World’s most populous Democracy now only ‘partly free’

As the world is trying to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, democracy is facing a worldwide recession and the international balance is shifting “in favour of tyranny”. Less than 20% of the world now lives in ‘free’ countries, according to the annual Freedom in the World report published a week ago by the US government-funded non-profit organisation Freedom House. India, the world’s most populous democracy, has lost its status as a ‘free’ country and has transitioned to a new category recognising the state as ‘partly free’. The report warns that India’s change of status could have further damaging effects on democratic standards worldwide.

Why has India’s status changed?

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, the country has faced a decline of civil liberties and political rights, which is only continuing since Modi’s re-election in 2019. Furthermore, discrimination against minority groups, pressure on human rights organisations, and the rise of Hindu nationalism have increased. In particular, the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019, which made religion a criterion for Indian citizenship, exacerbated Islamophobia in India and led to protests which have been cracked down by the government. The amendment offers illegal migrants from three neighbouring countries eligibility for Indian citizenship, but not Muslim migrants. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 has not stopped these developments. Millions of migrant workers in India have been displaced due to India’s “ham-fisted lockdown”, which was introduced suddenly in March 2020, to the immediate disadvantage of already vulnerable populations. At the same time, the government encouraged the “scapegoating of Muslims”, accused of being responsible for the spread of the virus. Through the Twitter campaign #coronajihad, anti-Muslim sentiment had been expressed to further polarise public opinion (Check out Nishaan Sengupta’s article Rise of Islamophobia in India for more insights). 

Why does it matter?

During a year marked by a pandemic and various restrictions worldwide, it might seem obvious that the global trend of freedom is on a decline. However, 2020 has rather highlighted existing weaknesses of democracies and made it even more pressing to reconsider our label for states as democracies. Freedom House’s change of India’s status to ‘partly free’ sheds light on the on-going discrimination and human rights violations, which too often have been obscured by the country’s title of the ‘largest democracy in the world’. At the same time, the global downward trend towards authoritarian norms calls for more democratic advocates with allies around the world. By changing India’s title to ‘partly free’, it becomes more obvious that one important ally might be lost, since political freedom as a fundamental norm of democracy is not guaranteed anymore in the country. With China’s increasing “malign influence” in promoting disinformation and censorship and the US’s democratic decline during the Trump Administration, the global negative trend of political freedom for 15 consecutive years is no surprise – nor is India’s new status as ‘partly-free’. However, it should be regarded as a wake-up call to acknowledge that democracy is neither given nor predictable. In a period where political freedom has been downgraded in 73 countries, representing 75% of the world’s population, the need to safeguard democracy is more pressing than ever. Ultimately, it must be recognised that India’s new status could not only have further damaging effects on democratic standards worldwide but that it is representing an already on-going global trend.

The Misconceptions of a ‘Terrorist’

The perception of a ‘terrorist’ has played a fundamental role in exacerbating racism. since 9/11, the portrayal of Islam has been deeply damaging to the Muslim community worldwide, as the international media has had no hesitation in associating Islam with acts of terrorism, propagating racist depictions of Muslims and Islam.  

The definition of ‘terrorism is “commonly understood to refer to acts of violence that target civilians in the pursuit of political or ideological aims” Its damage is both physically immediate and socially incendiary. It often manifests in illicit and clandestine organisations, involving careful planning and carried out through bombings and assassinations. A ‘terrorist’ is a person who has used unlawful violence and intimidation against civilians in the pursuit of political/ideological aims. 

The global media such as CNN, the BBC, Time and Newsweek’  have played a vital role in manufacturing an inherent relationship between Islam and terrorism. As a result, to overcome the threat of terrorists, certain repressive policies have been implemented restricting freedoms by such means as increased surveillance, immigration regulations, and indefinite detention centres created to control and exploit minorities leading to endless human rights violations. 

