The curious Islamophobic politics of 2020 presidential candidate contender congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard
“Meet the Democrat Who’s Not Afraid to Criticize President Obama on ISIS,” intones a recent ABC News headline. The story describes remarks by Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D), who has for the past month been all over the media slamming Obama's refusal to directly associate ISIS and other terrorists with the Islamic faith.
She's particularly a favorite of right-wing media. Appearing with Fox's Neil Cavuto last week, she lashed out at the White House for holding an extremism summit with Muslim Americans, saying it's a “diversion from what our real focus needs to be. And that focus is on that Islamic extremist threat.” She criticized Obama for saying that “poverty, lack of access to jobs, lack of access to education” is contributing to radicalization. “They are not fueled by materialistic motivation, it's actually a theological, this radical Islamic ideology,” she said, throwing red meat to Fox viewers.
To the media, Gabbard is a curious spectacle. She's a Hawaii Democrat, coming from one of the nation's most progressive and dovish chapters of the Democratic Party, but she's also an Iraq war veteran, and she's consistently tried to outflank President Obama and the rest of her party to the right on foreign affairs. Last month she openly mocked Secretary of State John Kerry during an appearance on CNN, saying that he thinks, "if we give them [Islamic extremists] $10,000 and give them a nice place to live that somehow they're not going to be engaged in this fighting."
To Gabbard, the fact that Syria and Iraq have been through years of brutal civil war, wrecked economies and massive displacement is irrelevant; the only reason they have an extremism problem is because of Islamic theology.
But the case of Tulsi Gabbard becomes less curious and more expected once you look at her links to a different set of ethnic and religious hardliners: the Hindu nationalist Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since her election to Congress, Gabbard has tied herself closely to this party, which has a history of condoning hatred and violence against India's Muslim minority. Many of her stateside donors and supporters are also big supporters of this movement, which disdains secularism and promotes religious sectarianism.
Meet the Islamophobic BJP
In May 2014, the BJP swept the Indian election, and the man it made prime minister was then-governor of the state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. To say Modi is a controversial figure would be a considerable understatement. In 2002, huge riots broke out in his state, with primarily Hindu mobs attacking Muslim residents. Over 2,000 men, women, and children were killed, with many more injured; mass rape was also documented. Almost all of the victims were Muslim.
Investigations raised a single prominent question: why didn't Gujarat police intervene sooner to prevent the rapes and killings? Although Modi was never indicted, many including a senior police officer who testified before India's Supreme Court said Modi believed his region's Hindus should be allowed to “vent their anger,” and deliberately allowed the rioting to happen for some time before intervening.
Indeed, Modi's original response was unapologetic. “We have 18,600 villages," he told the New York Times. "Ninety-eight percent of Gujarat was peaceful. Is it not a credit for the administration, the government?" India's National Human Rights Commission listed several BJP figures who were accused of spurring on the violence, and noted they had yet to be arrested.
While he escaped repercussions at home, Modi faced them abroad. In 2005, the Bush administration issued a decision to deny Modi a visa to travel to Madison Square Garden to address a rally of supporters, citing a 1998 law that bars foreign officials guilty of “severe violations of religious freedom” from possessing visas. Modi was the first and only person ever denied a visa under this law.
Yet with all of this in the background, Modi was able to rally enough voters to sweep India's national elections. During his electoral campaign, he played down the events in Gujarat and embarked on outreach to the country's Muslim minority. Yet he failed to distance himself from his party's roots in Hindu nationalism and its opposition to measures such as quotas that are designed to combat India's rampant discrimination against Muslims. A recent New York Times article looks at how the party's ideological wing, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has made conversions of Indian Muslims and others to Hinduism a top priority. “We will bring back those who have lost their way,” said Mohan Bhagway, its leader. “They did not go on their own.” Many who have been part of these mass conversion ceremonies have reported being tricked by BJP offers of economic benefits.
Human rights advocates, including some in the United States, remain concerned about the BJP's governing role in India. Many believe the BJP will discontinue what few programs India has to protect its religious minorities while undermining its secular laws to promote Hindu nationalism. Yet at the same time, there has been a vigorous push-back from BJP allies in the U.S. who want to see such oversight gutted.
The Gabbard-BJP Connection
Laments about Congress' polarization are common, and it's rare that large numbers of Republicans and Democrats can agree, especially on progressive legislation. But in November 2013, a group of 26 House Democrats and 25 House Republicans introduced HR 417, which called on India to improve the human rights situation of its religious minorities, especially citing the case of Gujarat.
The text of the bill is fairly unoffensive; it does not single out Hindus as perpetrators of religious violence, but rather calls for all groups in India to be treated fairly and given full human rights. However, Gabbard made it her personal mission to crusade against the bill.
The following December, Congressmember Tom Lantos' Human Rights Commission held a hearing on religious freedom in India. Rather than review the litany of abuses that have occurred in the country, Gabbard mused she did “not believe that the timing of this hearing is a coincidence....I am concerned that the goal of this hearing is to influence the outcome of India's national elections.” She went on to state that even holding a hearing on the issue was “an attempt to foment fear and loathing purely for political purposes.”
