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Modi and Trump: Understanding Their Political Targeting of Muslims



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In recent years, democratically elected leaders have increasingly targeted refugees and immigrants to mobilize voters in order to reap electoral gains. Populist governments have commonly employed mass vulnerabilities and fears of the “Other” as a mobilization tactic. Muslims, in particular, have been the subject of efforts to “other” them, especially in Western countries, including the United States, France and Italy. However, this phenomenon is by no means confined to Western societies. For example, the existence of internment (“re-education”) camps that today contain several million Uyghurs in China is one of the most egregious and large-scale examples of segregation and suspension of basic civil and human rights currently aimed at Muslims.

As the two most populous democracies, developments in the political cultures of India and the United States affect hundreds of millions of people and can signal broader political shifts. And today, the respective heads of state of those nations, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump, have each increasingly attacked Muslims in order to whip up populist fervor that they believe benefits them electorally. This article compares and contrasts how this targeting is occurring in both countries. What does this ugly trend tell us about democratic societies’ treatment of minorities more generally?

A Brief Note on Trump’s Discourse concerning, and Actions Toward, Muslims in the United States

Explicit anti-Muslim rhetoric became a strong presence in American political discourse following the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. by Al-Qaeda members. In the several years that Donald Trump has been a national political actor, he has framed a variety of minority communities, including people of color, the LGBT community and several religious groups as threats to the United States. To be clear, Trump did not initiate anti-Muslim rhetoric in American politics, but he has surely championed it and thereby provided it a sense of legitimacy it did not previously enjoy. Trump has long spoken of Muslims and Islam as “Other,” even prior to his campaign for the presidency. When asked if there was a “Muslim problem” in 2011, Trump answered “absolutely.” In the immediate years preceding his presidential candidacy, he gained publicity for vigorously advocating the “birther” conspiracy, which argued that then-President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and therefore ineligible to serve as chief executive. Together with these lies, he often asserted that Obama was secretly a Muslim: “He doesn’t have a birth certificate, or if he does, there’s something on that certificate that is very bad for him. Now, somebody told me – and I have no idea if this is bad for him or not, but perhaps it would be – that where it says ‘religion,’ it might have ‘Muslim’” (Trump 2011). In this way, Trump conflated fears of religion and race for those willing to countenance his falsehoods.

Soon after announcing his candidacy for the presidency, Trump called for widespread government surveillance of Muslim Americans, the establishment of a “registry” of such individuals and closures of mosques when officials concluded such action prudent. In December 2015, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” (Pilkington 2015). He also called for the mass expulsion of Syrian refugees in theU.S., referring to them as a potential “trojan horse” (Trump 2015). It is fair to say that a large part of Trump’s presidential candidacy was based on anti-Muslim rhetoric.

On January 27, 2017, one week after his inauguration, Trump signed Executive Order 13769, banning entry to the United States by citizens from seven Muslim-majority states, including Yemen, Syria, Iran and Iraq. After that order was met with popular and judicial resistance, a subsequent Executive Order (13780) and Presidential Proclamation (9645) added two non-Muslim states to Trump’s initial list, Venezuela and North Korea (White House 2017). During his tenure as President, Trump has continued to speak of Muslims and Islam negatively and with a broad brush. Following his announcement of a proposed Muslim travel ban, he read an excerpt from the poem, “The Snake,” comparing immigrants and refugees in general to a snake that will, in the end, betray America. Trump has also continued to use the phrase, “radical Islamic terror,” in order falsely to conflate the Islamic religion and terror organizations.

Trump’s rhetoric has clearly had an effect. Anti-Muslim and white nationalist groups have been encouraged to become more public and that fact has helped to create a more hostile environment for Muslims. Reported hate crimes against Muslims have risen sharply since 2015, as have hate crimes committed against other minorities. Anti-Muslim hate crimes rose 20% between 2015 and 2016 (FBI 2016). Last year, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported a 21% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the second quarter of 2018 compared to the first (Council 2018). Trump routinely frames Muslims as inherently alien, suspicious and even evil and therefore a direct threat to the continued existence of the United States as both a functioning society and a nation. The fact that the President has employed this rhetoric has clearly contributed to the rise of a climate of fear and hate among some population segments that has resulted in anti-Muslim hate crimes.

