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MUMBAI, India—In the weeks since India announced the world’s largest lockdown to protect its 1.3 billion people from the spread of COVID-19, millions have participated in government-instigated shows of unity and solidarity, from collectively banging on pots and pans to lighting candles.
Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, as criticism of aspects of the lockdown has grown, so has Islamophobia. Across cable television and India’s ubiquitous WhatsApp groups, the country’s 200 million Muslims have become a useful scapegoat for the spread of the virus. As the centerpiece of this campaign, government and media figures have implied sinister intent behind a peaceful religious gathering that was held in the nation’s capital, New Delhi.
Between March 8 and March 10, two weeks before the lockdown was announced, members of the Muslim missionary organization Tablighi Jamaat gathered from across India and Southeast Asia in the Nizamuddin neighborhood of Delhi for a long-scheduled event. Many of the missionaries then left from Delhi to visit villages and towns around India to preach a form of Sunni Islam, some of them carrying the coronavirus with them. Now the Indian government is engaged in a large-scale effort to locate and test anyone who may have recently visited the society’s global headquarters. Officials says that more than 1,400 coronavirus patients are linked to Tablighi Jamaat across 17 states. Some prominent outlets have claimed a majority of new cases in India are linked to the event, but those numbers are almost certainly distorted by the lack of widespread testing.
Angry messages have exploded across Twitter via hashtags like #CoronaJihad, #Biojihad, and #TablighiJamatVirus claiming Muslims intentionally spread the virus. These same conspiracy theories have been disseminated through the country’s ruling party officials, national television channels, and journalists asking whether “Indian agencies should seriously probe if #CoronaJihad is a ground reality.” Meanwhile, a slew of fake videos are being shared purporting to show Muslims conspiring to spread the coronavirus, including one allegedly capturing Muslim men intentionally sneezing on others to infect them. In fact, the video was filmed months ago and had no connection to the coronavirus whatsoever.
Tablighi Jamaat is a nonpolitical organization that has existed for nearly 100 years and currently operates in 150 countries. It aims to promote religious reform and instill purist Islamic values in other Muslims. It furthers this goal through preaching missions, in which members of Tablighi Jamaat connect with other Muslims in their own communities. For many of the organization’s members, it has been a challenging time. Just days ago, a tea seller in the state of Himachal Pradesh committed suicide after facing a social boycott from his community over his connection to the group, and in Delhi a man who attended a Tablighi Jamaat gathering was brutally beaten because of suspicions that he was intentionally spreading the coronavirus. Shahid Ali, the organization’s spokesperson, says they are “definitely very worried about the lives of the people” and what may come next for the group. “Shame on the media,” says Shaikh Mohammed Saeed, a Tablighi Jamaat member. “To connect the organization, which works for the welfare of society, to terrorism and to #coronajihad … I’m very shocked about it all.”
Authorities have filed police reports against several people from the organization for violating lockdown rules and not maintaining social distancing. The government has also blacklisted 960 foreign nationals who came to India for the event. However, Tablighi Jamaat officials point out that as late as March 13, days after their event in New Delhi, the central government said the coronavirus was not a national emergency. In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, the group asked for police support for the 2,000 people stranded at their premises, and the request went ignored until new incidents of the coronavirus began popping up in other states with links to Tablighi Jamaat.
Joshua Castellino, the executive director of the London-based Minority Rights Group International, says many Indian government leaders appear to be focusing on assigning blame rather than channeling their energy into responding to the crisis. “If your house is on fire, you need to put it out—not figure out if it was the neighbor in house 3 or house 10 that started it.”
It’s clear that Tablighi Jamaat was hardly alone in failing to immediately halt large gatherings: Multiple large-scale religious, political, and personal events were taking place in Delhi and all across the country until the lockdown came into effect on the night of March 24. Some Hindu temples in the state of Gujarat saw upward of 10,000 visitors between March 18 and March 19. In the second week of March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party celebrated an electoral victory in the state of Madhya Pradesh with a massive rally in the streets. And in Punjab, 40,000 people were quarantined after the death of a man who attended a Sikh religious festival.
These events have not attracted a fraction of the vitriol now faced by members of Tablighi Jamaat. Castellino, who is originally from India, says the anti-Muslim narrative is simply a “knee-jerk” reaction for the current government. Since the election of Modi and the BJP in 2014, Hindu-Muslim tensions have steadily escalated. Most recently, the country has been embroiled in protests due to the passage of the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act, which codified a religious requirement for new citizens for the first time in the nation’s history. Tensions reached a breaking point in February, when more than 50 people were killed during anti-Muslim riots in New Delhi.
The coronavirus outbreak shifted national attention toward containing the spread of the virus, but after the government faced criticism in late March for the unintended consequences of the sudden lockdown—including the thousands of migrant laborers abandoned far from their homes without food or shelter—government leaders began publicizing the events at Tablighi Jamaat. More than a week after the onslaught of negative attention directed toward Tablighi Jamaat, however, the central government now says that it is concerned about “polarization along religious lines.” But ironically it was the government’s own minister of minority affairs who recently described the group’s actions as a “Talibani offense.”
Some Indian Muslims are bracing for long-term consequences of being blamed for the spread of the coronavirus in India. Currently, a group of Muslim families are camping in a riverbed after being driven from their homes in North India. One of the women interviewed said that their Hindu neighbors accused them of being “sick Muslims spreading virus.”
Javed Khan, a septuagenarian watchmaker who lives and works in Nizamuddin—the neighborhood where Tablighi Jamaat’s headquarters is based—predicts that it could take a year for his community to recover. Until recently, the Nizamuddin community had been mainly associated with its abundance of flower sellers, a reputation for pluralism and peace, and an important 13th century Sufi shrine.
Professor Tanweer Fazal, who studies nationalism, identity, and collective violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says that Tablighi Jamaat probably made an “error in judgment” in going forth with its event and accepting a large flow of visitors in March. But given the relentless pace at which the coronavirus is being connected solely to the gathering, Fazal says one dire outcome may be that “the entire responsibility of the spread of coronavirus in India will be put on Nizamuddin and the Muslim community itself.”
These feelings are unlikely to recede quickly once the lockdown lifts.