The external-affairs minister Sushma Swaraj recently received lavish praise for a speech she delivered at a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Council of Foreign Ministers on 1 March—a meeting of 57 nations with large Muslim populations—in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Offering India’s support to a concerted effort to tackle terrorism, Swaraj emphasised that such a fight should not be seen as a “confrontation against any religion.” It was clear from her speech that “any religion” stood for Islam, evident from her quotes from the Quran. She made a profound observation: “Just as Islam literally means peace, none of the 99 names of Allah means violence.” Citing a Quranic verse that states there should be “no compulsion in religion,” Swaraj said that every religion stands for “peace, compassion and brotherhood.”
Swaraj quoted Guru Nanak, the Rig Veda and Swami Vivekananda in the same breath, citing quotes that support harmony and diversity. Swaraj’s finely crafted speech identified the philosophical impulses of peace in the Quran. She articulated the Quranic conception that “nations and tribes” were created so that they “may know one another, not … despise one another.” She could not have employed a sharper philosophical scythe to cut through the mumbo-jumbo often employed by Islamic extremists and militants, and expose their ideological vacuity.
But the extremists’ shallow ideologies can also be alluring for the simplistic worldview they espouse—likely the reason that Swaraj proposed ideological measures to counter these. The measures included spreading the true meaning and mission of all religions; promoting respect for and between faiths; countering the language of hate with the “message of harmony”; advocating for moderation over extremism, and pluralism over exclusion; and inspiring youth to the path of service, than of destruction.
The praise that Swaraj received was well deserved. Her speech struck a fine balance between emphasising the need to combat terrorism and clarifying that such a fight must not target a single community. But in doing so, Swaraj unwittingly highlighted a second ideological chasm—the one between what she proposed and what the luminaries of her party and its ideological parent think of Islam and its followers. Countless times now, leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have publicly espoused views that are in direct opposition to Swaraj’s suggestions.
On 13 August 2014, for instance, the BJP’s Adityanath, who is now Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, participated in a fiery debate on secularism, in the Lok Sabha. “The issue for the discussion should be who is communal,” he said. “Communal is the one who says my God, my Prophet is the most superior. Only those who believe in him have the right to live.”