India's coronavirus outbreak unmasks the ugly face of Islamophobia
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought most of the world to a standstill, shattered international economies and more importantly brought countries together in a time of great crisis.
There is no more political mudslinging in the US. The sound of bombs has partially receded in Syria and Yemen. We do not hear Iran-bashing by US President Donald Trump, nor do we witness Beijing's manoeuvres in the South China Sea.
Yet, surprisingly, in India it is business as usual for the leaders and supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They have been waging a vile Islamophobic campaign against Muslims, even as the country grapples with the gravest health crisis in its modern history.
Read more: Democracy languishes in Modi's anti-Muslim India
Muslims were targeted with hateful messages following the outbreak of Covid-19 at a religious gathering organised by the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement that is followed by only a meagre fraction of India's 200 million Muslim population.
The coordinated campaign vilifying Muslims and accusing them of deliberately spreading the virus to eliminate Hindus lays bare the true scale of Islamophobia in the world's largest democracy.
It also marks another malicious attempt by India's right-wing extremists to exacerbate the growing sectarian divisions in the country sparked by a number of government policies such as the controversial 'anti-Muslim' citizenship law.
|India has recently witnessed a steady increase in anti-Muslim propaganda by extremists, who have been spawning the narrative that Muslims are using various forms of jihad to destroy Hindus
The religious event held in Delhi's Nizamuddheen area was attended by thousands of Muslims from India and abroad, many of whom later tested positive for the coronavirus.
When the news broke of their infection there was understandable outrage against both the congregation as well as the authorities' failure to stop such a large gathering in the capital.
But even as the details emerged about the gathering, right-wing users unleashed a vicious attack online accusing Muslims of deliberately spreading the virus to kill Hindus.
Social media platforms such as Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook were soon inundated with messages of hate and misinformation targeting India's Muslim population.
Profoundly disgusting videos falsely accusing Muslims of spreading the virus were shared widely on the internet. Cyber activists of the BJP fanned the flames of anti-Muslim bigotry on Twitter in a well-coordinated attack using a number of hashtags.
#CoronaJihad, #NizamuddinIdiots, #Covid-786 (a number that carries religious meaning for Muslims), began trending on Twitter. Since 28 March, tweets with the hashtag #CoronaJihad have appeared nearly 300,000 times and were potentially seen by 165 million people on Twitter, according to data by Equality Labs, a digital human rights group.
A video falsely claiming to show members of the Tablighi Jamaat spitting on police and others quickly went viral on social media. Another video claimed to show a Muslim man from the Delhi congregation intentionally coughing on somebody but the video was actually filmed in Thailand.
A third viral video purported to show Muslims intentionally sneezing on each other. Many such videos were debunked as fake after thorough fact-checking by Indian media
Islamophobic memes and cartoons have also been circulating in great abundance on social platforms.
|Tweets with the hashtag #CoronaJihad have appeared nearly 300,000 times and were potentially seen by 165 million people on Twitter
One meme, for instance, shows Muslims as the 'distributors' of the virus while another featured the caricature of a Muslim man named 'Corona Jihad' trying to push a Hindu off a cliff.
Indian authorities have also weighed in, expanding the remit of their investigation to include the movement's leaders and its funding sources.
Stigmatisation of Muslims
And not long ago, as ridiculous and absurd as it may sound, a major TV channel watched by millions prepared a diagram detailing 13 kinds of 'soft' and 'hard' jihads, it claimed, Muslims were waging against Hindus.
With population jihad, for example, Muslims are trying to turn India into a Muslim nation by reproducing at a faster rate than Hindus, it claimed.
Love jihad is the idea that Muslim men start romantic relationships with Hindu women and eventually marry and convert them to Islam. The list also included economy jihad, media jihad and history jihad among others.
Such relentless misinformation campaigns by Hindu extremists to demonise Muslims are alarming as they come on the heels of recent deadly religious riots in Delhi and many other incidents of violence against Muslims in various parts of India.
There are fears that the unchecked spread of disinformation and fake news will result in more violence on the ground against Muslims. A detailed study by the BBC had found at least 31 people were killed in India in 2017 and 2018 as a result of mob attacks fuelled by rumours on WhatsApp and social media.
Apathy of tech giants
At the forefront of the rampant hate campaigns against Indian Muslims is the IT department of the BJP, a powerful propaganda arm that helped Prime Minister Narendra Modi retain his power in 2019.
Several BJP leaders have often bragged about the influence of the IT cell which is thought to have capability to directly engage with millions of people via WhatsApp groups. The fact that it is able to easily operate in plain sight makes it more vicious and dangerous than propaganda machines run by any other entities such as neo-Nazi organisations and jihadist groups.
|Indian Muslims have already been pushed to the margins as the government led by Modi has been vigorously pursuing the idea of a Hindu state
While the social media companies have vowed to take an active role to fight disinformation, they appear to have given little attention to India's problem. WhatsApp, India's most popular messaging platform, and Twitter have become effective tools to spread misinformation and propaganda for India's right-wing extremists.
The tech giants' apathy towards slowing down if not muzzling the disinformation juggernaut of the BJP has always been a concern for India's liberals.
|Read more: The pogrom in Delhi is only the start of the
spectre looming over India
A number of accounts posting content that clearly violate Twitter's rules - ranging from misogyny to hate speeches - have thrived on the social media platform. For example, Amit Malviya, the man in charge of BJP's IT team, still enjoys a strong presence on Twitter despite constantly posting messages espousing bigotry and hate.
Indian Muslims have already been pushed to the margins as the government led by Modi has been vigorously pursuing the idea of a Hindu state.
The continuing hate campaigns and dog whistle tactics of right-wing leaders at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic pose a great risk to the minority Muslim population.
The surge in reports of bigotry and hate crimes against Asian Americans following Trump's use of the term "Wuhan virus" is a grim reminder of this.
Shan. A. Zain is a journalist and writer based in New Delhi, covering foreign policy and international security issues in Asia and the Middle East.
Follow him on Twitter: @shaan_zain