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A warning from India for European liberals on how to manage relations with Muslim minorities

Indian Muslims pray during Eid al-Adha at Jama Masjid Mosque in Delhi. Rajat Gupta/EPA

Especially since the refugee crisis, Europe has been grappling with populist reactions to the growth of Muslim minorities. Yet, despite decades of migration, native Europeans have limited experience and imagination when it comes to relating to Muslim minorities. Europeans must look far back in time to the Al-Andalus period of medieval Spain, or to the Balkans, for European examples of Muslims and non-Muslims having shared the same space for centuries.

The record is distressing. Muslims in Spain eventually had to leave or convert to Christianity in the early modern period. The Balkans saw atrocious wars and ethnic cleansing in the 1990s.

In researching my new book, I decided to look at other parts of the world to see how non-Muslim majorities and Muslim minorities can live together – peacefully or not. I found the case of democratic India particularly instructive – not only for the similarities but also for the contrast. While Europeans can learn a lot from India in terms of managing community relations, the crisis of Indian secularism also serves as a warning.

For many centuries, Hindus and Muslims in India have mostly coexisted peacefully – unlike Europe, where almost any minority was at a risk of persecution until two or three generations ago.

But Hindu-Muslim relations have sometimes descended into deadly violence on a horrific scale. In 1947, when Pakistan separated from India, atrocious violence happened on both sides. Since then, so-called religious or “communal” riots have claimed more than 10,000 victims. In recent months, people have again mobilised around a contested temple and mosque site at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, which was also at the heart of troubles in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Riots in Gujarat in 2002 were particularly bloody. While riots have claimed fewer victims in recent years, other incidents of communal violence, such as “beef lynchings” of people accused of killing cows, remain an issue.

Read more: Violence against Indian Muslims who eat beef has hypocrisy at its heart

Despite such violence, Muslims have remained an integral part of India even after the separation of Pakistan. Today, India has a stable Muslim minority of more than 14%.

While lacking a similar history of coexistence, several European countries are moving into similar demographic terrain. According to the Pew Research Forum, Europe’s overall population is projected to be between 7% and 14% Muslim by 2050 (up from 5% in 2016). In Germany, the projection is for 9%-20% of the population to be Muslim by 2050, in the UK 10%-17%, and in France 13%-18%.

Resisting the lure of narcissism

To find out what if anything Europeans can learn from Hindu-Muslim relations in India, I have interviewed Indians from diverse backgrounds covering the entire political spectrum, from politicians to social activists and from the middle class to slum dwellers. There are two warnings emerging from my research.

One warning is that majorities should resist the lure of narcissism. Take Hindu nationalists who support India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi. Those I interviewed typically constructed an idealised Hindu “self”, and attributed to it all kinds of virtues such as generosity and tolerance. They then explained how that “self” is frustrated and victimised by an “other”, namely Indian Muslims failing to reciprocate the alleged Hindu generosity and tolerance.

From here, they would argue that if “they” (Muslims) exploit “our” (Hindu) generosity and tolerance, the gloves must come off and “we” must teach “them” a lesson. Ironically, the means to do so are at in stark variance with the virtues of generosity and tolerance that these Hindu nationalists profess to embrace.

PM Narendra Modi (r) with India’s president and first lady during the Dussehra festival in New Delhi. STR/EPA

Western Europeans are prone to similar contradictions. Many of them see Europe as a beacon of democracy and human rights but, when disappointed in their quest to promote such values, they are willing to embrace drastic measures. Take for example limits to normal legal protections introduced to fight terrorism, as well as botched attempts at forcible regime change in countries such as Libya and Syria. The purpose may be justifiable and the measures unavoidable, but Europeans might be better off if they cultivated a less narcissistic image of themselves as torchbearers of democracy and human rights, as doing so might allow them to deal with any challenges consistently rather than hypocritically.

Avoiding trouble at the ballot box

Another warning is that, when trying to accommodate minorities, ruling elites must not lose touch with prevailing perceptions of fairness among the majority.

Ever since the independence struggle, the Indian National Congress Party has struggled with a reputation of appeasing socially conservative religious minorities. Under the banner of Indian secularism and in pursuit of electoral advantage, the Congress and other secular parties felt compelled to accommodate Muslims and other religious minorities as deserving particular respect and, eventually, special treatment.

When Indian secularists began to realise that this was alienating the majority, they tried to redefine Indian secularism in more progressive terms: namely from a constitutional framework focused on supporting religious minorities into one that promotes community development, social justice, and cultural diversity.

However, too many Indians continued to see minority accommodation as appeasement. The Congress Party in particular has payed a heavy price for this at the ballot box. Four and a half years after Modi’s electoral victory, and despite hopeful signs in recent state elections, it remains to be seen if and when India’s secularists can win another national election.

Under the banner of multiculturalism, European liberals are redefining their political project in similar ways – and are entering a similar crisis.

What European liberals might learn

India can therefore serve European liberals not so much as a model but rather as a warning from which they can learn. Like Indian secularism, multiculturalism prescribes that majorities should accommodate minorities rather than the other way round. Like Indian secularists, European liberals are tempted to engage in coalition building with minorities, regardless of whether those minorities share their liberal values. This means they may end up on the same platform not only with liberal community leaders, Muslim or otherwise, but also with illiberal ones.

European liberals, especially in leftist parties such as the UK Labour Party, have tried to tap into the minority vote. In doing so, they have sometimes turned a blind eye to illiberal tendencies in socially conservative milieus, such as sex segregation in faith schools. During the Salman Rushdie affair and repeatedly since, many Muslims in Europe and elsewhere have called for a ban of criticism of Islam as “hate speech” or blasphemy. Such calls are hardly compatible with free speech. Yet, they have fallen on fertile ground with many European liberals.

However, as in the case of Indian secularism, there is considerable risk of a backlash from parts of the majority. European liberals should therefore reconsider their coalition building with illiberal minority brokers, Muslim or otherwise. Unless European liberals understand this sooner rather than later, the current wave of populism will continue and may eventually sweep away the liberal establishment.

That is what happened in India, where Modi and his allies almost wiped out the parliamentary presence of the Congress and other secularist parties. Populist parties have made inroads into many European countries including France, Germany and Sweden. The alleged bankruptcy of multiculturalism is one of their favourite soapboxes. Many followers of these parties, however, are disenchanted liberals rather than rabid nationalists. Instead of alienating them further, liberals should try to gain them back by showing that they care about the majority at least as much as about minorities.

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