? For instance, lynching in India is a violent expression of Islamophobia that occurs mainly due to the cow slaughter issue. Given the rising number of Muslim victims from cow vigilantism, it needs to be seen as Islamophobia by other means. But in Europe and the United States, cow slaughter is neither the source nor the issue of Islamophobia.

On the Masjid-related issue, there are interesting comparative insights that can be drawn. In 2009, a Swiss federal referendum to ban minarets on masjids was passed, and its Egerkingen Committee campaign posters displayed minarets as being reminiscent of missiles. In New York, controversy regarding “ground zero mosques” was driven by Islamophobic arguments. It was argued among other things that it would mean disrespecting the victims of 9/11, as if entire Islam is responsible for the violence committed by a handful of disoriented Muslims.

In India, there are major disputes such as the Babri Masjid issue or the ongoing Gyanvapi Masjid issue in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. But these are more related to a power struggle that pertains to Muslim rulers and the consequences of their actions. Indian Muslims do face the impact of these disputes, but Islamophobia is not purely derived from architecture or structures, as is the case in Europe. It may change in the days ahead.

Issues, Muslims and Islam

There is Islamophobia reflected in the use of loudspeakers during Azaan. In India, a country where there is constant automobile honking and other forms of major noise pollution in many of its towns and cities, it is absurd to argue that the use of loudspeakers for Azaan for a few minutes causes intolerable noise pollution — and that it calls for a law.

There were controversies over this issue in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. More than 11,000 loudspeakers were removed from all religious places, both Hindu and Muslim, in 2022 in Uttar Pradesh. Likewise, the veil has been an Islamophobic issue in Europe. It is the hijab controversy in Karnataka. There seems to be a growing list of common issues that drive Islamophobia in India and Europe.

But everything concerning Muslims cannot be viewed as Islamophobia either. Some issues concern Muslims but not Islam. For instance, the Hindu Right’s argument against Urdu as a language of Muslims, which it is not. Muslims across the world speak a variety of languages based on a number of factors. In that sense, Urdu has a very limited relationship with the Muslim identity. It was the gross arrogance of the erstwhile West Pakistani Muslim elite bullying the Bengali Muslims of then East Pakistan to embrace Urdu that fuelled Bengali nationalism. Therefore, the Hindu Right’s attempt to resist Urdu or see it as a language of Muslims could be explained more accurately as Muslimphobia than Islamophobia.

As a part of state policy

In the wake of the growth of Islamophobia in India, Hindutva politics and V.D. Savarkar’s Essentials of Hindutva, published almost at the end of Khilafat movement, have played a major role. According to Savarkar, Indian Muslims cannot be completely loyal to India because Mecca and Madina are located outside India; it is Savarkar’s most troubling Islamophobic reasoning. But foot soldiers such as Monu Manesar or Babu Bajrangi might not have any idea what Savarkar’s Hindutva says. Islamophobia in India existed long before Savarkar wrote his tract. Indeed, there were riots resulting from cow slaughter in the latter part of the 19th century just as Hindi received equal status with Urdu in 1900 because of the debate between Hindu and Muslim elites. During the great Kanpur Riot in 1931, 18 mosques were razed.

What is the difference then between present-day Islamophobia inspired by Hindutva and during colonial India? Or even before? The difference is that Savarkar’s Hindutva has inspired a new political class in India that wishes to weaponise Islamophobia and make it a part of a state policy. The state responses on Azaan or a ban on cow slaughter are a result of this. This is what poses a mortal threat to the secular fabric of the Indian state and its society at large.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia Central University, New Delhi. He is the author of forthcoming, Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims

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