Consider the example of the three ex-detainees who attended a wedding in Pakistan and decided to visit Afghanistan. Once they discovered that Kandahar was under attack, they attempted to return to Pakistan and mistakenly ended up in a Taliban stronghold. They were captured and sent to Guantánamo Bay without charge or trial, where their human rights were stripped. ‘The War on Terror’ declared by the Bush administration as a counterterrorism response to 9/11 amplified the mislabelling of ‘terrorist’, enabling human rights violations against individuals like the Guantánamo inmates and justifying the the US military invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. 

Abu Ghraib, a military prison-complex based in Iraq which held up to  50,000 individuals, robbed entire groups of their humanity. A series of pictures including one showing a detainee balancing on a box with electrical wires attached to him, received global attention and condemnation by Amnesty International. Other Abu Ghraib detainees suffered physical abuse, sexual abuse, rape and even murder by US guards. 

However, confessed and convicted domestic terrorists are portrayed very differently by popular media. Take for example, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Theodore John Kaczynski and Dylann Roof, to mention just three. The KKK, the white nationalist organisation founded in the 1920s needs no introduction; Kaczynski (also known as the ‘Unabomber’) was convicted of a nationwide bombing campaign in 1996; and Roof, white supremacist and admitted church shooter, was convicted in 2015. The KKK remains active up to the current date as evidenced by events in Charlottesville in 2017 . Roof, now serving nine consecutive life sentences, was cast, albeit principally by his defence attorneys, as a victim of ‘mental health issues’ and thus, in the eyes of the public, as a societal aberration. Lastly, Kaczynski –whose face astoundingly appears as a feature of certain brands – is now essentially glorified as a ‘popular icon’. But ‘ ٱللَّٰهُ أَكْبَرُ’ (Allah Hu Akbar) on a t-shirt, or a woman wearing a Niqab is a cause for concern in Heathrow’s Terminal 2 . Whereas their Muslim or ‘brown’ counterparts are portrayed as soldiers in a broad movement intent on an ideological goal of civilisational destruction.

The question that derives from these examples is: are all Muslim terrorists? Obviously not; otherwise, the scale of the problem would be far beyond any national or international ‘policy’. So, are all terrorists Muslims? The evidence suggests otherwise. Therefore, there can at best be a circumstantial relationship drawn between Islam and terrorism as such, at least insofar as logic is concerned. The issue remains therefore, how and why Muslims and Islam are portrayed as they are in both popular media and culture?

This has been overshadowed by radicalised, illicit, clandestine groups through the sensation coverage on Muslims and Islam. As a result, their depiction is seen as a threat to society, as the ideological threat of ‘all Muslims must be terrorists’ allows Muslims to be suppressed, strengthening Islamophobia and thus, seen as troublemakers.

photo credit: Unsplash

Islamophobia and the Rohingya Genocide

Over the last 20 years, Islamophobia has captured the headlines worldwide – from France and Germany to Australia, the UK and the US – and in Myanmar. Since the 1960s the Rohingya population has suffered systematic racism by the Myanmar government. 

Global Attention on the Rohingya was further heightened in 2011, by what many would describe as ‘hate speech’, that circulated over Facebook by the radicalised monk, Ashin Wirathu. This caught the attention of the international media and led to a major public outcry, many protesting in the UK and worldwide on the streets and outside Myanmar’s embassy demanding justice for the people of Rohingya and describing  this direct attack as a form of Islamophobia. 

The fleeing of the Rohingya has not stopped. In the recent media, it has been shown that many Rohingya are paying large sums to travel by boat or escaping by foot, grabbing a few personal belongings. Many have been forcibly displaced into neighbouring states such as Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Thailand and Bangladesh initially refused them entry, abandoning them at sea. Today, over 800,000 Rohingyas live in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest refugee camps. 

The UN has confirmed that the Myanmar military’s campaign against the Rohingya has been motivated by ‘genocidal intent’ and that this is a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’ Nevertheless, the Rohingyas’ pleading desperation has been dismissed as ‘exaggeration’ and silenced by the leading politician in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, who now supports the same army that for twenty years denied her freedom. She has gone from being a victim to a heroic leader and now one of the main perpetrators of the outbreak of mass violence against the Rohingya.   

