Modi and the Muslim world: Need for new engagement

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By : Mohammed Mahfoodh Al Ardhi

Narendra Modi’s win as India’s prime minister has raised concerns among Muslims not just in India, but in the Gulf as well.

Editorials and opinion articles in the region’s media have reminded readers of communal riots that broke out in 2002 and saw more than a 2,000 killed, mostly Muslims. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat then.

Now as prime minister, how accommodative Modi will be toward the very Muslims is a matter of conjecture. Also, some commentaries in the Gulf point to Modi’s friendliness toward Israel, which is seen as another cause for anxiety among the Arabs in the Middle East.

Will Modi be successful as the prime minister of a modern multicultural and multi-religious country? If so, I believe he must take up the interest of the Muslims at home and build a more inclusive as well as build a more constructive relationship with Muslim nations, mainly in the Gulf.

The strains of disquiet among Muslims at large have to be acknowledged and addressed by the new incumbent. How he engages with Indian Muslims and Muslims abroad will, to a large extent, not just define his term in office but also India’s position as an emerging global leader. After his decisive victory, which he won by a record margin and the BJP clinched a majority by itself, Modi announced to the world that he would carry with him all of India, without prejudice against any group.

That’s a good start. He has spoken the right conciliatory words to reach out to all communities, including the Muslims. But it’s crucial what he does because at the end of it all, actions are going to speak louder than words. He has the opportunity to broaden his appeal taking concrete steps among Muslims both inside and outside the country.

It is important for Modi to embrace the Muslims, both in his own home and overseas.

There is an economic rationale for such an action, that would help turn his development dreams into reality. India’s Muslim population, which is the third largest in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan, is close to 180 million.

Now put that into a global perspective: The total Indian Muslim population is almost four and a half times the entire GCC population of 42 million. The population of the US stands at about 318 million and that of Muslim-majority Arab League countries’ is 400 million. And they comprise the fastest growing population segment among all religious groups in India. According to US-based Pew Research Muslim population in India is projected to increase to 236.2 million in 2030. Muslims will comprise almost 16 percent of India’s population in 2030, up from 14.6 percent in 2010.

The sheer number of Indian Muslims presents itself as a huge economic engine but only if the new prime minister favors an inclusive development plan. This would mean providing opportunities in educational, economic and political spheres to the growing number of Muslims. And such targeted actions at home would send the right signals across the globe, including Muslims nations in the Gulf and the Middle East.

It would also be in Modi’s interest to allay any fears of his party’s closeness to Israel. He visited that country when he was the chief minister and acknowledged support to Israel on the issue of defending itself against “Islamist” terrorism. One result was Israeli government and private sector investing billions of dollars in his home state of Gujarat.

Post-9/11, Indian foreign policy under both the BJP-led NDA government and the Congress government has seen a growing engagement on counterterrorism measures with not only Israel but also Gulf countries. Gulf countries have in fact extradited suspected men wanted in cases of terrorist incidents in India. Also, there has been defense cooperation with both Israel and some of the Gulf countries, including UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, India has always voted against Israel at all international platforms supporting the Palestine Authority. That should be a cause for comfort for all Muslims.

Amid the growing political, economic and defense ties with the Gulf nations, an early official visit by Modi to a Gulf country would have a very positive effect on relations in the region. That would also surely win the hearts and minds of the Muslims of this region and strike a chord with the Muslims back home. It would not only go a long way toward dispelling Arab concerns surrounding Modi’s and India’s closeness to Israel, but also allow his government to engage in economic diplomacy with resource rich Gulf countries, who would have self interest in building on their expanding relationship with India.

India — with its vast and growing economy, large Muslim population, geographical proximity and increasing strategic influence in Asia — looms larger over the Gulf than ever before. Underlying India’s pursuit of a closer bond with the Gulf would follow increased investments in diverse sectors in the last several years. Building on expanding strategic influence for Gulf-wide security would help take the relations to a new level and have appeal for Muslims of the Gulf and Middle East.

In this regard, it’s crucial for Modi and his foreign policy mandarins to evaluate how the Gulf countries are increasingly becoming a part of the global dialogue on geo-politics, economy and soft power. They want to be an active member of the global power structure that is unraveling itself as the world power structure reorders itself.
Today Saudi Arabia has expressed interest in dialogue with Iran, unthinkable even a year ago and it has extended support to the victimized Syrians. That says a lot about it playing a more active role in the region. Oman has been an active intermediary on issues pertaining to Iran and other powers, including in the release of Americans from an Iranian prison. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have been the largest donors of aid to Egypt in the past one year.

As a symbol of the growing relationship between the GCC and India, an invitation from a Gulf leader to Modi would go a long way to deepen the relationship and create new opportunities for all parties.

At the end, though, it is up to Modi how he navigates his way to genuinely engage with Muslims in his land and abroad. If he stands and acts for what he has said, he would indeed stand tall in the eyes of wary Muslims.

The writer is on the International Advisory Board of The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. and is author of ‘Arabs Down Under.’

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