On July 16, 2013, Asia News, an online Roman Catholic newsletter published out of Rome, carried a story involving Hindu-Muslim relations in India. I want to put this story into a wider context.
The story reports on a controversy sparked by an offensive remark by Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat and currently mentioned as a possible candidate for the federal office of Prime Minister of India. Modi is a prominent member of the Bharratiya Janata Party (BJP), which is a major challenger to the Congress Party, presently heading the coalition in charge of the federal government. An important constituency of the BJP consists of Hindu nationalists who see the Hindu religion as deserving a privileged position in the Indian state and whose politicians frequently engage in fiercely anti-Muslim rhetoric, despite the fact that the constitution of India defines it as a secular republic. Muslims are about 10% of the population of India; given the role of Hindu nationalists in the BJP, Muslims have tended to vote for the Congress Party.
Modi has been a controversial figure for a long time. He already headed the Gujarat state government in 2002, when about 2,000 Muslims were massacred in Gujarat by Hindu mobs, while police simply stood by or even, in some places, encouraged the mobs. Modi himself did nothing to stop the carnage, did not set up a proper investigation after it had occurred, and never apologized. Both Congress politicians and leaders of the Muslim community have blamed him for the 2002 events.
The situation is somewhat complicated by the fact that the massacre of Muslims was actually in retaliation for an earlier atrocity perpetrated by Muslims against Hindus. In the town of Gondhra a Muslim mob attacked a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the site of an earlier violent confrontation between the two religions. In Hindu tradition the town is the birthplace of Lord Ram, an important Hindu divinity. This event was commemorated by a Hindu temple, long the destination of pilgrimages. In the 16th century, when the Moghuls ruled much of India, a mosque was built replacing the Hindu sanctuary. In 1992 a Hindu mob destroyed the mosque, in place of which a new temple in honor of Lord Ram was erected nearby, triggering nationwide riots between the two religious groups. In 2002, when the train with Hindu pilgrims was attacked by irate Muslims, 58 of the pilgrims were killed. The ensuing massacre killed a much larger number of Muslims. Vengeance is rarely precise mathematically.
Because of his new political prominence and putative ambitions on the national scene, there has been renewed interest in Modi and his behavior during and after the 2002 massacre. He was recently interviewed by Reuters and asked whether he had ever felt guilt because of the massacre. He responded: “I would feel guilty if I had done something wrong.” He insisted once again, that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. But it was the way he illustrated this claim that was an occasion for outrage. This is what he said: “If someone else is driving a car, and I am sitting in the back seat, if a puppy ends up under the wheels, would it be a sad thing or not? Of course it would. Regardless of whether I am Chief Minister, I am a human being. If something bad happens somewhere, it is natural to be sad.”
Modi’s critics of course question his claim to have been an innocent bystander, in his unfortunate metaphor, an innocent passenger in a car driven by someone else. But of course what really offended in his statement, was the implication that the killing of 2,000 Muslims was no more saddening than the accidental death of a puppy. What some Muslims heard in Modi’s statement was that they are nothing but animals. Of course he did not say this, but one can understand why it may sound this way to aggrieved Muslim ears, especially to victims of the 2002 massacre or their relatives and friends.
In the media and in popular imagination, Muslims figure large as aggressors, enraged fanatics attacking various categories of infidels. This stereotype is what is meant by the term “Islamophobia”. If one gives credence to this quasi-psychiatric concept, then the above story can serve as an antidote. Here, for a change, Muslims appear as victims, not perpetrators of religiously motivated violence . Is there, somewhere in India, a BJP spokesperson denouncing “Hindophobia”. Muslims in Gujarat are unlikely to seek treatment to be cured of this malady. What I want to do here is to take the above story as an occasion for a closer look at the notion of Islamophobia.
