Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state, and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence; to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence; and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...


In recent years, Islamophobia has been on the rise both in India and Sri Lanka. The spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Asia has also produced new forms of Islamophobia in New Delhi and Colombo. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India has singled out the Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Delhi as the main vector of the coronavirus, the anti-Muslim rhetoric on social media predates the event. In Sri Lanka, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration has implemented a controversial policy of cremating all Covid-19 victims despite no such guideline from the World Health Organization (WHO). Under Islam, cremating a dead body is deemed as a form of mutilation and hence a violation of burial rites and practices.

While governments around the world have played the blame game and typecast one ethnic group or community as the “super spreaders,” the stigmatization of the Muslim community in India and Sri Lanka has become normalized, cutting across different demographics. Hindu and Sinhala chauvinists have brainwashed themselves into thinking that, though their communities constitute a majority, they have been relegated to minority status in their respective countries. Although Hindu nationalists in India were behind the creation of racist hashtags such as ‘corona terrorism’ and ‘corona jihad,’ some Sinhala nationalist groups have also leveraged social media to scapegoat the Muslim community. Pro-government media agencies in both India and Sri Lanka have fueled this anti-Muslim rhetoric through irresponsible and false reporting. The opportunists have weaponized mainstream media and social media platforms against a common ‘enemy.’

Tablighi Jamaat Rhetoric

The speed and severity of the Covid-19 pandemic has greatly tested the capabilities of governments, their responses and contingency plans. In India, the government has been criticized for its poor preparation for the nationwide lockdown imposed in March 2020, and instead turned all its attention toward the three-day Tablighi Jamaat[1] gathering held in Delhi in early March that has been vilified on local media and social media outlets. Hindu nationalists have deemed the meeting a sinister plot by Indian Muslims to deliberately infect the rest of the population instead of the virus spreading organically across the country.[2]

The Tablighi Jamaat congregation became the ultimate punching bag of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda. Members of the ruling BJP such as Shobha Karandlaje have made racist comments such as “one can smell Corona Jihad behind all this” in reference to the gathering.[3] The singling out of the Tablighi Jamaat meeting was a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from the government’s poor handling of the pandemic and perhaps police inaction in preventing or minimizing the anti-Muslim Delhi riots.[4] The Indian government has invested more time blaming Muslims than addressing the migrant worker crisis, the lack of access to clean water, and the dearth of medical supplies. Following the lockdown, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers were stranded without work, food or shelter in major cities. Their exodus unfolded into one of the biggest humanitarian disasters where thousands decided to walk across highways to return home. Those who decided to stay put at their original places including the Tablighi Jamaat members have been blamed for contracting the virus.[5]

The vilification of Indian Muslims has been years in the making. There has been a visible rise in majoritarianism since the BJP’s accession to power in 2014. Prior to Covid-19, many BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members have made overtly racist remarks and incited violence against the Muslim community. Mobs affiliated to the BJP have beaten Muslim men for dating Hindu women, and have spread disinformation that they are killing cows for beef and forcibly converting Hindus to Islam.[6] The BJP has become bolder since its re-election in 2019, through the implementation of controversial nationalist policies including the criminalization of triple talaq, revocation of Article 370 in India’s only Muslim-majority state Jammu & Kashmir, implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and Supreme Court verdict on the decade’s old Ayodhya dispute.[7] The Covid-19 crisis has sparked greater racial profiling and abuse of the Muslim community, including boycotts of their businesses, separation of patients based on their religion, refusal to admit Muslims and randomly quarantining Muslims.[8]

It is worth mentioning that some of these anti-Muslim comments on social media, WhatsApp groups, and Tik-Tok videos predate the Tablighi Jamaat event. Tweets with hashtags ‘coronaJihad’ and ‘Kurana Virus Jihad’ surfaced as early as the latter part of February 2020. Users have expressed their ‘concern’ that Muslims would spread the virus to Hindu temples or public gatherings. Some of these sentiments were in response to the months-long Shaheen Bagh[9] protests led by Muslim women. The Tamil Nadu Towheed Jamath’s anti-CAA and anti-NRC protest outside the Madras High Court on March 18-19 fueled such bigotry on Twitter too. Many pro-government media outlets and television hosts have fabricated facts to suit the state narrative. For instance, television news anchor Arnab Goswami has openly spread false news that Tablighi Jamaat members were spitting on doctors, misbehaving with female staffers and deliberately not turning themselves in for testing.[10] Such irresponsible and biased reporting has fueled anti-Muslim sentiment within the Indian society.

