CoronaJihad: Stigmatization of Indian Muslims in the COVID-19 Pandemic


At least 220 fresh coronavirus cases related to Tablighi Jamaat ...


by Bharat Syal and Waqas Haque   23 July 2020



With 1.2 billion people and over 1,000 languages spoken, India is where followers of the world’s major religions can be found.[1] India prides itself as the world’s most diverse democracy, home to some 900 million registered voters.[2] At the same time, India has a poor health record, spending 1% of GDP on healthcare.[3] Over 600,000 Indians have been confirmed to have COVID-19, with over 18,000 deaths.[4] Despite the initial low official death toll, uncertainty regarding the situation fueled discrimination against the Muslim minority. Nearly two-thirds of 178 coronavirus-related misleading claims in India two months ago were through videos and images containing “communally charged disinformation targeting Muslims”.[5] While social media has the potential to convey beneficial health recommendations, it has been weaponized against India’s Muslims by actors with ulterior motives.

Tablighi transmission

At an event that took place between March 1 and 15 in Nizamuddin, Delhi, over 2,000 Muslim congregants gathered for an annual conference hosted by Muslim outreach group Tablighi Jamaat.[6] While the event took place before India’s nationwide lockdown on March 25, it violated a state government order restricting religious and public gatherings.[7] Tablighi Jamaat is a grassroots Muslim outreach organization with members in over 150 countries. In addition to regular gatherings, they travel across the locale, knocking on doors of Muslim households to give salutations and encourage mosque attendance.[8] On March 27, six attendees of the Delhi meeting tested positive for coronavirus.[9] A 65-year-old man, who died of coronavirus at a hospital on March 26 had attended the congregation and returned home by train.[10]

While the Tablighi Jamaat is far from the only group to ignore social distancing instructions, it was the only one singled out as a scapegoat for the spread and existence of COVID-19 in India. On March 25, the day of national lockdown, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath attended a large Hindu celebration at a temple with no concern for lockdown and with no backlash.[11]. Figures of Indian primetime television went on to describe the Nizamuddin event as a secret terrorist plot designed to infect all of India, drawing criticism away from the missteps of the government’s pandemic response.[11]

“Corona Jihad”

A tweet with 2,000 retweets before it was removed for violating Twitter’s rules featured a Muslim man labeled “Corona Jihad” pushing a cartoon Hindu off a cliff.[6] “Corona jihad is this new idea that Muslims are weaponizing the coronavirus to target Hindus,” stated Thenmozhi Soundarajan, executive director of Indian-American human rights organization Equality Labs.[6] In addition to getting rid of non-believers, this apocalyptic and conspiratorial line of thinking holds the belief that Muslims will prioritize Islamic laws over the country’s own social distancing guidelines.[7]

On April 10, 22-year-old Dilshad Ali was lynched by three men after they suspected him of being coronavirus positive.[34] Earlier, a video of Dilshad being threatened and beaten went viral on social media. Dilshad was heard pleading with his attackers that he was not infected and had no intention to spread the virus.[34]

Videos used out of context

 The Nizamuddin event sparked an array of misinformation fanning sectarian flames. A 44-second video in March revealed a restaurant employee blowing into food packets during packaging.[12] The video was re-posted several times, with a YouTube upload from March 24th receiving over 73,000 views. It suggested that Muslims were intentionally spreading coronavirus. However, BOOM News discovered that the video was not from India but was actually posted last April to demonstrate how to keep papadum (Indian flatbread) fresh.[12] Another video on April 1st shows a group of men wearing skull-caps, a devotional sign of Islamic piety, licking silverware.[13] The Hindi caption states, “Mullahs licking empty utensils in mosques so that more and more of these epidemics can spread. These mullahs are already infected with Coronavirus and the government is catching them and treating them. Why? Corona is not spreading in India but is being spread.” [13-14] The video was later found to be from 2018 and depicted congregants identifying with the Dawoodi Bohra sect licking utensils to not waste any food.[14]

 These examples are not the only attempts to link coronavirus transmission to the religious practices of Muslims. In addition to videos showing men geared in Islamic garb appearing to intentionally cough at others, a video drawing 24,000 views shows a “mass [sneezing]” in Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin mosque complex.[15] But the same video was posted to YouTube on January 29th, well before coronavirus was classified as a pandemic.[16] As opposed to the peculiar and highly improbable suggestion that congregants were sneezing in unison, the practice is likely the devotional deep-breathing Sufi practice where one inhales and exhales loudly in an act of remembering God.[17]