In 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi pleaded for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Netherlands to drop the genocide charges against the Myanmar government. Can she not see what’s happening in her state? 

According to the satellite imagery of ‘new destruction in Rakhine state’ between October and November in 2017, around 354 Rohingya villages were destroyed. Rakhine’s Buddhist monks and Burmese soldiers allegedly killed 24,000 Rohingya civilians, committed rape and other forms of sexual violence against Rohingya Muslim women and young girls, and many civilians were thrown into fire pits. 

Why have the UN and other international bodies been so ineffective in resolving this conflict and delivering justice for the victims?- Meanwhile, the Myanmar government has rejected the ICJ’s ruling ordering measures to prevent the genocide of the Rohingya, meaning the court’s judgment has had little impact on the ground. Also, the paltry sanctions imposed on the Burmese by various governments, including the US, UK, and the EU, have had symbolic value but failed to deter the Burmaese military’s actions. These sanctions have only targeted individual members of the army  – mostly freezing their assets – , nowhere near the scale of other ‘interventions’ as can be seen widely across the Middle East and other areas of interest from the old colonial masters. And despite the Burmese government agreeing to take the Rohingya back, Rakhine remains a hostile place. Would the Rohingya people want to return to a country that denies them citizenship and where conflict could reignite?  

The Rohingya genocide and the subsequent refugee crisis did not come without a warning. Like all genocides, this was systematically done, through targeted legislation and many years of repression, dehumanisation, polarisation, extermination and denial of the Rohingya Muslim people. This catastrophic case of the Rohingya genocide exemplifies the horrific consequences of structural Islamophobia, culminating in a refugee crisis.  

A young heavily pregnant woman walked for five days and gave birth before entering Bangladesh. She now resides in a refugee camp made out of frayed cloth, without clothes or food for her newborn child and only a chewed-up pillow supplied. This case exemplifies the impact of the Myanmar government’s actions against the Rohingya – a beautiful blessing born into a state of discrimination and violence; a by-product of the political era.  

Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Rise of Islamophobia in India

In 2014, the rise of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a far-right, populist party was characterised by fervent Hindu nationalism and Islamophobic comments in speeches and interviews by BJP leaders. More recently, coronavirus has given further opportunities for the expression of anti-Muslim sentiment by members of the party

This propaganda began when a religious congregation organized by the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamat experienced a large number of positive coronavirus cases. This created a storm on social media, calling  this the beginning of ‘corona-terrorism’ by a jihadist organization. The Tablighi Jamat is a non-partisan religious movement with no links to any terrorist organization. Regardless, the “coronajihad” hashtag became a new means of spreading toxicity over Islam at an already fraught time for Muslims across  the world.

In various states across India, mosques and Muslim-owned businesses were specifically targeted because of the “cornajihad” phenomenon. In places like Uttarakhand, many shops owned by Muslims were forced to shut down, with Hindu shops allowed to operate as normal. A 22-year-old boy was violently beaten up by a Hindu mob for coming back from a religious gathering. He was accused of spreading “corona jihad”. 

These attacks underline the ignorance of the common people about the core tenets of Islam – which can easily be manipulated by the BJP and other Hindu elites. The linkages of all Islamic gatherings to terrorist activities have become the new normal in today’s populist agenda. The core principles of the Islamic faith have never supported and the terrorist activities in recent decades committed notionally in the name of Islamic have caused great harm to those who profess the Islamic faith. 

In the wake of “coronajihad” attacks in India,  the World Health Organization released a cautionary statement regarding the profiling of coronavirus cases on racial, religious and ethnic lines. The WHO emphasised that such discrimination is incredibly dangerous during a global public health crisis. Even though the Indian Prime Minister made a desperate attempt at uniting the nation by saying “COVID 19 knows no race, religion, caste, creed or borders, we must stay united in this fight”, the fire was already lit and such statements had little effect. The rise of Hindu nationalism has led to violence against Muslims by numerous members of the BJP.

