“No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here.” This protest anthem emanated from demonstrators gathered outside the White House, in front of the Statue of Liberty, and in airports across the United States, hours after President Donald Trump temporarily limited the entry of Muslims from seven Muslim-majority countries. His executive order — now stayed by the courts — suspended the entry of all refugees for at least 120 days and those from Syria indefinitely. It also stipulated that among refugees let into the country, Christians will be prioritised over Muslims.
US airports everywhere were rapidly jammed with protesters in solidarity with Muslim travellers — refugees, spouses, parents, students, and professionals — stuck inside. CNN reported that airport officials accommodated protesters by closing security checkpoints and diverting traffic. Demonstrators waved banners displaying slogans such as “No wall, no ban” and “You are welcome”. One even said, “We are all Muslims”. Muhamad Moustafa, a Syrian training to be a doctor was distraught when his wife was put on a plane back to Qatar, although she had lived in the US for almost a year and had a J2 visa given to the spouses of immigrants. He told CNN that he did not know what he could do to help his wife. “I was hopeless, but seeing this,” the crowds at Washington DC airport, “gives me hope”.
There was also a massive outpouring of protests against Trump’s ban by Christian and Jewish faith leaders. Stosh Cotler of the Bend the Arc Jewish Action, declared “As Jews, we know what it’s like to be scapegoated and we will not be silent now”. The Catholic Relief Services president said that “denying entry to people desperate enough to leave their homes, cross oceans in tiny boats, and abandon all their worldly possessions just to find safety will not make our nation safer. We have a moral obligation to ‘welcome the stranger’.”
Reports have also come in from mixed neighbourhoods across the US of Christian and Jewish residents reaching out to their Muslim neighbours with reassuring messages of friendship and acceptance. A retired teacher stood on a sidewalk with a welcoming message, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbour,” according to the Middle East Eye. Other slogans included: “If you build a wall, we will raise our children to tear it down”; “Love not hate makes America great”. Two women held a poster showing the star of David with a crescent inside it, and the words “never again”.
The dark foreboding that enveloped me with Donald Trump’s election lightened considerably with this luminous, spontaneous public display of solidarity and empathy with the targeted Muslims by millions of ordinary Americans. A politics of hate, however powerful, can never triumph if people defy attempts to divide them with bigotry and fear.
This led me to reflect if we in India have adequately resisted the fear and animosity that has been systematically fostered against the Indian Muslim minority in the Modi era. India is home to more Muslims than any other country in the world, except Indonesia and Pakistan. The Constitution promised that they would enjoy equal rights in every way, yet they are being pushed by triumphalist majoritarian politics into second-class citizenship. Have Indian people reached out to defend and reassure their Muslim neighbours in ways that many Americans have?
There have indeed been many moments in the past which reassured me that ordinary Indians resist the politics of hatred and division. During the gruesome and cruel Gujarat carnage of 2002, I found that at least three times as many Hindus saved lives as those who took lives. The large majority of people who fought the injustice of this hate violence — as human rights defenders, journalists, writers — are not Muslim.
Yet, in the recent years of mounting organised hate-mongering against Muslims, I worry that although the majority did not join these campaigns to scapegoat, stigmatise and target their neighbours, we also did too little to resist them. We allowed cow vigilantes — and in Haryana uniformed policepersons — to attack Muslim and Dalit people for rumours that they eat cow meat. Fifty thousand Muslims were expelled from Muzaffarnagar by hate violence, and the only opposition we hear is from Hindus protesting that their relocation has worsened crime. There are reports from many parts of the country that many Muslims were too frightened in 2016 to perform their annual ritual animal sacrifice on Bakrid for the first time in their lives. Young Muslim men continue to be detained for years on false charges of terrorism. Eight Muslim youth jailed in a high-security jail in Bhopal were killed at close-range after claims that they crafted keys from toothbrushes and a knife from a spoon. Last autumn, the country’s security forces responded to stone-throwing by protesting students in Kashmir with pellet guns that blinded and maimed hundreds of teenagers.
Through all of this, the voices of public protest across India have been far too muted and infrequent. Rarely have leaders of other faiths spoken out against the persecution of Muslim citizens. Is it that we are too frightened? Or indifferent? Or do we actually support the persecution of other Indians because of their faith?
American protesters invoke the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” To turn them away, they declare, is to lose the very soul of our great nation. In India today are we doing enough to defend the soul of our great nation?
Mander is a human rights worker and writer