Anger is spreading in the Middle East over disparaging comments made by an official of India’s ruling party about the Prophet Muhammad, with various countries summoning New Delhi’s envoy and demanding a public apology.
The United Arab Emirates – a close India ally – became the latest Gulf state to voice its condemnation of the remarks made last week by Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal, two members of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The right-wing party took no action against Sharma and Jindal until Sunday when a chorus of diplomatic outrage began, with Qatar and Kuwait summoning their Indian ambassadors to protest. Shortly afterwards, the BJP suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal, and issued a rare statement saying it “strongly denounces insult of any religious personalities”.
The UAE’s foreign ministry on Monday said the BJP officials’ comments were “contrary to moral and humanitarian values and principles”. The ministry underlined the “need for respecting religious symbols… and countering hate speech”, state news agency WAM reported.
Earlier, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries in and outside the Gulf region condemned the comments by the BJP members.
On Sunday, Qatar demanded a “public apology” from New Delhi for the comments, as India’s Vice President Venkaiah Naidu visited the gas-rich nation in a bid to bolster trade.
In a statement, Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Soltan bin Saad Al-Muraikhi said the BJP officials’ remarks “would lead to incitement of religious hatred, and offend more than two billion Muslims around the world”.
It added that Doha is expecting “a public apology and immediate condemnation of these remarks” from the Indian government.
“The Islamophobic discourse has reached dangerous levels in a country long known for its diversity and coexistence. Unless officially and systemically confronted, the systemic hate speech targeting Islam in India will be considered a deliberate insult against two billion Muslims,” Qatar’s Assistant Foreign Minister Lolwah al-Khater tweeted.
Iran followed Qatar and Kuwait by summoning the Indian ambassador to protest in the name of “the government and the people”, state news agency IRNA said late on Sunday.
Indonesia summons India envoy: Report
At least 15 countries, including Indonesia, Jordan, Libya, Maldives and Oman have lodged official protests with Indian embassies in those nations over the controversial remarks, Indian media reports said.
Indonesia summoned India’s envoy in Jakarta over the “derogatory” remarks made about the Prophet Mohammed, its foreign ministry said.
Indonesian foreign ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah told the AFP news agency that India’s ambassador Manoj Kumar Bharti was summoned on Monday for a meeting in which the government lodged a complaint about the anti-Muslim rhetoric.
In a statement posted on Twitter on Monday, the ministry said Indonesia “strongly condemns unacceptable derogatory remarks” made by “two Indian politicians” against the Prophet.
Neighbouring Malaysia also summoned the High Commissioner of India over the “derogatory remarks” and conveyed its “total repudiation” of the incident.
“Malaysia calls upon India to work together in ending the Islamophobia and cease any provocative acts in the interest of peace and stability,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.
On Monday, Cairo-based Al Azhar University, one of Islam’s most important institutions, said the comments were “the real terrorism” and “could plunge the entire world into deadly crisis and wars”.
The Saudi-based Muslim World League said the remarks could “incite hatred”, while Saudi Arabia’s General Presidency of the Affairs of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque called them a “heinous act”.
The Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said the remarks came in a “context of intensifying hatred and abuse toward Islam in India and systematic practices against Muslims”. India’s foreign ministry on Monday rejected comments by the OIC as “unwarranted” and “narrow-minded”.
In further criticism of the BJP’s Sharma, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an umbrella group for the six Gulf countries, “condemned, rejected and denounced” her comments.
India’s trade with the GCC, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, stood at approximately $90bn in 2020-2021.
Gulf countries are a major destination for India’s overseas workers, accounting for 8.7 million out of a worldwide total of 13.5 million, Indian foreign ministry figures show.
They are also big importers of produce – from India and elsewhere – with Kuwait importing 95 percent of its total food, according to its trade minister.
Kuwaiti media reported that the government asked New Delhi for an exemption after India announced a surprise ban on wheat exports in order to try to stabilise its local market.
Al Jazeera TV on Monday reported that supermarket workers in Kuwait piled Indian tea and other products into trolleys in a protest against comments denounced as “Islamophobic”.
At the Al-Ardiya Co-Operative Society just outside Kuwait City, sacks of rice and shelves of spices and chillies were covered with plastic sheets. “We have removed Indian products”, signs in Arabic read.
“We, as a Kuwaiti Muslim people, do not accept insulting the prophet,” Nasser Al-Mutairi, CEO of the store, told AFP. An official at the chain said a company-wide boycott was being considered, the agency reported.
The remarks against Prophet Muhammad also led to anger in India’s archrival and neighbour, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
On Monday, Pakistan’s foreign ministry summoned an Indian diplomat and conveyed Islamabad’s “strong condemnation”, a day after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said the comments were “hurtful” and “India under Modi is trampling religious freedoms & persecuting Muslims”.
India’s foreign ministry responded by calling Pakistan “a serial violator of minority rights” and said it should not engage “in alarmist propaganda and attempting to foment communal disharmony in India”.
“India accords the highest respect to all religions,” ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi said.
Criticism also came from Kabul, with the Taliban administration saying the Indian government should not allow “such fanatics to insult … Islam and provoke the feelings of Muslims”.
As outrage in the Muslim nations grew, the BJP on Sunday suspended spokeswoman Sharma and Delhi media head Jindal.
Modi’s party also faced anger from some of its own supporters, but it was for a different reason. Many Hindu nationalists posted comments on social media saying the government was buckling under international pressure.
Anti-Muslim sentiments and attacks have risen across India since Modi came to power in 2014.
Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said India was seeing “rising attacks on people and places of worship”, to which New Delhi responded, calling the comments “ill-informed”.
Amir Ali, professor of political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera the BJP’s “politics of polarisation seems to have been halted somewhat at the international level”.
“Until recently, the government of India tended to brush aside concerns expressed by international human rights organisations and the US Committee on International Religious Freedom. The pushback from Arab countries assumes significance in the decisive response it has elicited from India,” he said.
“The dire situation of Muslims in India can be gauged from the fact that now the BJP does not have a single Muslim member of parliament. Not even one.”