The Indian government finds itself in a diplomatic crisis after offensive remarks by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, on national television about the Prophet Mohammed and his wife, Aisha. The BJP expelled Sharma from the post, but it was not enough to suppress the crisis. More than a dozen Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have condemned the Indian government and called for a public apology.
This is just another incident of hate speech against Muslims, which has increased in India since the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. The government has been criticized for several lynchings of Muslims by Hindu crowds with police indifference and judicial apathy in recent years. In 2019, the BJP passed a new citizenship law that discriminated against Muslims, and its Islamophobic attitudes recently encouraged some schools and colleges to impose a headscarf ban on students.
These discriminatory policies have a global significance because India has the world’s third largest Muslim population, after Indonesia and Pakistan. Out of the estimated Indian population of 1.4 billion, about 210 million – 15% – are Muslim.
As a Muslim, I am aware of the deep reverence for Prophet Muhammad, and I understand the resentment of Muslim individuals. However, the reaction of Muslim governments reflects their political regimes. As my book “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment” explains, most Muslim governments are authoritarian and focus on condemning sanctification against Islam – rather than protecting the rights of Muslim minorities abroad.
Aisha: a powerful woman
The recent Indian case focused on Aisha’s age when she married the Prophet. Aisha is one of the most important, powerful and powerful figures in Islamic history. The Prophet’s favorite wife, she was the daughter of the Prophet’s successor and closest friend, Abu Bakr. She became a leading narrator of hadith – the records of the Prophet’s words and actions – the teacher of many scholars and a military leader in a civil war.
According to a hadith record, Aisha was 9 years old when she got married. Some Muslims accept this record and see it as normal for a pre-modern marriage, while other Muslims believe that Aisha was either 18 or 19 years old by referring to other records.
It is not possible to know the true facts of Aisha’s age. As the Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl emphasizes, “we do not know them and will never know them”. Sharma therefore used a single narrative, while ignoring alternative Muslim explanations, in her remarks.
Prioritizing blasphemy, not human rights
This is not the first time that Muslim governments have reacted to blasphemous actions against the Prophet. The long list of incidents includes Iran’s Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 call for Muslims to assassinate novelist Salman Rushdie and the 2006 boycott of Danish products across the Middle East in response to a dozen cartoons published in a newspaper is.
An interesting pattern is visible in the attitudes of Muslim governments: They are very vocal when it comes to cases of verbal or artistic attacks on Islamic values, while generally being silent about human rights violations against Muslim individuals.
Muslim individuals in India have been complaining for almost a decade about the violations of their rights, but Muslim governments have not shown a significant response to the BJP to this libel incident.
Another example is China, which has been persecuting 12 million Uyghur Muslims for many years. No Muslim government has shown any major response. Instead, these governments focused on their material interests and disregarded how the Chinese state treats its Muslim minority.
This double standard can be explained by the widespread authoritarianism in the Muslim world. Out of 50 Muslim countries, only five are democratic. Most authoritarian governments in the Muslim world have blasphemy laws that penalize canonization and dissent. That these governments should demand the punishment of blasphemy and slander of India or other non-Muslim countries follows from these policies.
Another feature of authoritarian Muslim governments is their own violations of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. In Pakistan, these offenses targeted the Ahmadiyya, Shia, Hindu and a few other religious communities, while ethnic minorities, including Azerbaijani Turks, Baluchis and Kurds, faced discrimination in education and employment in Iran. A rights-based discourse abroad would therefore contradict these governments’ policies at home.
Authoritarianism in the Muslim world has tragic consequences for Muslim minorities in India and elsewhere. Muslim governments’ short-term emotional responses to some blasphemy cases do not help to improve the conditions of Muslim minorities, who actually need a more consistent and principled support.