Another stream of misinformation depicts Muslims defying authority. A common trope intended to portray Muslims as disloyal citizens uninterested in complying with the law.[18] On April 2nd, a video was posted displaying a man inside a police van spitting at a police officer.[19] The Facebook post received over 100,000 views with the caption, “They were spitting yesterday, they are also spitting today”.[19] It was also claimed that the man in this video attended the infamous Nizamuddin Markaz event described earlier.[19-20] However, the video was actually shot on February 29, making his attendance impossible. The man spat at the officers after becoming “upset with the policemen for not allowing him to have home-cooked food brought by his family” after being placed in custody. [19-20]

 Misleading hashtags

 Social media hashtags serve as a vehicle for misinformation accompanying respective unverifiable textual or visual material.[21] In addition to the #CoronaJihad hashtag – a deliberate reference to “love Jihad” – hashtags such as #TablighiJamatVirus and #MarkazCOVIDSpread had gained traction.[6,22] A Twitter user explains the #CoronaJihad hashtag: “Infected Muslims want to go and spread Corona to Kafirs (Infidels) so they can die in hundreds of thousands. Their idea: few hundred Muslims will die, but they can make up for it by making more children. Use the Corona to kill more Kafirs”.[23] Between March 28 and April 3, the hashtag appeared approximately 300,000 times on Twitter and was viewed by up to 165 million individuals.[6]

 Government-related misinformation

The Indian government has been heavily criticized for not curbing the diffusion of misinformation [24]. Mukhtar Naqvi, Minister for Minority Affairs, accused organizers of the Tablighi event as committing a “Talibani crime” on local news and Twitter.[25] Amit Malviya, head for Information Technology with half a million Twitter followers, tweeted that “illegal gathering of the radical Tablighi Jamaat at the Markaz” is “an Islamic insurrection of sorts”.[26] BJP’s Sangeet Som labeled it an act of “corona terrorism”.[27] Such statements do little to quell discrimination against Muslims in India. Instead, they incite social discord among India’s citizens. They equate ordinary Indian Muslim citizens with the virus or as bioterrorists in-waiting. This defies Human Rights Watch’s recommendation that “governments should ensure that response measures to COVID-19 do not target or discriminate against particular religious or ethnic groups”.[28]

 Impact on health outcomes

 The stigmatization reflected in these examples hamper access to healthcare, which can lead to symptomatic persons spreading COVID-19 even more. The Valentis Hospital cancer center mistakenly issued an advert that Muslims could only be admitted for treatment if they tested negative for coronavirus.[29] Two individuals reportedly committed suicide owing to stress from being wrongly blamed for the virus’s spread.[30-31] A pregnant Muslim woman in a critical condition was refused care by a doctor in a Rajasthan government hospital for being Muslim. The innocent newborn later died in transit to a different hospital for no other reason than being born Muslim.[32] This is in light of healthcare utilization surveys finding that Muslim women in India receive less antenatal care than mothers of other faiths.[33]

Concluding Thoughts

 The tidal wave of misinformation during the pandemic has amplified discrimination against marginalized ethnic communities. Nation-states have failed to protect vulnerable religious communities from stigmatization. Indian and Cambodian Muslims and Shi’a Muslims in Pakistan have faced increased stigmatization due to some of the earliest coronavirus patients coming from their communities.[35]  Unfortunately, this is not the first time that social media misinformation has fueled ethnic tensions in India. In 2018, forwarded WhatsApp messages with misinformation and doctored videos were used to spark a spate of mob violence and lynch killings.[36] Efforts need to be made to quell misleading claims. While technical fixes such as expanding hate speech rules on social media is a helpful start, the brunt of responsibility lies on the government and civil society to reverse the climate of fear that Muslims in India live in.

At the same time, it should be stressed that misinformation and stigmatization during the pandemic is not the fault of all Indian institutions. The Mumbai police agency has worked with the local Muslim community to deliver food during the holy month of Ramadan, where Muslims fast.[37] AltNews and FactChecker are fact-checking organizations publishing reports on misinformation in India, and Indian-American human rights organizations such as Equality Labs defend the Ambedkarite principles of India’s democratic constitution.[8,38,39] Indian journalists, such as Rana Ayyub, have published articles on the anti-Muslim response to coronavirus in India by addressing the many toxic displays of Islamophobia in Indian media.[24] The Modi administration should take inspiration from these valiant actors and end the scapegoating of Muslim minorities if it wants India to live up to its reputation as the world’s largest democracy.