From Tourists to Terrorists: How Foreign Muslims Were Vilified and Arrested in India

Hundreds of foreign attendees of an Islamic missionary movement, Tablighi Jamaat, were wrongfully declared “super-spreaders” of COVID-19 in India.
COVID-19, India, Tablighi Jamaat, Visa, Tourists, Islam, Movement, Delhi
Tablighi Jamaat is an Islamic missionary movement, with presence across the world. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Every morning, before the bristling warmth of the summer enters his room, 24-years-old Muhammad Ibrahim unfolds a velvet mat on the floor and begins to pray. Sitting on his knees, hands held together like a book half-open and eyes shut, he has only one prayer: to leave India and return to his family in Mozambique, South Africa.

Ibrahim, a U.S. citizen, is a member of Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary organisation with more than 70 million members across the world.

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Ibrahim’s March visit to India to deepen his faith and call people towards the way of life practiced by the Prophet Mohammad, was his second. But his trip took an extraordinary turn when the Indian government launched a crackdown on members of the organisation and attributed the rise in COVID-19 cases in the country to them.

The smear campaign against the group encouraged the far right to berate the Muslim minority–14 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion people—which feels increasingly disparaged by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Not everyone is swayed.

Fact-checkers worked over time, debunking tweets with hashtags #CoronaJihad, #CoronaBomb, #TablighiJamaatVirus and #Coronaterrorism claiming that Muslims intentionally transferred the virus through sneezing, coughing, spitting and praying in large congregations.

In the last week, three Indian courts have criticised the Indian government and media for vilifying members of the Tablighi Jamaat. The courts ruled that since the government was unable to handle the COVID-19 crisis, it made the organisation a scapegoat, branding its members as “super carriers.”

Back in April, when COVID-19 cases were surging in the country, Ibrahim spent one month in a quarantine centre in Amravati district in western India’s Maharashtra state. “The police kept watch throughout our time there,” he said.

As per the police report, Ibrahim is accused of breaking six laws.

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On May 16, when he approached the court to get the police report resolved, he said that the police transferred him to a blind school. Ibrahim lived in a room with at least 60 more people, including men who were released from prisons. After thirteen days, he was released on bail. “One of the prisoners told me that it was worse than being in a jail,” he said.

They slept on thin, sweat-soaked mattresses. Washrooms would often run out of water. “I could have easily gotten infected,” he said.

Eventually, Tablighi Jamaat arranged accommodations for Ibrahim where he now lives with other members of the organisation.

Six days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, around 2,000 members of the Tablighi Jamaat were found stranded at the organisation’s headquarters in south Delhi. While the organisation said that it had required permissions from the authorities, its members were accused of deliberately spreading the virus as many of them were tested positive for COVID-19.

A Tablighi Jamaat spokesperson told VICE News that 400 to 500 members of the organisation, majority of them foreigners, were incarcerated in several states, and were charged for flouting the rules of the lockdown along with violating visa regulations that prohibited them from missionary work.

Parvez Khan, the lawyer representing Ibrahim and other members of his group, said that media coverage created a wrong impression of the organisation. “The media blew it out of proportion. None of the members were found to have been infected,” he told VICE News

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While the national government justified the media coverage in the courts, others have criticized it as an indulgence in Islamophobia.

Journalist and author Ziya Us Salam, said the media was largely responsible for the vilification of the organisation and acted in collusion with the ruling party. “The media’s indulgence in Islamophobia has worked to malign the Muslim community and attempted to divert the attention from the abject failure of the government,” he told VICE News.

Currently,  India has 3.3 million cases of COVID19 and more than 59 thousand people have died.

Since March, 912 members have entered a plea bargain, allowing for their deportation on payment of a fine, ranging between USD $67 to $135.
Courts have quashed the charges of visa violations in all the cases.

Andi Ilham Akbar, an Indonesian citizen, is one of those who entered the plea bargain. Akbar said that he experienced a “virtual persecution” in India.

“Before the lockdown, they treated us as tourists. Now we are treated like terrorists,” he told VICE News.

Akbar said that in April, Delhi police picked him up from the Tablighi Jamaat office telling him that he had to undergo a swab test. He said despite testing negative for the virus, police took him to a quarantine centre where he spent 55 days.

“They even took away our phones for a week,” he said, describing the struggle to maintain contact with his family in Makassar, Indonesia.

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Akbar said that a COVID-19 patient lived with him in the quarantine centre.“It was very dangerous,” he said.

Akbar’s internment made him lose 33 pounds over two months. Now, cleared of all charges, he intends to return home with  431 fellow Indonesian citizens.

Despite the hardships he has endured in India, Akbar said he would still want to bring his family to visit one day.

“I can’t wait to meet my children and narrate stories about the food and culture of India. Maybe one day I will bring them here, and we’ll try out the Indian dishes together,” he said.

Akbar does not intend to share his sorrow with his family members, “I will tell them only the happy stories, not the sad ones.”

Akbar’s dream of returning to India with his family will take a long time to be fulfilled, however. In the wake of the recent events, the government of India has banned 960 foreigners from entering the country for a period of 10 years.

Follow SM Seraj Ali and Sarah Khan on Twitter.