NEW DELHI (Dispatches) — India is facing major diplomatic outrage from Muslim-majority countries after top officials in the governing Hindu nationalist party made derogatory references to Islam and Prophet Muhammad (Peace upon Him), drawing condemnation across Muslim nations that have left New Delhi struggling to contain the damaging fallout.
At least five Arab nations have lodged official protests against India, and Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan also reacted strongly to the comments made by two top spokespeople from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Anger has poured out on social media, and calls for a boycott of Indian goods have surfaced in Muslim nations. At home, it has led to protests against Modi’s party in some parts of the country.
The outrageous remarks follow increasing violence targeting India’s Muslim minority carried out by Hindu extremists who have been emboldened by Modi’s regular silence about such attacks since he was first elected in 2014.
Over the years, Indian Muslims have often been targeted for everything from their food and clothing style to inter-religious marriages. Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have warned that attacks could escalate. They have also accused Modi’s governing party of looking the other way and sometimes enabling hate speech against Muslims, who comprise 14% of India’s 1.4 billion people but are still numerous enough to be the second-largest Muslim population of any nation.
Modi’s party denies the accusations, but India’s Muslims say attacks against them and their faith have increased sharply.
The anger has been growing since last week after the two spokespeople, Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal, made speculative remarks that were seen as insulting Islam’s Prophet and his wife Aisha.
Modi’s party took no action against them until Sunday, when a sudden chorus of diplomatic outrage began with Qatar and Kuwait summoning their Indian ambassadors to protest. The BJP suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal and issued a rare statement saying it “strongly denounces insult of any religious personalities,” a move that was welcomed by Qatar and Kuwait.
Later, Saudi Arabia and Iran also lodged complaints with India, and the Jeddha-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation said the remarks came in a “context of intensifying hatred and abuse toward Islam in India and systematic practices against Muslims.”
On Sunday, India’s embassies in Qatar and Kuwait released a statement saying the views expressed about the Prophet Muhammad and Islam were not those of the Indian government and were made by “fringe elements.” The statement said that strong action had already been taken against those who made the derogatory remarks.
The criticism from Muslim countries, however, was severe, indicating that insulting Prophet Muhammad (Peace upon Him) was a red line.
Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said it expected a public apology from the Indian government, and Kuwait warned that if the comments go unpunished, India would see “an increase of extremism and hatred.” The Grand Mufti of Oman described the “obscene rudeness” of Modi’s party toward Islam as a form of “war.” Riyadh said the comments were insulting and called for “respect for beliefs and religions.” And Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque, the Sunni world’s foremost institution of religious learning, described the remarks as “real terrorism (that) can plunge the entire world into severe crises and deadly wars.”
The remarks made by Sharma during a TV program in India and Jindal in a tweet risk damaging India’s ties with Muslim nations.
India maintains strong relations with Persian Gulf countries, which rely on millions of migrant workers from India and elsewhere in South Asia to serve their tiny local populations and drive the machinery of daily life. India also depends on oil-rich Persian Gulf Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to power its energy-thirsty economy.
The remarks also led to anger in India’s archrival and neighbor, Pakistan, and in Afghanistan.
On Monday, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry summoned an Indian diplomat and conveyed Islamabad’s “strong condemnation,” a day after Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said the comments were “hurtful” and “India under Modi is trampling religious freedoms & persecuting Muslims.”
Criticism also came from Kabul. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan said the Indian government should not allow “such fanatics to insult ... Islam and provoke the feelings of Muslims.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Indian ambassador to convey the strong protest of the Iranian government and people over the sacrilegious comments, the Iranian Foreign Ministry website reported.
The Indian envoy expressed regret, saying that any sacrilege