Muslim men have been beaten for dating Hindu women. Some have been targeted for selling or eating beef. Under this regime, secularism in Indian has come under severe strain. The enablers of the BJP want a Hindu nation into the Islamic republics elsewhere in South Asia and the Middle East. In these places, Muslims have little freedom to choose their religious beliefs, and only non-Muslims get licenses to buy alcohol or pork. The BJP’s endgame is to create a similar Hindu Republic where all Hindus should follow the principles of Hindutva.

In December 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, making religion a criterion for Indian citizenship. The law fast-tracked citizenship for non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan while removing  “illegal immigrants” from the country. Most of the immigrants from these three countries were Muslims, and many of them feared that they would be put in concentration camps if they didn’t change their religion to become naturalized citizens.

The coronavirus pandemic has provided the latest platform for these forms of Islamophobic hatred. Such treatment of Muslims has angered many secular members of Indian society. A country that for so long has been a haven of religious freedom has, under the BJP, increasingly become a nightmare for Muslims across India

source image: wikicommon

Refugees Welcome? Islamophobia and the US Refugee Admissions Program

Author’s photo

There was a time, not long ago, when demonstrating support for the United States refugee resettlement program was not considered an overtly political statement. This is no longer the case. 

The issue has gained unprecedented political salience in the last five years. In the US, the Trump administration used Islamophobia to systematically dismantle the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). How have these Islamophobic policies impacted international and domestic refugee partners? And how can the program rebuild? 

Anti-Muslim discourse has been growing in the US since 2001. As Hanna Uihlein pointed out in a recent piece, politicians on both sides of the Congressional aisle have frequently used coded Islamophobic discourse as policy justification. This Anti-Muslim rhetoric was operationalised more explicitly under the Trump administration. As the anti-immigration platform led to shouts for a wall and the proliferation of derogatory stereotypes, ‘refugee’ and ‘Syria’ became articulated alongside calls for a ‘Muslim ban’ (1). Fueled by an administration vehemently opposed to the USRAP, the ban became official US policy. The presidential order prohibited the entry of foreign nationals from a number of Muslim-majority countries and simultaneously halted all refugee resettlement to the US for 120 days. A subsequent order blocked the resettlement (and all entry) of Syrian and Somalian individuals indefinitely. 

These executive orders were followed by years of historically low numbers of individuals approved for resettlement under the annual presidential directive. USRAP had experienced a high degree of bipartisan support since its inception in 1980, and resettlement numbers had remained relatively stable regardless of the party in power.  USRAP was already the most difficult and extensively vetted channel by which an individual could enter the US. Nevertheless ‘extreme vetting’ became a Trumpian trope-cum-policy that introduced processes so restrictive as to be effectively prohibitive. New restrictions targeted nationals from “high-risk countries” to submit to additional screenings. The removal of the ‘needs-based’ component in favor of categories such as ‘certain religious minorities’ also served to limit prospects for resettlement among Muslim refugees. Domestic resettlement agencies were intentionally dismantled through the introduction of several arbitrary restrictions. In some instances, agencies were forced to closed as a result of these new policies.  

As a result of Islamophobic policies aimed at destroying the USRAP, many individuals and families previously approved for resettlement have been left in limbo for years. Time-sensitive security clearances and medical checks have since expired and will have to be re-administered before departure. More troubling, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it would be closing the agency’s international offices, and in doing so recalling agents who conduct required interviews for refugee applicants. 

This startling national reversal had the presumably desired impact of drastically reducing both overall refugee admissions and further slashing arrivals from Muslim countries. This is an especially startling trend considering that in “each year over the past decade, about two-thirds of refugees living outside of their birth country have come from Muslim-majority countries” (Pew). Now, only a handful of individuals are currently approved for departure via the US resettlement pipeline. The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the situation. Here it is worth returning to the point that hateful rhetoric and discrimination on the grounds of religion were the primary, if not the exclusive, basis and justification for this legislation.

