2021-05-27 00:25:37 The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict Kicked Up Anti-Muslim Bias In India

The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict Kicked Up Anti-Muslim Bias In India

Marwa Fatafta’s Twitter feed was inundated with mentions.

As the violence in Israel–Palestine escalated earlier this month, Fatafta, who is Palestinian and works as a policy analyst for a Berlin-based online think tank focusing on Palestinian human rights, had been posting pictures and stories to her 14,000 followers about families killed in the Gaza Strip. She was being trolled in response. Some of the hate speech, in which Palestinians like her were referred to as “terrorists,” came from far-right Israeli accounts. Many, however, appeared to be from India, according to Fatafta, as they had Indian names and the Indian flag in their usernames.

“It appeared to me that all these ethno-nationalists from India and Israel were coming together,” Fatafta told BuzzFeed News. “It was an enthralling phenomenon. I’ve never been trolled by Indians before.”

As the ceasefire ended the deadly violence in which the Israeli military killed 248 Palestinians and Hamas killed 13 Israelis, hate speech against Jews on the internet has increased, as has antisemitic violence.

However, the conflict has also fueled a global wave of hate speech and misinformation directed at Muslims. In a full-page ad in the New York Times, pop star Dua Lipa and models Gigi and Bella Hadid were accused of antisemitism. Last week, the pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee ran Facebook ads that superimposed Rep. Ilhan Omar’s face onto Hamas rockets, with the factually incorrect caption: “When Israel targets Hamas, Rep. Omar calls it terrorism.” Israel’s official Arabic-language Twitter account enraged Muslims by tweeting Qur’anic verses alongside a photo of an Israeli airstrike on Gaza (that tweet has since been deleted).

It is not new that the Middle East conflict could spark waves of hatred and lies directed at Muslims. The source, however, is novel: India. Anti-Muslim hatred has steadily become mainstream in the world’s largest democracy, both online and offline. A year ago, politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party and dozens of news outlets accused a gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat, an international Islamic missionary group, of deliberately spreading the coronavirus in India after more than 4,000 cases were linked to it. At the time, #CoronaJihad was one of the region’s top trending topics on Twitter.

First Draft News, a UK-based nonprofit that investigates misinformation, published an analysis of more than 300,000 tweets about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict on Saturday. They discovered a campaign with thousands of tweets and hashtags that appeared to have been created in India, one of Twitter’s most important markets.

“We noticed that the top hashtags always had some Indian references while analyzing the tweets,” Carlotta Dotto, senior data journalist at First Draft, told BuzzFeed News. “It was eye-catching.”

Dotto focused on the hashtag #UnitedAgainstJehad, which was intentionally misspelled and was mentioned over 40,000 times by nearly 6,000 accounts between May 12 and May 17. The analysis revealed that the hashtag was at the heart of a coordinated campaign to make it trend, accompanied by tropes about Muslims that Indian Hindu nationalists have spouted for years, such as love jihad, a bogus conspiracy theory accusing Muslim men of converting Hindu women to Islam through marriage. In May, 10% of the accounts that used the hashtag were created.

“Given the amount of attention that it was receiving online, it was clear that they were using the Israel–Palestine conflict to promote their own narratives on Twitter in India and around the world,” Dotto said.

Although India had previously avoided becoming involved in the region, relations between India and Israel improved dramatically under Modi, who became the country’s first Indian prime minister to visit in 2017. This is due, in part, to the fact that the leaders of both countries are conservative nationalists. Furthermore, right-wingers in India capitalize on their country’s long-standing rivalry with neighboring Pakistan.

“Israel fascinates India’s right wing for a variety of reasons,” Jency Jacob, managing editor at Boom, a leading Indian fact-checking organization, told BuzzFeed News. “It is a small country surrounded by Muslim neighbors that is fighting for its survival; it has a strong leader who is focused on protecting its borders.”

“Whenever there is conflict between an Islamic country and another country, the far-right ecosystem gravitates toward whoever is on the non-Muslim side,” Jacob added. “It’s a natural aggression for them, and it brings out all of their prejudices about Muslims in general.”

Members and supporters of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have seized on the conflict. Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a BJP spokesperson, referred to Islam as a “Virus” that was “generating Terrorism in the world,” adding, “Israel is the Vaccine of this Virus, please support Israel.” He also claimed that Muslims believe that “religion is greater than nation.” Bagga’s tweets received thousands of retweets and likes. Hundreds of anti-Muslim messages were also forwarded via WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned instant messaging app used by hundreds of millions of Indians.

“Checked most of the #IndiaStandWithIsrael tweet handles,” Rana Ayyub, a well-known Indian journalist who is frequently targeted by far-right Modi supporters, tweeted. “A common thread that runs through is a visceral hatred for Muslims and a bloodlust to see Muslims massacred and humiliated.”

While Israeli watchdogs struggled to keep up with the flood of hate and lies, their counterparts outside the country were also struggling. Boom, for example, has fact-checked nearly two dozen stories, some of which depicted Palestinians as exaggerating their suffering.

“It’s turned into one of our major topics,” Jacob told BuzzFeed News.

One piece of misinformation falsely depicted a 2020 mock funeral organized by young Jordanians to avoid the coronavirus lockdown as Palestinians faking a funeral for “international sympathy.” Another viral video attempted to pass off a 2017 news report about Palestinian makeup artists as Palestinian residents pretending to be injured during the current conflict.

“Repression is global,” Fatafta asserted. “The common denominator here is Islamophobia.”

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The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict Kicked Up Anti-Muslim Bias In India