India's Coronavirus Outbreak Stokes Islamophobia as Muslims Blamed for Spreading Infection

Muslims in India fear they will face growing Islamophobia after hundreds of coronavirus cases were linked to a recent weeks-long event attended by thousands of Muslims from India and abroad.

Organized by the Tablighi Jamaat, a long-running Islamic missionary movement, the annual event was held in Delhi at the start of last month, despite widespread calls for people around the world to practice social distancing amid the coronavirus outbreak.

As attendees made their way home from the congregation, however, states across India began to report dozens of positive coronavirus cases believed to be linked to the event, with more than 300 of the country's roughly 2,500 cases believed to be linked to the gathering.

Many have turned to social media to express their outrage about the event's role in spreading COVID-19, but, the furor appears to increasingly be turning Islamophobic, with the spread of hashtags like: "#CoronaJihad" and "#NizamuddinIdiots."

In a statement sent to Newsweek, Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the incident "has led to some social media and pro-government television networks blaming Muslims."

Delhi-based historian Rana Safvi agreed, telling Newsweek that while she believed it was "totally irresponsible" of event organizers to "have held it at a time when there was a pandemic," the blame should be focused on the event itself, not on Muslims.

"This is a virus which all of us have to fight together," she said. "We cannot isolate or vilify a community."

Further, Safvi said, authorities knew the event would be happening well in advance and could have stepped in to prevent it from happening in the first place.

As a Muslim, the historian said, the wave of social media posts blaming Muslims for the spread of COVID-19, when the outbreak is an international pandemic, is "very hurtful."

"It's very alarming," she said, warning that the wave of abuse would also affect the "sense of security of Muslims" in India at a time when human rights groups have warned that Islamophobia is already on the rise.

A rickshaw puller covering his face with a cloth carries a passenger covering her face with a scarf, rides rickshaw on a deserted commercial hub as nationwide lockdown continues over the highly contagious coronavirus (COVID-19) on April 03, 2020 in New Delhi, India. Hundreds of coronavirus cases in India have been linked to an event that began at the start of March 2020. Yawar Nazir/Getty

"Once you start blaming a particular community or race," Safvi said, "they are already vulnerable."

While some state leaders across India have spoken out against Islamophobic comments, she said, "nobody from the central government has come forward, but they should."

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, agreed, telling Newsweek there is "concern is that Hindu nationalist rhetoric by ruling [Bharatiya Janata Party] leaders has already caused serious communal rifts, including mob attacks on Muslims."

"The authorities, led by the Indian Prime Minister [Narendra Modi], need to speak out strongly against any form of discrimination, stigmatization or violence against minority communities," Ganguly said.

Newsweek has contacted the Indian government for comment.