Nupur Sharma and the firestorm over Indian officials’ comments about Islam

The United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Oman and Iraq are among the at least 15 Muslim-majority countries have condemned the comments, which have been described as “Islamophobic,” with several countries summoning India’s ambassadors.

The incident sparked protests in neighboring Pakistan and sparked calls from across the region to boycott Indian goods.

India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has disciplined the two officials involved, but the storm involving India’s main Arab trading partners has yet to calm down.

Here’s what you need to know.

What causes the kickback?

At the center of the controversy is Nupur Sharma, the now-suspended national spokesperson for the BJP, the party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On May 26, during a televised debate on an Indian news channel about the Prophet Mohammed, Sharma made comments that were widely regarded as offensive and Islamophobic.

Most Indian news outlets have not directly quoted Sharma’s original comments.

Sharma later retracted her comments, saying she never intended to “hurt anyone’s religious feelings.” On Twitter, Sharma said her words were a response to derogatory remarks made during the debate about a Hindu god.

“If my words have caused any inconvenience or hurt any religious feelings, I hereby unconditionally withdraw my statement,” she said.

Another BJP spokesman, Naveen Jindal, who has since been expelled, had also made comments about the prophet on social media.


The BJP said on June 5 that it had suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal from the party.

“The Bharatiya Janata Party is also strongly against any ideology that insults or humiliates any sect or religion. The BJP does not promote such people or philosophy,” the party said in a statement on June 5 without directly referring to Sharma’s comments or jindal. †

Police in India’s capital Delhi have also registered cases against Sharma and several others accused of disturbing public peace and sedition, according to a tweet from the Delhi Police’s official Twitter account.

Earlier in Mumbai, a complaint was also filed against Sharma for her inflammatory remarks.

On June 8, Indian police said they had arrested a former local BJP youth leader in the northern city of Kanpur for posting incendiary content on social media about the Prophet Muhammad.

The incident has sparked protests among the country’s Muslim minority in several states. At least 54 people were arrested in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh on Friday in connection with the protests, Kanpur senior police officer Pramod Kumar told CNN.

Global Responses

The BJP’s decision to suspend its spokesman failed to stop the controversy escalating beyond India’s borders.

Qatar, Kuwait and Iran convened Indian ambassadors, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have issued denunciations. Malaysia was the last country to condemn the comments. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday summoned the High Commissioner of India to Malaysia to convey their “total rejection of this incident”.

Protesters in the Pakistani city of Lahore called on Indian Prime Minister Modi to apologize. And some stores in Kuwait have taken Indian products off the shelves following similar boycott calls.

Indian ruling party suspends official over comments about Islam

The hashtag “Everyone except the prophet, oh Modi” is trending on Twitter in all six Gulf countries, and as far away as Algeria. Oman’s outspoken Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Al-Khalili, the country’s foremost religious figure, called Sharma’s remarks “a war against all Muslims” and a cause that “calls on all Muslims to stand up as one nation”.

Modi has not publicly commented on the incident, but Indian embassies in the Gulf States have made statements saying the comments “do not in any way reflect the views of the Government of India” and government “expresses the highest respect for all religions.”

CNN has contacted the Indian Ministry of the Interior for comment.

Threats from al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent

Depictions of the prophet of Islam are considered blasphemous by many Muslims and insulting images or comments have historically led to mass boycotts, diplomatic crises, riots and even terror attacks.
On June 8, the al-Qaeda terrorist network in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS) issued a statement condemning the comments of the BJP officials and calling for revenge, warning that they “are neither in their homes nor in their fortified army cantonments will shelter”.

But Mohammed Sinan Siyech, a senior analyst at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, said such threats are more of a recruitment strategy than a solid plan.

“In some ways they are trying to make their views known instead of taking action,” Siyech said.

AQIS hadn’t recruited many people since its inception in 2014 in the subcontinent, so it may not have the capacity to conduct such an attack, he said.

In 2015, Islamist militants attacked the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had printed cartoons of the prophet, and a Jewish supermarket in Paris, killing 17 people.

Attitude towards Muslims at home

For many of India’s 200 million Muslims, Sharma’s comments were not an isolated incident.

They came amid a wider trend in India that has been cracking down on the Muslim minority since Modi’s BJP came to power nearly eight years ago.
Analysts say support for extremist Hindu nationalist groups and suspected hate crimes against Muslims has increased since 2014.
In January, a senior member of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha political party called on its supporters to kill Muslims and “protect” the country. It sparked an outcry that was compounded by the subsequent lack of arrests.
In February, the southern state of Karnataka banned headscarves in classrooms, sparking protests across the state and major cities, including the capital New Delhi. The demonstrations sparked rival protests by right-wing Hindus chanting a religious slogan in support of the BJP.
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In 2018, India’s current Home Secretary Amit Shah said Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers from Bangladesh were “termites” and vowed to rid the nation of them. And between 2015 and 2018, vigilantes killed dozens of people — many of whom were Muslims — for allegedly eating or killing cows, an animal considered sacred by Hindus, according to Human Rights Watch.
In 2019, the Indian Parliament passed a bill that would give immigrants from three neighboring countries a path to citizenship, except Muslims. It sparked protracted protests and international condemnations.

And in December 2020, Uttar Pradesh passed a controversial anti-conversion law, making it more difficult for interfaith couples to get married or for people to convert to Islam or Christianity.

All this, analysts say, is proof that Modi and his BJP party have pushed an agenda of Hindu nationalism into secular India, a country of 1.3 billion people.

What the BJP’s response says about India’s relationship with the Gulf States

Analysts said Modi has walked a tightrope between keeping his Islamist international allies happy and pushing his party’s Hindu nationalist agenda into his own country.

“Modi has worked very hard to prevent his party’s domestic political agenda from skipping and poisoning India’s relations with the Gulf countries,” said Hasan Alhasan, a Bahrain-based fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who conducts research. to Indian foreign policy in the Gulf. †

“The extent to which Sharma’s comments have clouded India’s relations with the Gulf States is unprecedented, and that is, of course, because she is or has been the spokesperson for the BJP.”

India has much to lose if it cannot control the controversy. It comes as the Gulf States and India try to strengthen their economic partnership.

India, the world’s third largest oil importer, looks to the Middle East for 65% of its crude. The South Asian nation also sends millions of workers to the Gulf states who send home billions of dollars in remittances every year. And the UAE has chosen India among seven other countries as its future economic partner.

The Gulf states are India’s top sources of oil and gas imports, with bilateral trade worth more than $100 billion, Alhasan said.

CNN’s Abbas Al Lawati, Manveena Suri, Kunal Sehgal, Rhea Mogul, Nadeen Ebrahim, Swati Gupta and Akanksha Sharma reported.

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