India’s 200 million Muslims remain as vulnerable as any other community to the COVID-19 but they not only have to battle the deluge of targeted misinformation and fake news, they are also at the receiving end of rising communal onslaught on social and traditional media.
Muslim intellectuals and community leaders told Salaam Gateway they are doing their best to create awareness at the community level, but insist the menace is too big to deal with, given the limited presence or representation they have in the media.
If a recent analysis of over 30,000 clips by a Delhi-based digital lab, Voyager Infosec, are to be believed, targeted disinformation campaigns are being run to misguide the Muslim community about coronavirus.
While the problem is not restricted to any particular group, community leaders say many Muslims might have initially fallen victim to such misinformation and fake news pushed through various social media platforms to exploit religious sentiments.
Salaam Gateway independently scanned through some of those videos, which are mostly in Hindi and appeared to be made to target the Muslim community to discourage it from following the safety and social distancing norms in the name of religion.
“That’s a huge problem,” said Ashraf Mohamedy, a Shura Member of All India Dawah Centres Association (AIDCA), a gathering of various Islamic bodies from across the country.
Despite several Muslim scholars and clerics clearly speaking out on social media about how to behave amid the spread of the virus, Ashraf said there had been some confusion initially among people on the ground due to ignorance.
Dr. Shariq Nisar, a Mumbai-based Islamic finance academic and professional, agrees that social media is full of conspiracy theories and this is not floating just among Muslims but also in other religious communities.
“A section of Muslims also think this is a curse from God which will not harm the true believers. There are temples where devotees are still coming in throng believing that their god will protect them,” he said, adding that illiterate people are bound to be affected by such information freely floating around on social media.
“This, in my view, has nothing to do specifically with their religion.”
Islamic speaker Zaid Patel agrees there are Muslims who have fallen prey to fake news and conspiracy theories about coronavirus. “But we find there are people from all religious groups who have fallen prey to this fake propaganda,” he said, adding there are many instances of violations from the majority community.
MUSLIMS AND LOCKDOWN VIOLATIONS
There have been media reports of some Muslim localities flouting government directives concerning the lockdown that started Mar 25, although similar incidents have also been reported from other areas. A couple of incidents of attacks on doctors and medical staff have also been reported, that many blamed to a particular community.
Ashraf Mohamedy said there was some resistance in the initial days of lockdown, but that was more to do with the mistrust many Muslims may have with the government. “Now, they may have realized that they have to follow the government directives as everybody has to be very careful about coronavirus.”
Social activist Uzma Naheed, who is also in the presidium of All India Muslim Development Council, agreed that it was a matter of five-six days initially when Muslims were trying to understand how to react to the situation. “Since they are anyway washing their hands and face five times a day (for prayers), they were thinking they are safe. But when the government strictly said that the disease is dangerous and issued orders, then everybody started following the directives,” she said.
Since the lockdown was abruptly announced, many people were caught unaware, said Dr. Nisar. “When the Prime Minister asked people to stay at their homes, millions of people got stuck.”
He said there are people who are forced by their economic circumstances, even if they wish they cannot avoid going to market and other public places. “Muslims in general, like other poor and marginalized are victims of their situations. They know that before corona it’s their hunger and poverty which will hit them surely.”
Islamic speaker Zaid Patel, who runs iPlus TV on apps and social media, agrees there are also people who are not properly abiding by the lockdown forced by their economic situations. “In my humble opinion, the media has been very biased in creating a case against the Muslims and blaming them very disproportionately.”
On the other hand, he said Muslims have abided by the lockdown by stopping congregational prayers in mosques. “The connection of a Muslim with his mosque is not that of once in a day, it is five times a day. This is a very big sacrifice indeed, which shows that the religious leaders, mosque trustees and the public have all cooperated,” he said, adding that there have been many fatwas by Islamic scholars which need to be highlighted.
Uzma Naheed, who is also the founder trustee of Mumbai-based Iqra Education Foundation, points out that many Islamic organisations including Darul Uloom Deoband, which overlooks over 200,000 madrasas, issued messages asking people to follow government directives. “So, Muslims are not only following government order but also the instructions of Darul Uloom Deoband.”
