Nupur Sharma, the spokesperson for India’s ruling party—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad on live TV during a televised debate on May 26, referring to Islam’s holiest figure as a “paedophile” and “rapist,” sparking outrage throughout the Muslim world, but particularly in the Middle East. At least 15 governments condemned her remarks. The governments of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and Oman, as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), issued statements of condemnation and summoned Indian diplomats assigned to those countries to account.
But despite their vociferousness, these howls of outrage are not meant to exact any meaningful accountability from the Indian government. This is performative political theatre, and little else. If Middle East regimes were indeed offended by statements made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party officials, then they wouldn’t have taken a full ten days to respond in kind on June 6, doing so only after protests on the Arab Street made their continued silence untenable.
It hasn’t been lost on 200 million Indian Muslims that Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain bestowed upon Modi their highest civilian honors a mere one-and-half-decades after the then chief minister of Gujarat incited an anti-Muslim pogrom in his home state in 2002, resulting in the grisly murders of more than 2,000 Muslims.
While the United States denied Modi a visa for his role in the violence, the Arab Gulf governments saw fit to deck the Indian Prime Minister in gold and diamond encrusted medals. This despite that fact that they are acutely aware that Modi and his party rose to power in 2014 and then consolidated power in 2019 on the back of a muscular Hindu nationalist agenda that does not hide its naked ambition to eradicate and annihilate the country’s 200 million Muslims.
Those countries manifest their love for Modi through billion-dollar trade deals. The Middle East not only supplies India with 70% of its oil and 40% of its gas, but also provides $60 billion per year in remittances from the roughly 6 million Indian citizens who reside in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar.
Saudi Arabia and UAE now count among India’s top five trading partners, which explains why Arab Gulf regimes were so reluctant to condemn the Indian government, specifically Modi’s party, for its denigrating remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.
Tellingly, however, these governments fixated their respective criticism exclusively on the blasphemous remarks, saying nothing about the Indian government’s persecution of Muslims.
Never have the Arab Gulf governments spoken out against Indian government officials referring to Muslim as “termites,” “pests,” and “terrorists.” Nor have they uttered a solitary word criticizing discriminatory laws meant to make Muslims second-class citizens, or the daily occurrence of mob lynching attacks or Muslim deaths while in police custody.
When the Indian government suddenly stripped Kashmir, a Muslim majority territory, of its semiautonomous status in 2019, and in defiance of the Indian Constitution, both Saudi Arabia and UAE dismissed the move as an “internal matter,” while soliciting and securing infrastructure project deals worth billions of dollars in the disputed territory.
In remaining tight-lipped towards the Indian government’s many persecutory actions towards its Muslim minority, Modi and BJP have interpreted this as having a free rein to double down on its mistreatment of its Muslim minority, so long as it remains careful not to insult Islam’s most revered figure.
And doubling down is exactly what the BJP has done since the furore erupted two weeks ago over Sharma’s remarks. Muslims are now being targeted with more police violence, more home demolitions, and more hate speech from political and religious leaders.
But the Arab Gulf has nothing to say about these human rights violations. These regimes are feigning public outrage, while preserving their multi-billion-dollar trade deals with New Delhi, which is making life worse for India’s Muslim minority, not better. For example, at the same time Saudi Arabia feigns public outrage towards the Indian government, it’s hiring a company linked to Modi and BJP’s chief minister in Karnataka to process hajj applications for Muslim pilgrims, which human rights activists have slammed as “outrageous” and “dangerous,” as reported in a new investigation by Middle East Eye.
“Muslims in Karnataka have been under continuous attack under the BJP. We have also seen Karnataka’s chief minister, Basavaraj Bommai, encouraging right-wing interference of inter-faith marriages and harassment of inter-faith couples, where Muslim men are [the focus] of direct violence,” Nabiya Khan, a Delhi-based activist, told Middle East Eye.
“The personal data of those Muslims who applied through the portal could easily end up in the wrong hands. It is unfortunate that Muslim nations are entrusting such sensitive information and money to people whose money will ultimately abet persecution of Muslims in India,” added Khan.
But the Saudi government couldn’t care less. Like all the other Arab monarchies in the region, Riyadh cares only about regime survival dependent on the accumulation of more power and money. That, in turn, is dependent on bolstering economic ties with powerhouse economies, such as India.