Less than a month ago, on May 26, 2022, the national spokesperson for the ruling political party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), made a slip of the tongue in a heated televised debate. Her opponent made some objectionable remarks against Hinduism. She responded by pointing out that the Prophet Muhammad had married a six-year-old girl and consummated his marriage when she was nine implying he was a pedophile. While factually accurate, her remarks were taken to suggest a stain on the Prophet's reputation. Not to waste a crisis, many Islamists escalated the faux pas to the point where now some 15 Muslim governments are demanding apologies, or they will boycott India. To take it one step further, the terrorist group al Qaeda is threatening suicide bombings if the spokesperson is not punished. If you have not heard of this incident, it's probably been upstaged by the war in Ukraine. However, in India, it's front-page news.
As Islam expanded over the centuries, its caliphs and sultans habitually converted old churches, temples, and places of worship into mosques. In India during the 16th century, the Muslim leader, Aurangzeb, tore down the Kashi Vishwanath Temple to Shiva and built the Gyanvapi mosque. Just recently, a survey excavation in the mosque courtyard discovered a stone abutment thought to be part of the original Hindu statue of Shiva. The Hindus are seeking legal redress for partial access to their Temple while the Muslims are fighting the issue. India is a strong democracy, and debate is part of its heritage. The debate on May 26 was about this issue, and it was a heated one.
The lady who made the faux pas was Nupur Sharma, a 38-year-old lawyer with credentials from the best schools in India and graduate schools in the U.K. Other debate participants also got into trouble with social media postings, but Sharma was the high profile debater because she was the national spokesperson for the ruling party. The current Prime Minister, Modi, is head of the BJP, and spokesperson Sharma usually represents Modi in the national press on national and international issues. Thus, it would be easy to assume that the ruling party is anti-Muslim based on Sharma's virulent outburst. Modi's BJP has tried to distance itself from the statements made by spokesperson Sharma by suspending her and condemning comments insulting religious figures. Sharma has also apologized, as have some of the other debaters.
What was the faux pas?
Muslims have rioted all over India because Nupur Sharma said Muhammad married a child. It is a common belief that this is true. There are hadiths from Muhammad and Aisha that this is true. The hadith from Muhammad can be found at Bukhari 7.62.88 and the hadith from Aisha can be found at Bukhari 5.58.234. At the time of marriage, Aisha was six; at the time of consummation, Aisha was nine, and Muhammad was 54. (Marriages of this type were common during this period. I give a good rendition in my forthcoming book, Muslim Mechanics, now available for pre-order on Barnes and Noble.)
I suppose that if you are in an argument and you shout out something in contempt, as accurate as it may be, the epithet can be perceived as an insult just because of how it was communicated. I think that is what is happening. Muslims in India are a minority and quite often find themselves on the wrong end of the vote. What better way to get back at the government than for outside countries to take action for your causes? Several Gulf countries (Qatar, Kuwait, etc.) have called for a boycott of Indian products, some Indian workers in the Gulf countries have already been laid off, and oil purchases were on the table for a short while. However, India has settled a mega-deal with Russia to buy oil at a better price than it had previously.
As for Ms. Sharma, I suspect she will suffer a fate similar to Salman Rushdie, the author of the Satanic Verses, published in 1988. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa for Rushdie's death for blasphemy. Rushdie went into hiding and has only reemerged in the past few years. Calls for Sharma's rape and death by beheading are prevalent throughout the Muslim world. She has already gone into hiding, and it remains to be seen if this incident blows over.
Could that happen in the U.S.?
It could. Days before Tuesday's Republican primary election in Pennsylvania, senatorial candidate Dr. Oz said during an interview Saturday that a comment made by one of his primary opponents, Kathy Barnette, should disqualify her from contention. The remark concerned a tweet from 2015 when Barnette said "pedophilia" was a fundamental tenet of the Islamic religion. Dr. Oz is hoping to become the state's first Muslim senator and said the comment should be "disqualifying" as it attacks those who observe the religion.
On January 1, I posted an article titled "Why Americans Should Worry About H.R. 5665." A law like this would imperil our free speech, no matter where and how it is used. A remark like Ms. Sharma made would be considered Islamophobic. Even if the comment is accurate and made off the cusp in a heated argument, no doubt in response to a jab made by an opponent, penalties, and fines would ensue. An incident like the one caused by Ms. Sharma would be enough to push legislators to jump on the bandwagon to limit our free speech.