Mohammed Sinan Siyech, senior analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research
The COVID-19 pandemic has now become a global phenomenon, infecting more than one million individuals and causing more than 300,000 deaths across the world. Various effects have taken place on national economies, job markets, supply chains, globalization, and even the climate.
Against this backdrop, far-Right groups and jihadists have taken the opportunity to spread their ideas further. While Western nativist groups have pushed the idea of race purity and the deviousness of Jews, whom they falsely accuse of starting the pandemic, Indian far-Right groups have turned towards their favourite punching bags, i.e. Muslims.
Three broad narratives rule the roost among the Indian far-Right.
First, such narratives often focus on events conducted by Muslims such as the weekly prayers held on Friday, as well as congregations conducted by the Tabligh-e-Jamaat (TJ), a mobile institution that often sends Muslims all over the world for proselytization. It is indeed true, that TJ gatherings created trouble for various authorities—in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan, among other places. However, this is not unique to this religious group alone.
In India, many religious groups ignored social distancing calls before and after the shutdown was announced. At least three other religious functions took place that spread the risk, including one conducted by Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of the largest state of India after the lockdown, and another by a Sikh leader, who caused 40,000 people to go into quarantine after he died of the virus. That the Indian far-Right has chosen to focus on TJ despite the fact that their event took place before the lockdown, is testament to the vilification mechanisms at work.
Second, ideologues also try to amplify the number of people who come from Gulf countries, trying to pinpoint that Muslim area as the source of the infections. Yet, records from the first week of the lockdown show that up to 1,000 people were detected with the virus, most incoming from countries like Italy, the United States, and the United Kingdom, with less than 20 of this first cohort of cases being connected to the Middle East.
Third, many individuals try to point to instances of Muslims resisting government orders regarding social/physical distancing. One video that was circulated widely showed Muslims resisting orders to stay at home. However, this again ignored context, such as the many hundreds of people from all religious groups escaping/avoiding quarantine across India, as well as residents of different areas celebrating politician’s birthday parties and coming out in candlelight marches to (ironically) ward off the virus during the lockdown.
Perhaps the most predictable and dangerous outcome has been the circulation of fake news, which is already a pre-existing plague in India, concerning Muslims in the nation. For instance, various far-Right portals have twisted videos to allege that Muslim cooks spit in food meant for Non-Muslims. Similarly, other videos have depicted Sufi ritualistic practices as a mass spitting activity by Muslims to spread the virus. These instances are now collectively referred to as “Corona Jihad”. While news portals have debunked most of these myths, the news continues to spread, with Muslims being confronted and asked to defend such actions in various WhatsApp groups. Worse still, politicians and members of the public have called for the boycott of Muslim business. The level of hatred against Muslims has even become violent in places.
Ignore the Positives, Focus on Negatives
Using inadequate knowledge to fit their agenda is a common tactic from the far-Right and other extremist playbooks. These groups often ignore many preventive steps taken by Muslim institutions and authorities. For instance, Saudi Arabia, from where far-Right voices assert that a majority of cases come, had already prevented people from coming to Umrah (lesser pilgrimage) since early March and closed all mosques including the Kaaba, the holiest mosque in the world to which Muslims face while praying.
Following in these footsteps, nationwide organizations like the Deoband and the Jamiat ul Ulema e-Hind, which command the respect of a majority of Subcontinental Muslims, asked followers to pray from home. Moreover, such instructive were also obeyed at local levels whereby mosques in various localities often hung up pre-recorded tapes asking people to stay at home instead of coming to the mosque.
Similarly, various social and humanitarian gestures by Muslim individuals and organizations to help prevent the spread of the virus and manage the fallout of the lockdown in India were also ignored. Various Muslim charitable institutions coordinated efforts across different cities to provide food for the most underprivileged—the daily workers and slum inhabitants—which was a necessity given the nationwide hunger issues that were felt by such individuals during the lockdown. Many Muslim organizations even provided food to patients in hospitals and policemen, whom many Muslims not unreasonably have suspicions of their own about.
Organizations like the Jamiat e-Ulema Hind took this up a few notches up by offering their hostel premises as isolation facilities. Moreover, in some endearing examples of brotherhood, Muslims performed the last rites of Hindu neighbours due to the paucity of community members who were afraid of the virus.
While ignorance of the virus and its effects were common across the board, Muslims did manage to contribute positive to their fellow countrymen once they overcame the knowledge inertia. These initiatives should be strongly highlighted to combat negative narratives.
Fearing Breeds Enemies
The spread of the virus is unprecedented in its reach. This unseen enemy has created anxieties within people, who often then blame what they can see—each other. This search for explanation, and someone to blame, are sentiments that can leveraged by extremists pushing their hateful agendas.
In India, this was quite natural given the consistent level of demonization that Muslims have been subject to. Indeed, just a few months before, news cycles were dominated with headlines of Muslims trying to divide and destabilize India via protests, despite these protests being conducted by various different religious and secular factions to prevent religious discrimination. It is natural, then, that far-Right groups will continue to try to foster and spread these narratives in the setting of COVID-19.
In these times, members of the Muslim community and especially the mainstream media have a part to play in countering such hateful speech and ensuring that such narratives are laid to rest before they grip society. The cardinal rule for content makers here should be to spread love, not hate (or the virus).
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.