There is a clear pattern of scapegoating and singling out events held by Muslim associations even though other faith communities have hosted similar large-scale gatherings. For instance, the BJP gave the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath permission to hold the Ram Navami Mela in Ayodhya from March 25 to April 2, 2020 despite warnings from the chief medical officer.[11] The Hindutva supporters maintained that it was significant to hold the Mela (Hindu festival) following the Supreme Court’s recent verdict of allocating the disputed site of Ayodhya to Hindus to build a Ram temple. Any large-scale gathering can become a hotspot for virus transmission regardless its agenda and profile of participants. However, unlike the Muslims, other religious communities have not been denigrated or suspected of deliberately spreading the coronavirus.

Opportunistic Endeavors

Across the Palk Strait, India’s neighbor Sri Lanka has witnessed a similar wave of anti-Muslim sentiment since the end of the country’s civil war in 2009. Hardline Sinhalese Buddhist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) found a new target after the highly protracted conflict. They have openly asserted that Muslims are an existential threat to the Sinhalese culture and would undermine the status of Buddhism in the country. This anti-Muslim rhetoric was partly aggravated by the global ‘war on terror’ where Muslims were perceived as a hostile force.[12] The BBS has spread unsubstantiated information that Muslims would outnumber the Sinhalese, and called for banning of halal products and boycotting Muslim-owned businesses. The series of devastating terror attacks that struck popular churches and high-end hotels in April 2019 changed the landscape where even the moderate practitioners of Islam have started to face some degree of aggression. Prior to Covid-19, rumors that Sri Lankan Muslims were seducing Buddhist women and converting them to Islam, Muslims having links with radical or terrorist groups and trying to ‘Wahhabise’ the Sri Lankan society were rampant across the country.[13]

The Covid-19 pandemic has paved the way for discriminatory policies including making it mandatory for all bodies of Covid-19 victims to be cremated.[14] The forced cremation policy has evidently hurt the sentiments of the local Muslim community which has appealed to the government to permit burials for their dead in line with WHO guidelines. Cremating a dead body is deemed as a form of mutilation and hence a violation of Islamic burial rites. Sri Lanka is the only country that has implemented this controversial move, disregarding WHO guidelines that has allowed cremation or burial for Covid-19 victims.[15] The WHO has stated that there is no proof to suggest that individuals could become infected by having contact with the bodies of those who died from the virus.[16] Moreover, cremation should be a religious choice and not state-imposed.[17]

The Sinhala-Buddhist hardliners in Sri Lanka may have used their clout within the government as part of their anti-Muslim agenda. Forcing Muslim families to cremate their dead was merely an opportunistic move to further subjugate the community, and not a public safety measure. It sends out a strong message that Muslims need to accept the rule of the majority if they want to live in the country. Given that the government has a strong Sinhala-Buddhist orientation and came to power following the 2019 presidential elections mainly with the votes of the Sinhala majority, it is reasonable to speculate that this decision was taken to appeal to its core constituency in light of the upcoming General Elections scheduled for August 5, 2020. The parliamentary polls are extremely important for the Gotabaya administration to push for constitutional changes to increase presidential powers. When the lockdown was imposed, the government and media suggested that the virus was under control, except for some fringe elements that were flouting the rules and acting irresponsibly.[18] The anti-Muslim sentiment has become key election rhetoric.

The Sri Lankan media has become a platform for new forms of anti-Muslim sentiments.[19] The Public Health Inspectors’ Union of Sri Lanka Chairman Upul Rohana appeared on national television and made a statement that the country would have been able to celebrate their 2020 New Year “if not for the last three patients,” who are from Muslim-majority areas, hence Muslims.[20] Such a bold statement, together with the ongoing hate campaign against the Muslim community, played into people’s paranoia and stirred up new narratives that local Muslims were responsible for the spread of the virus in the country even though the first infected patient in the country was Chinese national. Although the racist hashtags including ‘coronajihad’ and ‘coronaterrorism’ were initiated by the BJP and RSS, some Sinhala nationalist groups have leveraged them to spread similar rumors about the local Muslim community. The hardliners, regardless of their background, have weaponized social media outlets against a common ‘enemy.’

