What India’s Islam row tells about its place in the evolving world order

Indonesian Muslims stage a demonstration in front of the Indian Embassy in Jakarta on June 17, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
In the month since Nupur Sharma, a former spokeswoman for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), offended Muslims around the world with disparaging comments about the Prophet Mohammed, India’s diplomats have been doing damage control – with limited success.اضافة اعلان

After 18 Islamic countries, along with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), condemned Sharma’s remarks, the BJP dismissed her comments as that of “fringe elements”, failing to explain how a ruling party’s official spokeswoman might represent a minority view.

Given the Indian government’s defense, certain questions need probing, such as: Why have these diplomatic protests broken out now, rather than during previous instances of Islamophobia in India? And how will the BJP temper its responses to future hate speech?

The answers may say as much about the future of India’s democracy and the place of Indian Muslims within it as they do about its place in the evolving world order.

In the near-term, the BJP is likely to speak in a more conciliatory, tolerant voice. This is no small step. In recent years, BJP politicians and their affiliates have played to the Hindu nationalist ecosystem by failing to condemn and even encouraging attacks on Muslims. Shelving the anti-Islamic rhetoric is long overdue, though whether that will translate into more tolerant policies is a different question entirely.

A key reason the BJP will tread lightly is because there is too much at stake if they do not. As of March 2022, India’s trade with GCC states was $150 billion, of which India’s imports were worth $111 billion. Additionally, the GCC is home to more than 8 million Indian workers who send an estimated $26 billion in annual remittances to India. 
While the diplomatic crisis between India and the Muslim world will pass, left in its wake will be subtle, yet important changes in the global world order, where ethno-national states converge on a far less liberal view of universal human rights.
India has also pursued closer strategic ties with countries in the Middle East, from trade pacts and investment deals to joint military exercises.

Besides China, India is one of the few countries that has managed to maintain strong political and economic ties with all GCC members. 

Typically, Islamic nations have been silent on India’s internal matters. The country’s BJP-led government has, since coming to power in 2014, pursued a series of policies detrimental to the rights of Indian Muslims – such as changes to citizenship laws, the erosion of Muslims’ personal freedoms, and efforts to criminalize inter-religious marriage. And yet, these affronts against India’s 204 million Muslims have barely drawn a peep of protest from the Islamic world. 

What makes this moment different, however, is that the BJP spokesperson’s insults were directed at the entire religion and those who practice it – both inside and outside the country.

Going forward, the BJP will need to decide if it will dial-down its Hindu-nationalist sentiment or, conversely, use this moment to further fuel the trope that Indian Muslims bear transnational loyalties, as evidenced by the lineup of Muslim countries that have expressed anger. Opting for the latter approach would represent a further corrosion of India’s constitution that, on paper at least, promises equal rights to all its citizens.

Eventually, the diplomatic crisis will blow over. Criticizing India does not carry the same salience within Islamic countries as does questioning religious tolerance in Europe or the US. India, like China, is still considered part of the anti-colonial global south. India has a rich history of Indo-Islamic culture, which is considered by Islamic countries to be an extension of their own cultural firmaments. All of this will ensure that barring any new outbursts, countries protesting Sharma’s quip will continue ignoring what happens inside India.

GCC leaders might even extend a clamp down on anti-India protests led by Indian expatriates in their own countries, as Kuwait did last week.

Furthermore, even ideological regimes like the one in Tehran have been forced to backtrack on recent statements, while the government of Bangladesh has demurred. Iran’s signing of a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement with China, despite Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs, is a glaring example of how very few countries are willing to let human and religious freedoms precipitate a serious breakdown in diplomatic ties. 

The unfortunate truth is that when India and its friends in the Islamic world move past this crisis, as they undoubtedly will, the result will be an arrangement not dissimilar to one that Moscow and Beijing would favor. China and Russia have long championed non-interference in countries’ internal affairs over the West’s espousal of individual freedoms. That outcome will be the real sign of the direction the world order is evolving in.

The US and some European countries have been haphazard in standing up for liberal democratic values, particularly when it comes to Israel. India is a hedge power in a world experiencing great geopolitical flux. While the diplomatic crisis between India and the Muslim world will pass, left in its wake will be subtle, yet important changes in the global world order, where ethno-national states converge on a far less liberal view of universal human rights.

The writer is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.

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