The situation began to take a communal colour following the outbreak of coronavirus cases from a Tablighi Jamaat event late March.
The incident, according to authorities, is blamed for spreading at least 30% (4,291) of 14,378 coronavirus cases as of April 18. Now, the country has over 27,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 872 deaths, as of Apr 27.
As social media platforms started trending the last couple of weeks with phrases like #Islamophobia, #Coronajihad, #TablighiJamatVirus, it not only angered many in India but also in the wider Muslim world, with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) issuing a statement rejecting anti-Muslim prejudice in India over coronavirus spread. This saw Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi responding with a tweet that “unity and brotherhood” should be the response to the COVID-19.
This may help douse the outcry outside India to some extent, but for Muslims living within the country, community leaders say they have to deal with this on a daily basis.
“The way the Tablighi Jamaat thing is being presented as if the Jamaat was created to spread coronavirus. It’s difficult to match that kind of propaganda,” said Ashraf Mohamedy, who is also the CEO of Shariah investment advisory firm Idafa Investments.
At the level where the Hindu-Muslim things are playing out, he feels it’s very difficult to match or go against the tide. “But, yes, at our level, our circle, our limited capacities, we are trying to dispel the myth that coronavirus doesn’t see who is Hindu and who is Muslim. It’s a very generic thing and everybody has to be very careful about it.”
Communalism is a major issue for India. To add salt to the wound, COVID-19 struck the country when it hadn’t fully recovered from the horrific communal riot of Delhi that killed over 50 people, a large majority of whom were Muslims, only in February. This came on the heels of nationwide fierce protest, led mostly by Muslims, against the controversial Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) that promises to give citizenship to all religiously persecuted people but Muslims from three neighbouring countries.
“This [communalization] is difficult to stop because politicians and businesspeople have an interest in this. Civil society is weak and under lockdown. India is heading towards a big economic crisis because of the lockdown,” said Dr. Nisar.
He said it is not only the Muslims who will suffer but lots of those who are not Muslim or have nothing to do with any religion will also become eventual victims of the crisis.
A known figure within the community, Uzma Naheed appeals that one should not give a colour of religion to it since ‘ignorance is ignorance’, pointing out that there were many reported incidents or events of violations involving other communities as well.
“The problem is that media is propagating like anything. Any news related to Muslims will go immediately viral and reach every part of India. Unfortunately, we don’t have any platform to keep our points of view, except a few ones,” she said.
“We are constantly passing on Islamic orders on the special disease, stating what Islam says about it. We are always guiding people on how to take care of other communities. We are using WhatsApp messages, making videos and using various social media platforms to create awareness by making them viral,” she added.
DEBUNKING FAKE NEWS
In a country as vast as India, it’s difficult to implement cyber laws effectively. There have been many incidents of mob lynching triggered by fake videos on social media in the recent past.
“While laws exist, we know that these are used selectively, and we can't stop people from believing what they want to believe,” said Shakir Ebrahim, the founder of YouTube-based news and current affairs channel, Bisbo India.
In the age of misinformation, technocrats like Aslam Khan, who runs a software development company, Octaware Technologies, feels the community should focus on building the think tank of experts from the healthcare sectors and develop a strategy to broadcast factual information and guide the community using social and print media.
“Media, especially social media plays an important role in creating awareness among the communities. A digital strategy with social media roadmap and action plan on creating the awareness can be developed by technocrats such as ourselves,” he said.
Khan, whose company has recently developed an app and telemedicine for COVID-19, said the intervention of technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) based ChatBot on WhatsApp could be another strategy to create the awareness and help the community falling victim of misinformation.
While humanity is facing the biggest crisis in recent modern times, Dr. Nisar says a lot of Muslim social activists are working with other like-minded people supporting the poor and vulnerable, irrespective of their caste, colour or religion.
“This is a good time to report the gestures of communal harmony, but mainstream media may not find this worthy news. In a frenzied time, bad news drives out the good news.”
(Reporting by Syed Ameen Kader; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim firstname.lastname@example.org)
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