Majority with a Minority Complex

The Hindu and Sinhala chauvinists have brainwashed themselves into thinking that, though their communities constitute a majority, they nonetheless hold minority status in their respective countries. This majoritarianism stems from the idea that the majority are a historically victimized community whose grievances at the hands of the Muslim community needs to be addressed through ‘corrective’ policies. They are living in an imagination that they have been victims of a massacre propagated by Muslims.[21] The fact that Hinduism and Buddhism originated in South Asia while Islam came from the Middle East,[22] has been exploited by hardliners to label Muslims as ‘invaders.’ They have denoted Islam as inferior, primitive, and barbaric, and viewed it more as a dogmatic ideology than an actual religion.[23] The majoritarian governments in both India and Sri Lanka appear to have deliberately communalized the virus for their respective agendas. Surely, they must have been well aware that the spread of a pandemic would breed fear and insecurity, and that the public would give their government the benefit of the doubt during a crisis. They would become susceptible to hateful messaging and alarmist narratives. Hence playing the blame game and creating conspiracy theories about Muslims would be an easy task amid the underlying prejudices and resentment against the community in both countries.

Implications

The new forms of Islamophobia in India and Sri Lanka could have far-reaching political, social, and health implications. The increased marginalization of the Muslim community in both countries could increase the rates of infections and mortality. Infected individuals displaying these symptoms would be too afraid to come forward due to fear of being attacked.[24] It could also compel Muslims to live in overcrowded places where they feel safe but would find it difficult to practice social distancing.

On the political front, the Modi and Gotabaya governments are alienating moderate practitioners of Islam. The Tablighi Jamaat is an inward-looking missionary group that encourages Muslims to return to the true form of Islam. Their members have devoted much of their time to missionary work and distanced themselves from the jihadists. Similarly, most Sri Lankan Muslims have rejected the puritanical and austere Wahhabi brand of Islam and worked hard to ensure that young members of their community do not fall prey to extremism. The scapegoating of Muslims in both countries in the wake of the pandemic could push them into the hands of jihadists. Moreover, greater fear could be inculcated in the minds of the majority community, which could spur vigilante violence and encourage law enforcement officers to turn a blind eye to or even partake in its commission.[25]

On the technological side, the production and dissemination of bigoted content on social media in both countries is disturbing and potentially dangerous. The incendiary content that ran rampant on Facebook prior to the 2018 anti-Muslim riots in Kandy, Sri Lanka is believed to have contributed to the outbreak of deadly violence.[26] Although the Sri Lankan government blocked social media sites following the riots, it only lasted for 72 hours before it was lifted. This prompted speculation that the move was taken to prevent locals from criticizing the government, whose popularity was then declining.

In sum, Covid-19 has fueled communal tensions and scapegoated many communities including the Chinese, Jews, Africans, Muslims, refugees and minorities who have faced both covert and overt forms of violence. The new narrative that Muslims are planning to spread the virus and partake in ‘corona jihad’ is a continuation of the underlying anti-Muslim propaganda initiated by hardliners in India and Sri Lanka. Regrettably, there is little evidence that the propagation of anti-Muslim bigotry will soon abate or be met with a strong and effective counter-narrative.

The author would like to thank Mr Abdul Basit for reviewing the earlier drafts of this article.


[1] The Tablighi Jamaat is an Islamic reformist movement formed in 1927 whose members travel around the world on proselytizing missions. It held a big gathering at its mosque headquarters in Delhi from March 13 to 15 in which member from over 40 countries participated.
 

[2] Shweta Desai, Amarnath Amarasingam, “#Coronajihad: Covid-19, misinformation, and anti-Muslim violence in India,” Strong Cities (May 26, 2020): 3, https://strongcitiesnetwork.org/en/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2020/06/CoronaJihad.pdf.
 

[3] “Tablighi event: Shobha smells ‘Corona jihad,’” The Hindu, April 4, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/tablighi-event-shobha-smells-corona-jihad/article31259288.ece.
 

[4] Anuj Kumar, “Muslims fear more ‘social distancing,’” The Hindu, April 2, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/muslims-fear-more-social-distancing/article31231474.ece.
 

[5] Ritesh K Srivastava, “Under scanner, Tablighi Jamaat says its members were stuck due to lockdown over coronavirus pandemic,” Zee News, March 31, 2020, https://zeenews.india.com/india/under-scanner-tablighi-jamaat-says-its-members-were-stuck-due-to-lockdown-over-coronavirus-pandemic-2272897.html.
 

[6] Mobashra Tazamal, “COVID-19 IS EXACERBATING ISLAMOPHOBIA IN INDIA,” Bridge Initiative, May 14, 2020, accessed June 26, 2020, https://bridge.georgetown.edu/research/covid-19-is-exacerbating-islamophobia-in-india/.
 

