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In early April, 13 members of the Islamic mission group Yamaat Tabligh tested positive for the coronavirus while living in a mosque in southeastern Nepal. Many were of Indian nationality who had returned from a meeting in Delhi organized by the religious group in March – which is recognized as a “great act of spread.”
As India faces an increase in online and physical attacks on Muslims, Nepalese Muslims are concerned that their nation may be next.
Precarious state of Muslims in Nepal
Muslims make up around 5% of the Nepalese population, in terms of access to health and education, as well as to a standard of living, the group is well below average.
With a history of limited physical protection by state and local authorities in times of need, members of the Muslim community have been victims of attacks in 2004 and more recently in 2016.
After the spread of the 13 members of the Yamaat Tabligh, conspiracy theories led to online insults against Muslims, who blamed only the Delhi religious gathering for the spread of the coronavirus.
#Ramadan has always been a time of joyous celebration. This year however, there is anxiety and fear among Nepal’s Muslims because of fears that they will be blamed for the virus.@AlishaSijapati desde @NepaliTimes reports on Ramadan during #lockdown.https: //t.co/g0c7NbFU5X
– Nepali Times (@NepaliTimes) May 4, 2020
Ramadan has always been a time of joyous celebration. This year, however, there is anxiety and fear among Nepali Muslims for fear of being blamed for the virus. Alisha Sijapati of the Nepali Times reports on Ramadan during confinement.
On Twitter, user Md Aasif asked the Police to stop all users who were spreading hate messages:
I request the @NepalPoliceHQ to arrest these people and take strict action against them because these people want to spoil the good environment of Nepal and are spreading hatred against Muslims. pic.twitter.com/7wtQCcmlfh
– Md Aasif (@ MdAasif166) May 3, 2020
Tejendra Kunwar: The Police have sealed all the mosques in the Gulf countries, why are they still open in Nepal? All mosques must be sealed before we face the worst.
Naresh Prashad Patel: No place will remain safe if the government is not focused on tracking, testing and treating East Terai west in time.
Padam KC: Musa-Ban (“ban” is a rudeness that dignifies the dead) is spoiling everything.
Krishna Rimal: The government should speed up the search for jamatis.
Surya: Muslims are going to end Nepal.
Nayan Oli: The Madarsa Mosque has not sunk.
Nabin Devkota: All the mosques in Nepal should be bombed.
I ask the Nepal Police headquarters to detain these people and to take strict measures against them, as they want to ruin the good atmosphere in Nepal by spreading hatred against Muslims.
In neighboring India, Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party has been accused of creating an atmosphere of Islamophobia. Arjun Appadurai, professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, explains how the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated already existing problems in the country:
One of the key features of anti-Muslim sentiment in India for quite a long time has been the idea that Muslims themselves are a kind of infection in the body politic. So there’s a kind of affinity between this long-standing image and the new anxieties surrounding coronavirus.
One of the key characteristics of anti-Muslim sentiment in India has long been the idea that Muslims themselves are a kind of infection in the political body. So there is a certain affinity between this eradicated image and the new anxieties surrounding the coronavirus.
The fact that India focused almost exclusively on the congregation of the Islamic group Yamaat Tablighi and has excluded all others speaks to a long history of a scapegoat and incitement to communal violence. Muslim Indians have been targeted on social media through viral hashtags like #CoronaJihad '(coronayihad).
While Muslims have been marginalized in Nepal, from education to politics, Peter Gill, an American journalist living in Kathmandu, explains that, unlike India, the recent anti-Muslim sentiment has no overt rhetorical support from ruling Nepali political parties :
“… Religious violence (in Nepal) is much less common than in India, where interfaith relations have been fraught since the bloody partition of India and Pakistan in 1947… (In Nepal) there are no powerful political groups that openly target Muslims in Nepal. The mainstream Hindu nationalist political party, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, has focused on trying to restore Hinduism as the official state religion, bringing back the monarchy and stopping the spread of Christian proselytization. While these issues are indirectly threatening to Muslims, the party generally does not oppose Muslims in its rhetoric.
“… religious violence (in Nepal) is much less common than in India, where inter-religious relations have been strained since the bloody division of India and Pakistan in 1947 … (In Nepal) there are no strong political groups that openly target Muslims . The main Hindu nationalist political party, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, focused on trying to reestablish Hinduism as the official state religion, return to monarchy and stop the spread of Christian proselytism. Although these issues are an indirect threat to Muslims, the party is generally not opposed to Muslims in its rhetoric.
However, this may not be enough to allay fear among the Muslim community in Nepal. To Abdul Shamim, head of Jame Masjid from Nepal:
After these cases, whenever there is news of confirmed cases going up, people are always asking were they Muslims? Were they caught in a mosque? The media highlights Muslim positives, they never say a Hindu or a Christian tested positive. (…)
Muslims in Nepal are a minority and have peacefully coexisted without any conflict for centuries, but now I dread the future, and the rise of xenophobia and intolerance spreading from across the border.
After these cases, when new cases become known, will people always wonder if they were Muslims? Were they caught in a mosque? The media highlight the positive Muslims, but never speak of a Hindu or Christians who have tested positive (…)
Muslims in Nepal are a minority and have coexisted peacefully without conflict for centuries, but now I fear the future, and the increase in xenophobia and intolerance that extends from across the border.
As the Government of Nepal strives to respond to an irrepressible series of challenges posed by the coronavirus, such as organizing the return of hundreds of its migrant workers abroad and damaging evidence, the situation of vulnerable populations is likely Nepal only got worse.