The Indian government finds itself in a diplomatic crisis following offensive remarks by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, on national television about the Prophet Muhammad and his wife, Aisha. The BJP has suspended Sharma from the position, but that has not been enough to quell the crisis. Over a dozen Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have condemned the Indian government and asked for a public apology.
These discriminatory policies have a global significance because India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population, after Indonesia and Pakistan. Out of the estimated Indian population of 1.4 billion, about 210 million – 15% – are Muslim.
Aisha: a powerful woman
The recent Indian case focused on Aisha’s age when she married the Prophet. Aisha is one of the most important, vigorous and powerful figures in Islamic history. The favorite wife of the Prophet, she was the daughter of the Prophet’s successor and closest friend, Abu Bakr. She became a leading narrator of hadith – the records of the Prophet’s words and actions – the teacher of many scholars and a military leader in a civil war.
According to a hadith record, Aisha was 9 years old when she got married. Some Muslims accept this record and see it normal for a pre-modern marriage, whereas other Muslims believe that Aisha was either 18 or 19 years old by referring to other records.
Prioritizing blasphemy, not human rights
This is not the first time that Muslim governments have reacted to defamatory actions against the Prophet. The long list of incidents includes Iran’s Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 call on Muslims to kill novelist Salman Rushdie and the 2006 boycott of Danish products throughout the Middle East in reaction to a dozen cartoons published in a newspaper.
An interesting pattern is visible in Muslim governments’ attitudes: They are very vocal when it comes to the cases of verbal or artistic attacks on Islamic values, whereas they are generally silent about human rights violations against Muslim individuals.
Another example is China, which has been persecuting 12 million Uyghur Muslims for many years. No Muslim government showed any major reaction. Instead, these governments have focused on their material interests and disregarded how the Chinese state treats its Muslim minority.
This double standard can be explained by the widespread authoritarianism in the Muslim world. Out of 50 Muslim countries, only five are democratic. Most authoritarian governments in the Muslim world have blasphemy laws that punish sacrilegious statements and suppress dissenting voices. That these governments should demand the punishment of blasphemy and defamation from India or other non-Muslim countries follows from these policies.
Another characteristic of authoritarian Muslim governments is their own violations of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. In Pakistan, these violations have targeted the Ahmadiyya, Shia, Hindu and some other religious communities, while in Iran, ethnic minorities, including Azerbaijani Turks, Baluchis and Kurds, faced discrimination in education and employment. A rights-based discourse abroad, therefore, would contradict these governments’ policies at home.