The Hindu Extremist Narrative on Islam

Americans are often criticized for their lack of knowledge on international affairs and events. For citizens living in a state that is currently the world’s superpower and whose very actions can influence the international system. It is definitely necessary that Americans learn more about the world as they have some say on actions that their government takes. That said, it’s unfortunate that many people around the world are also very ignorant on international affairs. Many people around the world were critical of U.S. actions in Iraq (which I mostly agree with), but this was not due to the enlightened knowledge of the world’s population, but rather how people when they perceive as an attack by a powerful state. Similarly, India was criticized by the majority of the world for its intervention in the liberation of Bangladesh despite the ongoing genocide (although India’s intervention was opportunistic in order to severely weaken its rival Pakistan).

History and international affairs is complex. Scholars and practitioners spend years learning about the history and complex forces that are present in the societies in the world. For the overwhelming majority of people though, there isn’t the same drive or desire to learn about this. After all what is easier for people to understand: the complex structural and historical problems that have held back the potential of the Indian economy, or blaming it on Hinduism? Similarly, why look at the complex history and politics at play in the Middle East when you can blame it on Muslims?

This oversimplification along with racist and nationalistic attitudes leads to the creation of narratives. Usually these extremists’ narratives are exactly that, extremist. However, they sometimes influence the political discourse, making the moderate discourse more extremist. The influence can spread due a lack of education making the spread of this discourse extremely simple.  In order to counter this discourse, the population needs to be educated as well as have regular contact with those who are being demonized (e.g. the other ethnic, religious, income group). Although this is not a perfect solution, it will help. Unfortunately, it will not be effective on everyone as people can simply go through as many hoops as possible to deny the evidence (for a good example of this, read this article). Changing a person’s perception is a difficult thing to do. With this post, I hope to start challenging some of the perceptions that Hindu extremists have propagated towards Muslims.

As I have written in the recent past about the rise of Hindu extremism and its demonization of Islam. With the election of what is seen as a Hindu nationalist group to power, many of the same extremists have felt empowered to spread what they believe and fan the flames of communal tension. It is an unfortunate reality that many politicians have decided to continue what the British have done and try and divide the population. The British have always had a strategy of divide and rule in order to hold on to their imperial gains. To this effect, the British even started to distort histories to show the Muslim rulers as barbarians intent on eliminating the Hindu population. Even with the independence of India, the narratives and tactics introduced by the British were adopted. Indeed, a popular complaint against the Muslims by Hindus is that the Mughal Kings had destroyed Hindu temples. Yet this was not a shift in policy. Many Hindu kings had also destroyed temples for the same reasons that the Muslims did, to loot and destroy the political images that were associated with their rival king. Hell, the Indian military destroyed temples in Sri Lanka during India’s intervention in the Sri Lankan civil war.

Another fear exaggerated by Hindu extremists is that should Muslims become the majority, Sharia law will be enacted. Now there are two problems with this belief. According to polls, the respect for civil liberties such as the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly is practically equal between Hindus and Muslims. Defining sharia is also problematic. A minority of Muslims interpret sharia as the horrible, barbaric rule seen under ISIS or the Taliban while the majority see the U.S. constitution as being the perfect embodiment of sharia law. For Hindu extremists, the only sharia law that exists is that of the Taliban, and should Muslims become a majority (even if it is a slim majority like 50.01%) the Muslims will enact sharia law. Yes obviously, that’s why Muslim majority countries like Turkey, Tunisia, most of the Central Asian republics, and most of the Muslim sub-Saharan countries have sharia (oh wait). Well, that’s why Indonesia, being an Muslim majority country, is a harsh dictatorship, or has freedom house and polity iv scores comparable of that of India. Apparently, Muslims being the majority does not mean there will be sharia law, and having Muslims in the majority does not mean that the country will become a Taliban like dictatorship.

Another fear cited by the Hindu extremists is the higher birth rate among the Muslim population. Indeed Muslims have a higher birth rate than other religious groups in the country, but that is common among economically disadvantaged populations around the world. Indeed as India develops and economic opportunity becomes available to all, the birth rate will drop like everybody else’s. (There’s also a well believed conspiracy going around that Muslims are united trying to trick young, naive girls to fall in love with them and convert, something called a love jihad. Sound ridiculous and unrealistic? Because it is. Here’s a great article about the use of these conspiracies by right wing Hindus to regulate a woman’s body).

A popular crying call by these same Hindu nationalists is to argue that Muslims will gladly cry out against the Israeli’s during the Gaza war, but refuse to call out ISIS or other Islamic terrorist groups that carry out horrendous acts. Of course, this is also a popular belief in western countries who have little to no knowledge of the Middle East, or any Muslim community at all. Indeed all around the world, Muslims, both the elite and the common person, have come out against ISIS. As ISIS began to take over the headlines, Muslim intellectuals from all over India condemned the terrorist group even going so far as to say, “Their brutality is worse than genocide.” For all the commotion about the four Indian Muslims who went to join ISIS (despite the rhetoric by the Hindu extremists, specialists in Islamic terrorism have found that this is the first credible story of Indian Muslims joining the so called global jihad). Yet, there have been more Indian Muslims who have volunteered to go fight against ISIS. The narrative that Indian Muslims only complain when Muslims are being killed is a popular one, but it completely dies in the face of evidence.