[7] Roshni Kapur and Nazneen Mohsina, “Shift to Majoritarian Politics and Sectarianism in India: Domestic and International Responses,” Middle East Institute, March 3, 2020,  https://www.mei.edu/publications/shift-majoritarian-politics-and-sectarianism-india-domestic-and-international.
 

[8] Mobashra Tazamal, “COVID-19 IS EXACERBATING ISLAMOPHOBIA IN INDIA,” Bridge Initiative, May 14, 2020, https://bridge.georgetown.edu/research/covid-19-is-exacerbating-islamophobia-in-india/.
 

[9] The Shaheen Bagh protests were led mostly by Muslim women in Delhi against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
 

[10] “Dead Line Ends, Tablighi Jamaat Attendees Still In Hiding | The Debate With Arnab Goswami,” YouTube, April 8, 2020,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2KSrsuIr8o&t=1710s.
 

[11] Sanjay Pandey, “Coronavirus: Ayodhya to hold Ram Navami mela despite COVID-19 fears,” Deccan Herald, March 17, 2020, June 26, 2020, https://www.deccanherald.com/national/north-and-central/coronavirus-ayodhya-to-hold-ram-navami-mela-despite-covid-19-fears-814613.html.
 

[12] Jude Lal Fernando and Paul Hedges, “Sri Lankan Attacks and Inter-Communal Relations,” RSIS Commentary 95 (May 13, 2019): 2, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/CO19095.pdf.
 

[13] Kapur and Mohsina, “Shift to Majoritarian Politics and Sectarianism in India: Domestic and International Responses.”
 

[14] Harini Amarasuriya, “Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 Response Is Proof That Demonisation of Minorities Has Been Normalised,” The Wire, May 30, 2020, https://thewire.in/south-asia/sri-lanka-covid-19-demonisation-minorities.
 

[15] Shereena Qazi, Ashkar Thasleem, “Anguish as Sri Lanka forces Muslims to cremate COVID-19 victims,” Al Jazeera, April 3, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/anguish-sri-lanka-forces-muslims-cremate-covid-19-victims-200403053706048.html.
 

[16] “Infection Prevention and Control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19,” World Health Organization, Interim Guidance (March 24, 2020): 1, https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/331538/WHO-COVID-19-lPC_DBMgmt-2020.1-eng.pdf.
 

[17] Ibid.
 

[18] Harini Amarasuriya, “Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 Response Is Proof That Demonisation of Minorities Has Been Normalised,” The Wire, May 30, 2020, https://thewire.in/south-asia/sri-lanka-covid-19-demonisation-minorities.
 

[19] Shereena Qazi, Ashkar Thasleem, “Anguish as Sri Lanka forces Muslims to cremate COVID-19 victims,” Al Jazeera, April 3, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/anguish-sri-lanka-forces-muslims-cremate-covid-19-victims-200403053706048.html.
 

[20] Ayesha Zuhair “Disinformation is damaging Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response,” Daily FT, April 13, 2020, http://www.ft.lk/columns/Disinformation-is-damaging-Sri-Lanka-s-COVID-19-response/4-698822.
 

[21] Rohit Chopra, “Dear pro-CAA Indian-origin protesters, you feed off US secularism but support Hindu Rashtra,” The Print, January 7, 2020, https://theprint.in/opinion/dear-pro-caa-indian-origin-protesters-you-feed-off-us-secularism-but-support-hindu-rashtra/345555/?fbclid=IwAR3XTqDwL53ykd0oaayHTeSpDlxk5o_NRRNFRW1qFDriuHwzR6m8HT_jiUc.
 

[22] Neil DeVotta. “Secularism and the Islamophobia Zeitgeist in India and Sri Lanka,” Middle East Institute, November 20, 2019, https://www.mei.edu/publications/secularism-and-islamophobia-zeitgeist-india-and-sri-lanka.
 

[23] Ibid.
 

[24] Aniruddha Ghosal et al, “Indian Muslims face stigma, blame for surge in infections,” ABC News, April 26, 2020,  https://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory/islamophobia-large-cluster-affects-indias-virus-fight-70344026.
 

[25] Nirmala Ganapathy, “Religious fault lines deepen in India,” The Straits Times, March 8 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/religious-fault-lines-deepen-in-india.
 

[26] Tasnim Nazeer, “Facebook’s Apology for its Role in Sri Lanka’s Anti-Muslim Riots Should Spark Change,” The Diplomat, May 15, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/facebooks-apology-for-its-role-in-sri-lankas-anti-muslim-riots-should-spark-change/.