Fuelled by social media, in India Muslims are “a convenient scapegoat” for the coronavirus

Women look out of a window as security officers patrol a street in New Delhi, India, on 26 February 2020. At least 47 people were killed in three days of clashes in New Delhi, as Muslims protested a contentious new citizenship law. (AP/Altaf Qadri)

At the end of March this year, a new trending hashtag emerged on Twitter. #CoronaJihad, which blames Muslims for the spread of COVID-19 in India, had appeared over 300,000 times on Twitter by the beginning of April and was potentially seen by 165 million people according to Equality Labs, a digital human rights group based in United States.

Even though India registered its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on 30 January, “it was only after the Jamaat incident came into the public domain that one was seeing communally-charged [disinformation] spreading in India,” says Rakesh Dubbudu, founder of the Hyderabad-based fact-checking website Factly.

Dubbudu is referring to a religious gathering held by Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist group, at its New Delhi headquarters in early March. The congregation had been attended by over 2000 people – including 250 foreign nationals from countries with active COVID-19 cases. Ever since the participants returned home to different parts of the country, there have been reports linking them to over 1,000 coronavirus cases across 17 states.

The resulting “stigmatisation of the Muslim community [has been] high-profile, blatant and vitriolic,” says Dr. T Sundararaman, the global coordinator of the People’s Health Movement – an international network of grassroots health activists. The idea, he says, that the Jamaat congregation contributed to doubling India’s virus cases paints “a very misleading picture. This group was over-represented in the number of people tested.”

Sundararaman explains that by testing only a certain demographic, authorities found positive COVID-19 cases that were mild or asymptomatic, which would have otherwise not qualified for testing. “Had they tested similar cohorts like this, including other religious gatherings at the time, the test results would have been similar,” says Sundararaman.

“The term ‘CoronaJihad’ not only blames the Islamic community for the virus but also implies that with it the community is targeting the majority – the Hindus in India,” says Hatem Bazian, a co-founder and professor of Islamic Law and Theology at Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States.

Along with the infamous hashtag, there have been a number of fake videos linking Indian Muslims with the spread of COVID-19. One video showed Muslim children licking their plates in what seems like a community gathering. The video warned viewers that Muslims were doing this to spread the virus in the public. However, Factly found that the video had been shot in 2018 and depicted the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim tradition of not wasting food.

Dubbudu has identified between eight and 10 similar videos, translated to various Indian languages, all with a common theme of presenting Muslims as “working hard to spread the virus”. Such content has been uploaded and shared millions of times on multiple social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and WhatsApp.

“If you were to rank the most viral misinformation spread about COVID-19 in the world, some of these videos would definitely feature in the top ten,” says Dubbudu. He admits that tracing the videos to their original source is not possible, though the large distribution of such content happens on specific pages and groups on social media platforms that “adhere to an ideology that benefits the content”.

Widespread Islamophobia

Religious violence has been a recurring feature throughout India’s history. As a Pew Research Center briefing explains: “The year the country won its independence from Britain [1947], the Indian subcontinent was partitioned along religious lines, into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Even though the separation was intended to ease religious tensions, it led to a spasm of violence that left up to a million dead and more than 10 million displaced.”

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Since then, there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence, involving Sikhs and Christians, as well as Hindus and Muslims. One of the most notorious incidents took place in 2002, when Modi was then the chief minister for the state of Gujarat. There, the deaths of 59 Hindu pilgrims in a fire on a train spiralled into an orgy of anti-Muslim violence that resulted in the deaths of between 1,000 and 2,000 people. Modi has been accused of both not doing enough to stop the violence, and of
inadvertently sanctioning it.

Under his current leadership, as head of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s Muslim community has been under continuous attack. India’s National Crime Bureau does not categorise religious based-hate crimes, and nor does any other independent body, but according to a report by the Indian news website Scroll, there was a 90 per cent increase in religious-based hate-crimes in India between 2014, when the BJP came to power, and 2018, when the article was written. Most of these crimes have been directed towards the Muslim community by Hindus, who make up about 80 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion population (Muslims, on the other hand, represent nearly 13 per cent of the population).

Since 2017, there have been a spate of mob lynchings of minorities in India, particularly of Muslims.