The term “phobia” means not just any kind of fear, but an irrational fear, something out of the lexicon of psychiatry. Is it plausible to place a fear of Muslims into such a psychiatric frame of reference, kin to a fear of insects or of zombies or of turning oneself into an insect or a zombie, perhaps unless certain rituals are performed. Is fear of Muslims that clearly a delusion? I think the honest answer is no. Of course any fear may turn into a phobia, however much it may at first have been empirically based. If an individual, say on an African safari, has once been mauled by a lion, it is reasonable if that individual is now afraid of lions, especially in Africa. If that fear is now transferred to every pussycat encountered in American homes, one may indeed speak of a phobia. How many domestic felines in America have ever launched a lethal attack on a casual visitor. By contrast, our time has seen many acts of lethal violence by Muslims claiming to do so in the name of Islam. Put differently, there is considerable shortage of Presbyterian suicide bombers. As an Egyptian journalist wrote some time ago, not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists in the news today are Muslims. More recently, a British columnist wrote that every time he turns on the television or opens the newspaper, he sees crowds of frenetically angry men with beards acting violently or threatening to do so.
Ever since September 11, it has been part of political etiquette in America and in Europe to say that Islam must not be identified with its most extreme adherents. That of course is a valid observation, but it can also can also be used to deny certain facts. The etiquette was respected by George W. Bush when, in the immediate wake of September 11, he said that the United States was not at war with Islam, also said (with the best of intentions, that “Islam means peace”. Of course it doesn’t. “Peace” in Arabic is “salaam”, which Muslims use gracefully by wishing it on the recipient of every greeting—salaam aleikum, peace be upon you.
Islam derives from the verb “aslama”, which means “to submit”. To observe the etiquette in full, one must not only close one’s eyes to what is going on today, but to the entire course of Muslim history, beginning with the establishment of the first Muslim state in Medina, but going on to the establishment by means of force within a century of Muhammad’s death of an empire stretching from North Africa to the borders of India, constituting the dar al-Islam, the House of Islam, sharply divided from the dar al-harb the House of War, the rest of the world not, or not yet, under Muslim rule.
The implication is that necessarily there is enduring warfare between the two houses. Yet, for long periods of history, there was more tolerance of other faiths in the House of Islam than in Christendom. Thus, when Christian Spain expelled the Jews in 1592, many thousands found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, where they were not only tolerated but where they flourished.
But in the contemporary world as well, one should recall that Muslims do not have a monopoly on religiously legitimated atrocities. The worst atrocities in Europe since World War II were committed by Christian Serbs against Muslims in the former Yugoslavia.
Quite often religious intolerance and the ensuing violence is ascribed to all the monotheistic faiths beginning with ancient Israel, then continuing in both Christianity and Islam – the God of monotheism is ‘a jealous God’, hence the First Commandment. This charge has been forcefully made by the so-called New Atheists. Those of us with experiences of interfaith dialogue have heard the charge regularly made by Hindus and Buddhists comparing invidiously the alleged peacefulness of their traditions with the alleged murderousness of the monotheistic faiths originating in western Asia. This too requires very selective use of contemporary data. Hindu mobs in India have gone after Christians as well as Muslims. As to supposedly peaceful Buddhism, monks in saffron robes have urged on the repression of Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, and called for attacks on the Muslim minority in southern Thailand and western Myanmar. Apparently one can plot atrocities while sitting in the lotus position.
Yes, perhaps one should eschew the term Islamophobia. If one looks for a substitute, ‘anthropophobia’ might do. Human beings have shown themselves capable of terrible deeds regardless of race or creed. There seems to be a terrible streak in the nature of our species. Christians have expressed this insight in the doctrine of original sin, which the British Catholic writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton has called the only doctrine for which faith is not required—it is solidly grounded in empirical evidence. One only has to look around. If one prefers a more secular version of this insight one could say that homo sapiens is a malignant mutation of the large apes, carrying a gene of persistent propensity for fury and violence.
[Photo of Narendra Modi, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]