NEW DELHI — At the start of March, thousands of people gathered in India for a meeting held by one of the world’s largest Muslims groups. Attendees hitched rides, took trains, boarded buses, and caught flights, crossing state borders and passing through international airports, arriving in thousands in New Delhi from across Asia.
At the time, the world appeared to be a much less terrifying place. Even though social-distancing measures were being introduced, India, along with most other countries, was still waking up to the coronavirus; it would not be until March 11 that the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, while India itself did not go into lockdown until March 24.
Now, Indian authorities fear that many thousands of people may have been exposed to the virus as a result of the congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat group at a mosque in the Nizamuddin neighborhood of New Delhi last month. In India, at least 647 attendees have shown symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, while six people have already died. (India has officially recorded 2,567 cases and 72 deaths.)
The consequences of this outbreak are potentially massive: officials in South Korea tracked an explosion in cases of the coronavirus in that country to a single member of a religious sect.
While the Tablighi Jamaat is far from the only group in India that has ignored social distancing instructions across the country, it is the only one that has been singled out as a scapegoat.
On March 8, when the New Delhi government had already shut down schools and asked people to avoid large gatherings, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind attended an awards ceremony along with hundreds of other people.
On March 25, after the entire country was placed under strict curfew, the chief minister of a state in North India attended a major Hindu celebration at a temple.
Then there are the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stranded away from their homes since the lockdown began, now crowded into soup kitchens and temporary encampments, at tremendous risk of spreading the virus.
A third positive COVID-19 patient in Dharavi in three days, the world’s largest and most crowded slum, could spread the virus exponentially. Doctors and nurses, facing an acute shortage of personal protective equipment, have been assaulted or evicted from their homes as they attempted to administer tests.
But in India, news channels have focused on the link between the religious gathering in Nizamuddin and the spread of the virus, which in turn has led to a huge increase in anti-Muslim sentiment. They have been fanning the flames of communal hatred, declaring that the virus is being spread by “corona-jihadis” in an act of terrorism. And anti-Muslim narratives are being turbo-charged by constant disinformation spread online and via WhatsApp.
Making matters worse was an audio clip that emerged last week, shared on WhatsApp and broadcast on some news channels, in which the voice of a man called on Muslims to reject social distancing and continue to gather at mosques.
“They say that the infection will spread if you gather at a mosque, this is false,” the voice on the recording says. “If you die by coming to the mosque, then this is the best place to die.”
Indian news channels and WhatsApp forwards have said the voice belongs to Maulana Saad, the 56-year-old organizer of the religious gathering where thousands of Muslims met in March. The clip was originally posted on the YouTube page of Saad’s mosque in mid-March, according to the Indian news channel NDTV, before later being removed.
Since the clip emerged, Saad has gone into hiding. Now anyone visiting the mosque’s YouTube page can hear Saad saying he is self-isolating in quarantine and calling on everyone to follow the government’s orders to stay at home.
“Staying at home is the only way to calm the wrath of God. It is important that we follow the advice of doctors and the guidelines issued by the administration,” he said. “We must cooperate with the government, wherever our members are. Quarantine yourself, no matter where you are, it is not against Islam or sharia.”
But for some, this statement was not enough. Every night, Indian primetime television dubs Saad the “mastermind” of a terrorist operation meant to infect the whole of India, drawing blame away from the Indian government’s missteps in responding to the virus.
While China and the US blame each other for the origin of the virus, and some have even falsely suggested that the coronavirus is a bioweapon, in India, the most popular conspiracy theory is that the spread of the virus can be solely blamed on Muslims.
“The narrative being spread is Muslims will always follow Islamic laws over the rule of law, which means that they won’t follow instructions for their own good or the good of the community, said Karen Rebelo, deputy editor at Boom, an Indian fact-checking website. “The other line of thinking is that Islam wants to punish kaffirs (nonbelievers) and actively spreading the virus would get rid of them.”
“The whole world is under a mental siege because of the coronavirus,” said Nazia Erum, author of Mothering A Muslim. “When you add Islamophobia to the mix, everything becomes even more scary.”
Discrimination against India’s 200 million Muslims has been on the rise ever since Narendra Modi was elected as the country’s prime minister in 2014, and reelected in a landslide in 2019. Modi, who rose to power on a wave of Hindu nationalism, has been accused of turning India from a secular democracy toward an authoritarian state dominated by Hindus. During Modi’s administrations, violence against Muslims has gone up, and a muscular far right has flourished online.
