Traveling through India in the summer of 1998, I arrived with some friends at Varanasi’s main train station. Wanting to retrace the steps of characters from Shusako Endo’s novel, Deep River, we made a call to a backpacker’s hostel featured in its pages. The proprietor confirmed that there were rooms available, and so we set off in a rickshaw that sniffed and buzzed its way through the narrow, winding streets of the ancient city.
Arriving at the hostel on the banks of the Ganges, we were surprised to find that around a dozen other travelers—mostly Europeans and Japanese—sat patiently in chairs, waiting to find out whether there might be room for them as well. I wondered how we had managed to get a room while all these other people waited. As if sensing my question, and after checking us in, the Hindu proprietor took us aside and quietly told us that he had detected our American accents on the phone, and had given us the room instead of others because “Americans hate Muslims, too.”
Still today, when I travel in India, Hindus presupposing my agreement frequently make off-handed and derogatory comments about their Muslim neighbors. For those concerned about the effectiveness of the United States’ advocacy for religious freedom around the world, the perception that “Americans hate Muslims, too” should be a matter of great concern.
As I have written elsewhere, India’s Christians suffer from various forms of social and legal discrimination, and are vandalized, kidnapped, or attacked (occasionally even fatally) about 250-350 times a year. This is a serious problem, and one deserving international approbation. However, the repression and persecution of India’s Christians pales in comparison to that of its Muslim minority.
In the decades since India’s independence in 1947, thousands of Muslims have died in incidents of mob violence. More than 7,000 died in the 1980s alone, according to reliable estimates. Major anti-Muslim riots occur about every decade, and dozens are killed annually in smaller or medium-scale anti-Muslims riots. To the extent, then, that Americans are perceived to care more about the plight of Christians than Muslims in India, U.S. advocacy for religious freedom becomes vulnerable to charges of prejudice.
The perception that “Americans hate Muslims, too” not only blunts the effectiveness of U.S. diplomatic intervention on this issue, but also provides cover for anti-Muslim activists, many of them associated with the Sangh Parivar, a conglomeration of various social, cultural, religious, and political organizations (including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party) that perceive and promote Hindutva, or “Hindu-ness” as the essential characteristic and genius of Indian national identity.
While American diplomats often advocate for religious freedom in India in general terms, their words are not enough to undo the perception of America as a neo-colonial, prejudicially Christian empire. American Christian missionaries in India have been frequently accused of being the advanced scouts of this putative American empire intent on weakening India politically, and then remaking it as a Christian nation, more pliable and compatible with American designs.
Many Indians take at face value the expressions of evangelical Christian piety so common among the American political class, and do not dismiss them—as many Americans do—as cynical political machination. Stories in respected media outlets warn of aggressive evangelical campaigns “emanating from America,” and “backed by the highest of the land,” and are often accompanied by sound bites or pictures—in this case of George W. Bush, Jr., speaking in front of a large mural of Jesus, that serve, implicitly, to confirm the accusations.
Indians are far more aware of what goes on in the United States than vice versa. For example, prominent Indian newspapers reported not only Donald Trump’s well-publicized call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration, but also on his appalling call to dip bullets in pigs’ blood for use on Muslim terrorists, and his less widely-publicized vow to “protect Christianity.” While Trump’s assertion, in that latter speech, that Christianity was “under siege” around the world is supported by research conducted by the reputable Pew Forum, his defense of Christianity rather than religious liberty more generally is particularly problematic given the fact that Muslims, according to that same research, are persecuted in nearly as many countries as Christians.
In fact, Indians are also widely aware of the problem of hate crimes committed against Muslims in America, where, according to FBI statistics, and proportional to the respective national populations, they are roughly as common as attacks on Christians in India. (One of the reasons that this problem is of particular interest in India, of course, is that those intending to attack Muslims in America often mistakenly attack Indian American Sikhs or Hindus, as reported in this Times of India story.)
All of this, of course, simply serves to confirm the impression of many Indians that “Americans hate Muslims, too,” and that our advocacy for religious freedom is really just Christian advocacy. Overcoming this impression, so that the United States might become a more effective, credible advocate for religious freedom in India will require consistent, intentional work.
It will require a certain humble willingness to acknowledge and address our own problems with anti-minority harassment and violence. It will require more frequent expressions of concern not only for Muslims, but also for Hindus, Buddhists, and other non-Christians suffering persecution around the world. And it will require symbolically potent action, like President Obama’s recent visit to a Baltimore mosque (which, incidentally, was also reported in national Indian media). For those who truly care about religious freedom in India (and the United States), such efforts are not only justified. They are absolutely necessary.