The attacks have been spurred by a nationwide ban on the slaughter of cows (considered holy by most Hindus) that same year. Muslims have become the targets of Hindu ‘cow vigilantes’ as most beef and leather industries are largely Muslim-owned.

Adding to the feeling of persecution felt by the Muslim community, last year the Indian government revoked the autonomous status of Kashmir – the only Muslim-majority state in the country. The most recent, and provocative, act of anti-Muslim discrimination can be found in the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which explicitly violates India’s secular constitution by allowing undocumented migrants who are religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan a pathway to Indian citizenship – as long as they are not Muslim. For critics, the CAA serves to delegitimise Muslim citizenship and further institutionalise the discrimination and marginalisation of India’s largest religious minority group. Additionally, plans to introduce a National Register of Citizens (NRC) will force all Indians to prove their citizenship by an as-yet-to-be-announced cut-off date in order to ensure inclusion. The initial roll-out in the north-eastern state of Assam (the state with the second-highest Muslim population after Kashmir) has already resulted in the effective stripping of citizenship for 1.9 million people.

Across the country, Muslims were joined by Indians of all faiths to protest the CAA after it was enacted in December 2019, but in BJP-ruled states, they were often met with violent force from the police. On 24 February this year, in various parts of north-east Delhi, Muslim residents were forced out of their homes, burnt, lynched and even beaten to death by Hindu mobs with little intervention from the police. Surrounding Muslim properties, educational institutions and mosques were destroyed and vandalised, resulting in the deaths of 47 people and serious injuries for over 200.

Resurgent Hindu nationalism

Some observers see this rising Islamophobia in India as a by-product, and in many ways, a focus of resurgent Hindu nationalism. The BJP keeps close ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary group described by the historian Benjamin Zachariah as the “longest-running continuous fascist movement in the world” for whom the creation of a ‘Hindu nation’ is central to its ideology.

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In what was already an atmosphere of open Islamophobia, blaming India’s Muslim community for the spread of the virus has only increased their persecution. “It fits into the ongoing Islamophobic imagination, where Muslims are not seen as regular human beings, but there is something sinister about their space and their bodies and their engagement with society,” says Bazian who is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project.

Bazian says that he expects the BJP leadership to further consolidate this hatred towards the Muslim community by targeting their businesses, institutions, and freedom of movement, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and afterwards. “India will be facing a significant economic downturn like the rest of the world,” he says.

“Much of the economic pain is sure to be shifted to the Muslim community, by holding them responsible for the virus. The population is now a convenient scapegoat.”

Some of Bazian’s fears have already proven to be true. In the past few weeks India has seen the boycotting of Muslim-owned businesses and acts of violence committed by vigilantes trying to prevent ‘Corona Jihad’.

For Sundararaman, this kind of violent bigotry, and the divisive politics that enables it, only weakens India’s battle against COVID-19: “The spin-off effect of stigmatisation here is that it strikes not only those who are stigmatised but also those who are stigmatising,” says the doctor. He explains that if the message from authorities is that those who spread disease (in this example, Indian Muslims) are to blame then others will also be reluctant to report the virus, in an attempt to protect themselves and their communities for any backlash.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the director of Equality Labs, feels that much of the anti-Muslim hate speech that has been stoked on social media could have been avoided with better regulation. “What truly allows them [hate tweets] to trend in this way is a lack of action on the part of platforms like Twitter and Facebook,” she says. “CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have the power to curb the use of [Islamophobic] language on their platforms. But they are not dedicating resources to stopping the encroaching genocide.”

Other experts see public digital media literacy over censorship a more practical long-term solution to stop the spread of disinformation. However, Dubbudu, who also runs a helpline verifying fake news for Factly, feels that much of the hatred linking the Muslim community to the spread of COVID-19 in India has already “done the damage” beyond repair.

Activists agree that only civil society leaders, elected figures and prominent religious figures can exert enough public influence to curb anti-Muslim hate speech. Bazin doubts whether this is still a possibility: “When you monetise bigotry for the ballot box it becomes the only avenue to maintain and retain political power,” he says referring to the BJPs anti-Muslim politics that remains central to its campaigns. “This is what is happening in India.”

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