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India faces fury over officials' "Islamophobic" remarks on Prophet Muhammad

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Indian Muslims shout slogans as they react to the derogatory references to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad made by top officials in the governing Hindu nationalist party during a protest in Mumbai, India, June 6, 2022. Rafiq Maqbool/AP

New Delhi — India was facing a diplomatic backlash Monday from Muslim nations after two senior officials of the ruling party made remarks labelled "insulting" and "derogatory" against Islam and its prophet. At least seven nations, including Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Oman, expressed outrage and registered official protests with India, and some demanded apologies, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party to fire the two officials.

Nupur Sharma, the national spokesperson of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), allegedly made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad during a television debate last week. The party's media chief, Naveen Jindal, also posted a tweet about the Prophet, which he later deleted.

Their remarks caused outrage in India, too, and even led to street protests by Muslims in the central Indian city of Kanpur on Friday. But as the outrage spread across the Arab and Muslim world — with which India has strong business ties — the BJP seemed forced to suspend Nupur Sharma's party membership, and it expelled Jindal on Sunday.

India's Ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, said the comments "do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the Government of India," and he dismissed the remarks as "the views of fringe elements."

In a statement, the BJP said Sunday that it was "strongly against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion" and "does not promote such people or philosophy."

The BJP statement and its action against the officials came after Qatar, Kuwait, and Iran summoned the Indian ambassadors in their capitals over the weekend to register formal protests.

Qatar demanded a public apology from the Indian government as it handed over a protest note to the country's envoy, expressing "disappointment" and "total rejection and condemnation" of the remarks.

"These insulting remarks would lead to incitement of religious hatred, and offend more than two billion Muslims around the world," the Qatari foreign ministry said in a statement even as India's Vice President Venkaiah Naidu visited the Gulf state Sunday.

"The Islamophobic discourse has reached dangerous levels in a country long known for its diversity and coexistence," said Qatar's Assistant Foreign Minister Lolwah al-Khater in a tweet.

Kuwait's foreign ministry, which also summoned the Indian envoy in the capital, expressed "categorical rejection and condemnation of the insulting statements."

Oman's grand mufti Sheikh Al-Khalili, the chief jurist on religious matters, called for a boycott of Indian products and said the "obscene" remarks by the spokespersons amounted to a "war against every Muslim."

Saudi Arabia and Iran, too, registered protests with the Indian government while condemning the remarks.

Pakistan's new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif accused India of "trampling religious freedoms and persecuting Muslims," while the Taliban regime in Afghanistan called on India not to allow "such fanatics to insult… Islam and provoke the sentiments of Muslims."

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Supporters of a Pakistani religious group chant anti-Indian slogans during a demonstration to condemn derogatory references to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad made officials of India's governing Hindu nationalist party, in Karachi, Pakistan, June 6, 2022. Fareed Khan/AP

The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said the remarks came in a "context of intensifying hatred and abuse toward Islam in India."

The outrage over the comments comes amid mounting accusations from within the country that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government is deliberately trying to marginalize the country's 200 million Muslims.

A U.S. State Department report released last week documented killings, assaults and intimidation of India's religious minorities, including Muslims. India's government rejected the report as "ill-informed" and "biased."

Muslim nations had largely remained silent for years as the Modi government unveiled a series of allegedly anti-Muslim measures, but the officials' comments about the Prophet Muhammad may have been a step too far.

India has enjoyed friendly business relations with the energy-rich Gulf states for decades. The country's trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE, stood at about $90 billion in 2020-21. An estimated 6.6 million Indians live and work in those countries.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Pledges to Fight Terror With India
Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's crown prince, left, is greeted by Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, right, as Ram Nath Kovind, India's president, applauds during a ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India, February 20, 2019. T. Narayan/Bloomberg via Getty

During his eight-year tenure, Modi has invested heavily in strengthening ties with the Gulf states, which are major energy suppliers to India. The prime minister has been a regular visitor to the Gulf states. He's received the highest civilian honors from the governments of Saudi Arabia in 2016, and from the UAE and Bahrain in 2019.

How quickly he's invited back — and billions of dollars worth of business ties — may hinge on Delhi's ability to prove to those countries that the now-sacked officials' comments on Islam and the prophet were not widely held, and that they are being taken seriously.

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