The impact of Islamophobia on USRAP will have far-reaching implications for the resettlement program for years to come.Rebuilding this program will require dedicated policy changes. Although the incoming administration faces a number of daunting challenges in the coming weeks, Joe Biden has not ranked the USRAP as a priority for his first 100 days in office. This is regrettable as the program will require ample time to resume operations at its previous capacity. International processes have to be restaffed before the backlog of applications can be addressed. Domestic agencies will need additional support to reinstate operational capacity. Finally, rebuilding USRAP will require inclusive rhetoric on every level to dismantle the Islamophobic discourse – coded and overt – propagated by the Trump administration in an effort to build more welcoming communities.

(1)This articulation relied heavily on misconstruing and manipulating tragic events to fit amongst existing anti-Muslim and anti-immigration framework/discourse. This ability of discursive power to spread misinformation through brute force and repetition was recently demonstrated at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.

Islamophobia and the British Pakistani community

The July 2007 bombings in London brought home the global dynamics produced by 9/11 and had profoundly negative repercussions for the British Pakistani population – affecting its own behaviour and its portrayal by many quarters of British society.

The fact that three of the four 7/7 terrorists were British Pakistanis, increased scrutiny of the version of Islam practised by this community, which was widely seen as illiberal towards Western societies. As a British Pakistani, growing up in the UK, I have witnessed firsthand the impact of Islamophobia in this community.  

The 2001 UK census revealed that 1.6 million British Muslims are from South Asia, with two-thirds from Pakistan. The growth of the Pakistani population dates from the post-war immigration of South Asians who arrived to fill specific labour shortages in declining industrial sectors. Today, Pakistanis continue to live excluded lives, existing near or at the bottom of local area economic and social contexts, largely in post-industrial cities to the North, Midlands and the South.

In order to understand Islamophobia in the context of British Pakistanis, it is important to understand Pakistani culture and what implications this identity has upon Pakistanis in the west. Pakistan is an Islamic republic that had experienced a statewide Islamization process in the 1970’s which was led by ex military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. The military rule had created Islamic laws pertaining to ‘Islamic punishments’ for selected crimes and had introduced sharia courts within Pakistani society, pushing the state into the direction towards making Pakistan a real Islamic state. These laws restricted women’s rights, while also introducing Madrassa (seminary) and Mullah (cleric) culture. Zia had essentially promoted the ‘orthodox fundamentalist interpretation of Islam’ and turned religion into an ‘idiom of morality’. Hence religion had become an essential component of Pakistani culture.

Essentially, the consequences of these policies were that Pakistani citizens were forced to publicly display their religious affiliations through symbolic practices of wearing turbans, beards and hijabs and offering prayers publicly. Such symbolic traditions practiced by Pakistanis in the west were met with criticism as they resembled the practices of the terrorists involved in attacks such as those on 7/7. Questions raised included ‘is the Pakistani-Muslim identity synonymous with radical Islam?’. What was supposed to be the implementation of Islamic laws by Zia, turned into a complex discourse impacting the politics, cultural practices and perceptions of Pakistani citizens including in the diaspora.

The British media has also played a centric role in this debate, embedding negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims in the wider society. Constant coverage of extremist groups and Islamic terrorism has propagated the idea of the Muslim community as a threat. This focus on the ‘War on Terror’ has caused many non-Muslims to question Muslims’ loyalty to Britain. An example of the role of the media in context of the Pakistani community would be the coverage of the foiled terrorist plot of August 2006. As the majority of the arrests were from the British Pakistani community, within hours of the arrests, high profile policing figures were airing concerns in relation to the ‘‘biggest terrorist event since 9/11’. By tying terrorism with the British Pakistani population, many Britons have been left frightened by the information they have come across about the Islamic background of Pakistani Muslims. 

As a British Pakistani Muslim, I feel as if we are moving towards people from this community having to distant themselves from their religio-cultural beliefs in order to survive in a ‘Multicultural’ society.