Finally, there is the idea of the Muslim vote bank, or the idea that Muslims all vote for Muslim only candidates or parties as a cohesive block. This myth has been disproven by the previous election and other analysts . But accusing a rival candidate of only caring about the minority and not the majority is a common electoral tactic used by political parties.

To fight any form of extremism, battling the narratives is needed. Communal harmony is necessary for any nation to advance. In future posts, I will also try to examine some of the talking points for other types of extremist groups.

Some Quick Observations on the Rise of Hindu and Buddhist Extremists

From Wikipedia on the page 2012 Rakhine State Riots

Within the last couple of years, news stories began to emerge from Sri Lanka and Myanmar about Buddhist monks partaking in violence against the countries’ Muslim minority. It became so prominent that Time magazine ran a cover story about the head of the 969 Buddhist extremist group in Myanmar. This has been a surprise for some international observers who have always stereotyped the religion as a peaceful non-violent faith (perhaps best illustrated by this satirical Onion article). But now it seems to have adopted extremist rhetoric and violent tactics. Perhaps what is most fascinating about the rise of Buddhist extremism (beside it being relatively new) is how this form of religious extremism has nearly simultaneously emerged in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand.

Hindu extremism emerged as a prominent force in India during the 1990’s, best illustrated by the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and the subsequent riots against Muslims throughout the country (though Mumbai seemed to bear the brunt of the rioting). It has also been able to influence political discourse in India through its association with the BJP party in India and through coalition politics. While there have been previous incidents of Hindu and Buddhist extremism prior to the dates I listed, it did not emerge as a political force to be reckoned with until the 1990’s and 2010’s respectively.

It should go without noting that while these time periods also represented the rise of Political Hinduism and Political Buddhism, it is related to but still distinct from Hindu and Buddhist extremism. This is similar to how the late 1970’s and early 1980’s saw the rise of Political Islam as a prominent political force as well as the rise of Islamic extremism. The political incarnation of each religion can include everything from their version of liberals to the extremists that we see today. While the rise of Hindu and Buddhist extremism is closely related to the rise of their political counterparts, extremism only represents one part of the ideological spectrum.

What is perhaps most fascinating with Hindu and Buddhist extremism is how similar the narratives are. Both seek to portray their respective religions as victims threatened by Muslims (Christians are also discussed, although they’re not as prominent in the discourse as Muslims), and alone in this struggle. Another interesting element of these narratives is combining religion with nationality. Arguably, much of the religious terrorism we see today seeks to define national identity as those who hail from a certain religion or sect. Many religious extremist groups in the Middle East like Hamas combined nationalism with religious identity. The Hindu extremists paint themselves as true Indians while emphasizing the foreignness of Islam and Muslims. Buddhist chauvinists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have also attempted to do the same. 

The Shiv Sena from Maharashtra can provide some insight for this. The group is a political party in the Indian state of Maharashtra that ruled along the BJP in a coalition from 1995-1999. The group was also accused of playing a major role in the 1992-1993 Mumbai riots against Muslims and using generally deplorable rhetoric against Muslims. Yet along with their rhetoric against Muslims with the founder Bal Thackeray even going as far as to saying he wanted to create a Hindustan for Hindus that would bring Islam down to its knees; his group has also engaged in similar rhetoric and actions against North IndiansSouth Indians, and Gujaratis, despite many of them also being Hindus. The Buddhists in Sri Lanka also were pivotal in their support for the campaign against the Tamil Tigers (who were mostly Hindu). So while there is an element of religious extremism, will the future mean that they will turn against members of their own religion or ethnicity if they do not meet the criteria?

In the case of Buddhist extremism, there has already been a wish by the leaders of the extremists to create a network of like-minded groups in other Buddhist countries. While there has so far been no indication that Hindu extremists wish to spread to other countries such as Nepal and a plurality in Mauritius.  Another question is if this will lead to a rise in Buddhist or Hindu fighters traveling to other countries similar to the foreign fighter phenomenon we see in the conflicts in the Muslim world. Thomas Hegghammer identified the rise of the Muslim foreign fighter due to the existence of alarmist rhetoric, followed by government and private encouragement for individuals to fight in the battlefield of Afghanistan (both against the Soviets and Americans), Iraq, Syria, etc. The rhetoric is present and with the governments of Myanmar and Sri Lanka turning a blind eye to Buddhist extremism, this could possibly escalate.

This rise of varied religious extremism opens up the road for research on multiple questions: Was the rise of _____ (insert religion here) in response to the rise of another religion’s extremism? Was this in response to domestic or international forces? Does this attempt to combine religion or nationalism mean that in the future similar communities will be attacked for not sharing all the identities defined by the extremists? These are important questions that need to be considered, and there also needs to be an effort to combat these extremist forces by policy makers and important societal figures.