In other words, her concern was that Modi's electoral chances would be hurt by an honest look at religious persecution in India.
HR 417 was never voted on, and Modi won his election.
Why did Gabbard work so hard to shield BJP abuses from congressional review? The answer lies in her base of supporters. The BJP draws on support from the large Indian expatriate community through an organization called the Overseas Friends of BJP. In August of last year, the group convened a large number of Indian American BJP supporters in Atlanta as part of an eight-city tour designed to prepare for Modi's first visit to the United States the following month.
Gabbard attended the meeting, posing with a sash adorned with the BJP's party logo. Here she is with BJP activist Vijay Jolly:
Ironically, she spent much of her Atlanta speech condemning religious persecution—of Hindus and Iraqi Christians, not Muslims in India.
“There was a resolution supported by a few congressmen, it was basically anti-Modi, as well as anti-India resolution. And at that time, the congresswoman got up and said, 'That, no this is wrong. We are interfering in the internal affairs of India. And that's why this resolution should not be passed.' So you can see that's what she's been doing for us,” said one BJP speaker introducing Gabbard at the event. “It is necessary that we support [a] person like Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. Whatever the donations you make, it is not enough, because she needs to win this 2014 election, that's important for us.”
Federal election commission documents show Gabbard received over $6,000 from BJP supporters in the Atlanta area that day alone. In addition to events such as these, she had the formal organizational backing of the U.S. India Political Action Committee (USINPAC); its chairman Sanjay Puri is one of Gabbard's $2,600 donors (the maximum legal limit for one donation). Dayal Meshri, another USINPAC official and chemical firm CEO, also gave her a similar sized donation; the PAC also gave her $5,000 in her initial 2012 run. Elections data show that BJP backers, many of them affiliated with USINPAC, were donors to her campaign in virtually every part of the country.
This isn't simply a case of Indian Americans backing a Hindu congresswoman in order to bolster the representation of their community; after all, Gabbard was the first Hindu elected to Congress, an important civil rights milestone. (Gabbard, who is American Samoan, converted to Hinduism as a teenager.)
The more important point is that her backers are all ideological backers of the BJP, which represents the right-wing, Hindu nationalist wing of Indian politics. Most Indian Americans actually support more progressive politicians; 81 percent of Indian Americans approved of Obama's job approval in 2012, and polling before the presidential election that year found only 5 percent of Indian Americans pledged to back GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
One example of exactly how ideological some of the BJP hardliners Gabbard has allied herself with is the case of Vijay Jolly, a BJP official who was pictured with her at the Atlanta meeting. While Indian progressives are working to advance Hindu-Muslim relations, Jolly is far less committed to the goal of avoiding sectarian tensions. For example, he tweeted that all “Indian Muslims basically have a hindu DNA”:
And here's a Facebook status in which he says the “people” of a prominent imam are disloyal to India:
Gabbard has one other curious alliance. Under Prime Minister Modi, India has sought increasingly close relations to Israel, shifting the country's historical support for the Palestinian cause. Perhaps Gabbard is a sort of consigliere for this alliance of Hindu nationalists and right-wing Zionists, as she is the only House Democrat backing a bill basically designed to benefit one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's closest political allies, Sheldon Adelson. The bill is part of a crackdown on online gambling that Adelson is promoting in order to destroy competition to his casino chain.
Has the BJP Bubble Popped?
Gabbard has inculcated this base of hardline BJP supporters, which has propelled her into Congress with thousands of its dollars. She thanks them by echoing much of their rhetoric against Muslims in India on the airwaves here in the U.S. on networks like Fox News. But what she may be forgetting is that she represents a progressive Democratic constituency that isn't interested in sectarian conflict with Muslims.
The Honolulu Civil Beat, a hometown publication, slammed Gabbard for her crusade against Obama's Islam terminology:
"The unseemly and very public semantics battle that U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been waging this year against President Barack Obama had largely been one-sided. […] Gabbard’s argument largely boils down to a few dubious ideas. First, unless the president, in his public characterizations, refers to agents of ISIS and related organizations as 'Islamic terrorists,' he is unable to mount an effective military and foreign policy effort to defeat them. Second, only in specifically, publicly tying terrorists to their religious ideology can the White House truly understand where the terrorist organizations recruit, how they think, etc. Lastly, his failure to use Gabbard’s preferred phrasing means he doesn’t 'get' any of this in the first place."
In India, the BJP is facing formidable electoral challenges from the left. The Aam Admi Party, a new political party of the secular left, recently took control of the capital city, putting together a coalition of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who rejected sectarian politics. Although this puts them a long way from dislodging Modi and the wider BJP, it does show that his electoral prospects may have peaked as Indian voters look elsewhere for leadership.
Gabbard should take note of these trends and realize that while Muslim-bashing may be in vogue at the time, it may just be the political equivalent of an economic bubble—and when it pops her own political career may go with it.