There have also been big public shows of opposition. At the end of last year, millions of Indians took to the streets to protest against a new citizenship law passed by the government that fast-tracks Indian citizenship for immigrants from most major South Asian religions except Islam.
Tablighi Jamaat, which means “group that propagates the faith” in Arabic, is a Muslim outreach society with members in over 150 countries. After members congregate every few months, it is customary for them to travel, knocking on the doors of other Muslims to convince them to turn to what they consider a truer form of Islam, which involves dressing and living in more traditional ways.
Social media has been awash with misinformation and hate on the unfolding drama around the COVID-19 cases that have been traced back to the Muslim gathering in New Delhi. Hashtags like #CoronaJihad, #NizamuddinIdiots, and #BanJahilJamat (“ban the vile gathering”) have dominated Twitter’s trending topics section in India. Top officials from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have used terms like “Islamic insurrection” and “corona terrorism” to describe the gathering in Nizamuddin.
Rebelo, from the fact-checking website Boom, said she wasn’t surprised at the backlash linking Muslims to the pandemic. Ever since anti-Muslim riots in New Delhi at the end of February killed more than 50 people, Rebelo said that she has noticed a steady rise in WhatsApp forwards calling for businesses owned by Muslims to be boycotted, and fake videos purporting to show Muslims selling contaminated food.
Despite this, she said that the overall amount of anti-Muslim rhetoric flowing through the Indian internet slowed in the weeks between when the riots ended and the coronavirus outbreak started dominating the news in India. “There was only health-related misinformation for a long time,” she said.
But the Tablighi Jamaat outbreak gave fresh impetus to members of the Indian far-right to unleash anti-Muslim propaganda that they had been holding back for some time once again, Rebelo said.
The examples are almost too wild to believe. One viral video shows a group of men in skullcaps licking utensils, with accompanying text claiming that they are deliberately infecting silverware to spread the coronavirus. A debunk from Indian fact-checking website AltNews showed that the video, which appears to have originated in 2018, is actually of a sect of Muslims who believe eating leftovers prevents them from wasting food.
Another video, shared by an editor of a prominent news wire agency, claimed that a mosque in the city of Patna was sheltering 30 people from Italy and Iran, among the countries that have been worst hit by the coronavirus. An Indian far-right website said that the people in the video could be Uighur Muslims from China. AltNews found both claims were fake.
“They’re all similar,” said Pratik Sinha, editor of AltNews. “The objective is to vilify Muslims.”
Photos from a crowded Muslim neighborhood in the city of Kolkata, and separate ones from Pakistan, claimed that Muslims weren’t following social distancing rules. The images were shared by prominent Indian politicians, including the governor of Meghalaya, a state in northeast India, but fact-checking websites showed that they were more than 12 years old.
On Wednesday, a viral video that received thousands of shares and views on Facebook and Twitter purported to show a group of Muslim men breathing out hard in a coordinated fashion. Far-right accounts claimed that the video was shot at the Hazrat Nizamuddin mosque in New Delhi, proof of Muslims deliberately spreading the coronavirus. According to Indian fact-checkers, the clip was at least a month old and showed Sufi Muslims practicing a religious custom where they speak Allah’s name with their breaths in unison. A tweet from the Hazrat Nizamuddin mosque clarified that it wasn’t shot there.
On Thursday, a video showing men in hats blowing into food packets in a kitchen went viral on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter with a Hindi caption that claimed the men were Muslims cooks in a kitchen trying to spread the virus to customers. “This is the sick mentality of these people who wear caps,” said the caption. It was shared by prominent far-right Indian Twitter accounts, as well as by members of the BJP, one of whom tweeted the video and called for a boycott of “such shops.” A debunk showed that the video was actually from Malaysia and at least a year old.
On Friday, a video of a Muslim man spitting on a police officer went viral on Twitter and Facebook. The video claimed to be a shot during the coronavirus lockdown. But Boom found that the video was from February, and the man in question spat on the cop for denying him home-cooked food in custody.
Tying Muslims to the pandemic is about fostering a sense of paranoia among the general population, said Erum, the author. “It’s about making the general public feel like a certain community is actively trying to put them and their loved ones at risk out of some malicious agenda.”●