Nupur Sharma and the firestorm sparked by Indian officials’ comments on Islam

The United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Oman and Iraq are among at least 15 Muslim-majority nations have condemned the remarks as “Islamophobic”, with several countries summoning Indian ambassadors.

The incident sparked protests in neighboring Pakistan and sparked calls from across the region to boycott Indian products.

The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sanctioned the two officials involved, but the firestorm involving India’s main Arab trading partners has yet to die down.

Here’s what you need to know.

What causes the backlash?

At the center of the controversy is Nupur Sharma, the now-suspended national spokesperson for the BJP, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party.

On May 26, Sharma made comments during a televised debate on an Indian news channel about the Prophet Muhammad that were widely deemed offensive and Islamophobic.

Most Indian media did not directly quote Sharma’s original comments.

Sharma later retracted her remarks and said she never intended “to hurt anyone’s religious feelings”. On Twitter, Sharma said his words were an answer to the disparaging comments made during the debate about a Hindu god.

“If my words have caused any discomfort or hurt anyone’s religious feelings, I withdraw my statement unconditionally,” she said.

Another BJP spokesperson, Naveen Jindal, who has since been expelled, had also made comments about the Prophet on social media.

Implications

The BJP said on June 5 that it had suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal from the party.

“The Bharatiya Janata Party is also firmly opposed to any ideology that insults or belittles any sect or religion. The BJP does not promote such people or philosophies,” the party said in a June 5 statement without directly referring to comments by Bharatiya Janata. Sharma or Jindal. .

Police in India’s capital, Delhi, have also registered charges against Sharma and several others accused of disturbing the public peace and incitement, according to a tweet from the official Delhi Police Twitter account.

A complaint was also filed earlier in Mumbai against Sharma for his inflammatory comments.

On June 8, Indian police said they arrested a former local BJP youth leader in the northern city of Kanpur for posting inflammatory material about the Prophet Muhammad on social media.

The incident sparked protests among the country’s Muslim minority in several states. In Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, at least 54 people were arrested in connection with the protests on Friday, senior Kanpur police official Pramod Kumar told CNN.

Global reactions

The BJP’s decision to suspend its spokesperson did not prevent the controversy from escalating beyond India’s borders.

Qatar, Kuwait and Iran summoned India’s ambassadors, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation issued statements of condemnation. Malaysia was the latest country to condemn the remarks. Its foreign ministry on Tuesday summoned India’s high commissioner to Malaysia to express its “total rejection of this incident”.

Protesters in the Pakistani city of Lahore have called on Indian Prime Minister Modi to issue an apology. And some stores in Kuwait have pulled Indian products from their shelves following similar calls for a boycott.

India's ruling party suspends official for comments on Islam

The hashtag “Anyone but the Prophet, oh Modi” has become a trend on Twitter in the six Gulf countries, and as far as Algeria. Oman’s grand mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Khalili, the country’s leading religious figure, called Sharma’s comments a “war on all Muslims” and an issue that “calls on all Muslims to stand up as one one nation”.

Modi has not publicly commented on the incident, but Indian embassies in Gulf countries made statements saying the comments “in no way reflect the views of the Government of India” and the government “gives the utmost respect to all religions.”

CNN has contacted India’s Home Ministry for comment.

Al-Qaeda threats in the Indian subcontinent

Depictions of the Prophet of Islam are considered blasphemous by many Muslims and offensive images or comments have in the past led to mass boycotts, diplomatic crises, riots and even terrorist attacks.
On June 8, the Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) terrorist network issued a statement condemning the BJP officials’ remarks and calling for revenge, warning that they “will not find refuge in their homes or fortified military cantonments.

But Mohammed Sinan Siyech, a senior analyst at the International Center for Research on Political Violence and Terrorism, said such threats are more of a recruitment strategy than a solid plan.

“In a way, they are the ones trying to get their views across rather than taking action,” Siyech said.

AQIS has not recruited many people since its formation in the subcontinent in 2014 and therefore may not have the capacity to carry out such an attack, he said.

In 2015, Islamist militants attacked the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had printed caricatures of the Prophet, and a Jewish supermarket in Paris, killing 17 people.

Attitude towards Muslims at home

For many of India’s 200 million Muslims, Sharma’s comments were not an isolated incident.

They came as part of a wider trend in India, which has suppressed its minority Muslim population since Modi’s BJP came to power nearly eight years ago.
Analysts say there has been an increase in support for hardline Hindu nationalist groups and alleged hate crimes against Muslims since 2014.
In January, a senior member of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha political party called on his supporters to kill Muslims and “protect” the country. This sparked an outcry compounded by the lack of arrests that followed.
In February, the southern state of Karnataka banned the wearing of headscarves in classrooms, sparking protests in the state and in major cities, including the capital New Delhi. The protests sparked rival protests from right-wing Hindus who chanted a religious slogan in support of the BJP.
Opinion: In the world's largest democracy,
In 2018 India’s current Home Minister Amit Shah called Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers from Bangladesh “termites” and promised to rid the nation of them. And between 2015 and 2018, vigilante groups killed dozens of people – many of them Muslims – for allegedly eating or killing cows, an animal considered sacred by Hindus, according to Human Rights Watch.
In 2019, India’s parliament passed a bill that would give immigrants from three neighboring countries a pathway to citizenship, with the exception of Muslims. This led to prolonged protests and international condemnation.

And in December 2020, Uttar Pradesh enacted a controversial anti-conversion law, making it harder for interfaith couples to marry or people to convert to Islam or Christianity.

All of this, analysts say, is proof that Modi and his BJP party pushed an agenda of Hindu nationalism in secular India, a country of 1.3 billion people.

What the BJP’s reaction says about India’s relations with Gulf states

Analysts said Modi had walked a tightrope between keeping his international Muslim allies happy while pushing his party’s Hindu nationalist agenda at home.

“Modi has worked hard to prevent his party’s domestic political agenda from spilling over and poisoning India’s relations with the Gulf states,” said Hasan Alhasan, a Bahrain-based researcher at the International Institute for Development. studies which studies Indian foreign policy in the Gulf. .

“The extent to which Sharma’s comments have clouded India’s relations with the Gulf States is unprecedented, and that is of course because she is, or was, the spokeswoman for the BJP.”

India has a lot to lose if it fails to contain the controversy. This comes as the Gulf States and India seek to strengthen their economic partnership.

India, the world’s third largest oil importer, looks to the Middle East for 65% of its crude. The South Asian nation also sends millions of workers to the Gulf states who send home billions of dollars in remittances every year. And the UAE has named India among seven other nations as its future economic partner.

The Gulf states are India’s main sources of oil and gas imports, with bilateral trade worth more than $100 billion, according to Alhasan.

CNN’s Abbas Al Lawati, Manveena Suri, Kunal Sehgal, Rhea Mogul, Nadeen Ebrahim, Swati Gupta and Akanksha Sharma contributed reporting.

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