Prophet Muhammad comments by officials from India’s ruling party spark Gulf backlash

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Naveen Jindal (left, behind Yogi Adityanath) and Nupur Sharma  (Screengrab/Twitter)
Naveen Jindal (left, behind Yogi Adityanath) and Nupur Sharma (Screengrab/Twitter)

Derogatory statements concerning Islam and the prophet Muhammad made by top officials in prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party have sparked a diplomatic row between India and countries in the Middle East.

At least five Arab nations, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan, have lodged official protests against India for the comments made by two prominent spokespeople for Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

One, Nupur Sharma, made remarks about the prophet and his wife last week while appearing on a show on Indian right-wing news channel Times Now, which regularly hosts debates on inflammatory topics.

The video was first flagged by Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, on his Twitter account.

When the video began circulating online, BJP Delhi’s media chief Naveen Jindal posted a controversial tweet about the prophet, which he later deleted.

While the incident stirred anger in India, after Twitter users pointed out the increasing number of attacks and derogatory comments – some of which have been at the centre of deadly clashes in the past – made by the BJP’s members against Islam in India, no action was taken by the federal government until the matter came to international attention.

On Sunday, the governments of Qatar and Kuwait summoned India’s envoys in their countries to protest against the statements made by the BJP’s spokespeople. Sheikh al-Khalili, the grand mufti (head priest) of Oman, tweeted that such comments amounted to “war against every Muslim”.

“The insolent and obscene rudeness of the official spokesman for the ruling extremist party in India against the Messenger of Islam, peace be upon him, and his pure wife, Mother of the Believers Aisha, may God be pleased with her, is a war against every Muslim in the east and west of the earth, and it is a matter that calls for all Muslims to rise as one,” he tweeted.

Soon after, Saudi Arabia and Iran also lodged complaints with India, while the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said the remarks had come in a “context of intensifying hatred and abuse toward Islam in India, and systematic practices against Muslims”.

On Monday, Pakistan’s foreign ministry summoned India’s envoy in the country in order to convey Islamabad’s “strong condemnation” of the incident, a day after prime minister Shahbaz Sharif had said the comments were “hurtful” and that “India under Modi is trampling religious freedoms and persecuting Muslims”.

A press release from Pakistan’s foreign ministry said the Indian ambassador had been told: “These remarks are totally unacceptable, and have not only deeply hurt the sentiments of the people of Pakistan but of Muslims across the world.”

Afghanistan said the Indian government should not allow “such fanatics to insult ... Islam and provoke the feelings of Muslims”.

New Delhi has made no comment so far about the protests lodged by Muslim nations, but India’s foreign ministry rejected the OIC’s comments on Monday, describing them as “unwarranted” and “narrow-minded”.

On Sunday, India’s embassies in Qatar and Doha released a statement saying the views expressed against the prophet and Islam were not those of the Indian government but belonged to “fringe elements”.

The condemnation has led to the BJP suspending the spokespeople from their positions as a means to defuse the row that is now threatening India’s foreign relations. The Hindu-majority party said that it respected all religions.

“You have expressed views contrary to the party’s position on various matters, which is in clear violation of Rule 10(a) of the constitution of the Bharatiya Janata Party,” wrote Om Pathak, member secretary of the BJP’s central disciplinary committee, in a letter to Ms Sharma.

“I have been directed to convey to you that pending further inquiry, you are suspended from the party and from your responsibilities/assignments, if any, with immediate effect.”

Ms Sharma, who had initially filed a complaint against Mr Zubair for calling her a “hate monger”, later issued an apology for her remarks.

But she said her comments had been made in response to the “mocking” of Hindu deity Shiva during debates over the contentious issue of the Gyanwapi Masjid – a 17th-century mosque that Hindu nationalist organisations claim was built following the destruction of a Shiva temple.

The comments made by Ms Sharma and Mr Jindal were the latest in a series of inflammatory remarks made by BJP politicians, including elected members of parliament, that have targeted Muslim minorities in the country in recent years.

In the past, BJP members have been accused of sloganeering that amounted to calls for genocide.

According to Harsh V Pant, director of studies at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, the speed at which the BJP took action this time was down to the importance of the Gulf region for Modi’s foreign policy.

“India’s relations with the Arab world in particular have been very, very strong in recent times. And the Modi government has really invested a lot in the Gulf,” said Mr Pant. “One of the biggest success stories of Modi’s foreign policy has been how it has been able to transform India’s ties with Gulf states.”

Mr Pant said the incident may have put India under some pressure in the short term, but will not dent the country’s relationships in the longer run.

“I am not very pessimistic that this is going to last for a very long time,” he said. “Certainly at the moment there is concern and anger, but given the strategic relations between the two geographies, my own sense is that this is perhaps a setback, but a temporary one.”

The calls for action from Gulf nations also resulted in a boycott of Indian products by several stores. Mr Zubair tweeted on Monday that “stores in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain” were removing Indian products in retaliation for the comments against the prophet.

Several members of opposition parties also criticised the BJP for its lack of action last week, and demanded further legal action against the spokespeople for instigating tensions between communities.

Shiv Sena lawmaker Priyanka Chaturvedi wrote: “For their domestic audience to be fed with hate, they put at risk thousands of Indians working in Middle East countries, damage long standing relationships India has had, and destroy Indian businesses.”

Over the years, Indian Muslims have often been the target of abuse over matters ranging from their food and clothing preferences to inter-religious marriages. Watchdog groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have warned that such attacks could escalate.

Last week, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said India was seeing “rising attacks on people and places of worship”, eliciting a response from New Delhi that dubbed the comments “ill-informed”.

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