A Brief Note on Modi’s Discourse on and Actions Towards Muslims in India

One of the constants of PM Modi’s political life has been his framing of Indian Muslims as “not true” Indians. As Chief Minister of Gujarat State, Modi’s government was accused of complicity in mass anti-Muslim riots in 2002. Several thousand Muslims were murdered, raped and/or assaulted by Hindu gangs during those events, often with the implicit support of local authorities. The violence drove approximately 150,000 Muslim Indian citizens, including women and children, to refugee camps (Concerned Citizen Report, 2013). Summarizing academic analyses of these events, Nussbaum has argued that, "There is by now a broad consensus that the Gujarat violence was a form of ethnic cleansing, that in many ways it was premeditated, and that it was carried out with the complicity of the state government and officers of the law” (Nussbaum, 2003). The Gujarat riots constitute an indelible stain on Modi’s political leadership that followed him to the Prime Minister’s office.

The politics of Hindutva, as represented by India's current ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata, cannot be separated from the larger grassroots movement from which they stem. The BJP belongs to a family of organizations known as the Sangh Parivar (or "Sangh Family"), which collectively represents the tenets of Hindutva in its many social and institutional forms. The primary ideological organization within the Parivar is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council, supported by its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or “National Volunteers Society,” provides the organizational backbone of the movement and its members work at the grassroots. The extent of these groups’ influence in contemporary India speaks to the fact that anti-Muslim discourses have been a part of right-wing mobilization efforts for decades. Today, many Hindu nationalist organizations directly encourage attacks on Muslims as part of a concerted campaign to promote and exploit communal tensions to further the BJP's political rule. These condemnations are supported at the local level by militant groups that operate with impunity under the patronage of the state.

One important way that the current Modi government aids these hate groups is by seeking to delegitimize the long history of Muslims in India. One prominent case is the destruction of the Babri Mosque in December 1992, a part of a concerted campaign by Hindu fundamentalist groups to promote their faith’s social domination. The demolition of the mosque sparked Muslim outrage around the country, provoking several months of communal rioting in which Hindus and Muslims attacked one another, burning and looting homes, shops, places of worship and resulting in the deaths of several people. Twenty-six years later, as India marked the anniversary of this demolition in December of 2018, the BJP and its allies demanded the construction of a Hindu temple on the site, in order to mobilize right-wing Hindu groups and, in so doing, severely escalated communal tensions. 

Another interesting case of Modi’s and the BJP’s anti-Muslim actions has concerned the “holy” cow, an animal of religious importance among Hindus, but often consumed by non-Hindus, including Muslims. The struggle concerning the cow as a symbol of right-wing ideas about the nation has existed for at least a century. The views of the RSS regarding cow slaughter are rooted in the nineteenth-century Hindu reform movement’s use of cow veneration as a symbol to create a norm that would help unify that community. The number of Hindu vigilante groups across the nation dedicated to “protecting” cattle rose rapidly after the BJP and its allies came to power. As one prominent BJP leader mentioned in a much remarked speech, “the spike in cow vigilante activity was due to the failure of the states to frame laws to end illegal cow slaughter, and the violence took place when cow vigilantes sought to protect cows” ( The Indian Express, 2017). The BJP has argued its calls for the protection of cattle constitute a way of demonstrating national patriotism and religious faith. Fresh restrictions on the sale and slaughter of cows have led to vigilante killings (often, public lynchings) of more than twenty people during the last year, most of them Muslims who were accused of transporting cattle or eating beef (Sequeira 2018).

In an ongoing attempt to roil tensions among Hindus and Muslims, Modi’s government has used the issue of the Rohingya refugee crisis to call for limitations on Muslim immigrants and refugees entering the country. The Rohingya, the vast majority of whom are Muslim, live in Myanmar. They have been migrating to India and other neighboring countries in recent years to escape State persecution in their homeland, Myanmar's western Rakhine state. India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, but it nonetheless has a strong history of taking in large numbers of refugees. In recent decades the nation has provided shelter to millions of refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tibet and other neighboring countries. In stark contrast, in the case of the Rohingya, PM Narendra Modi's government has not only brushed aside India's long-established tradition of granting entry to refugees, but also flouted the administration's own professed guidelines by routinely deporting them to their country of origin. This is occurring as more than 500,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape military and civilian reprisals in Myanmar that the United Nations has described as "ethnic cleansing” (Cumming-Bryce 2017). The Indian government's decision to deport Rohingya people de facto is abetting the Myanmar government’s ongoing genocide against an entire class of people in that nation.

Under PM Modi’s tenure, the government has explicitly and implicitly framed Muslims as “not true” Indians. Beyond the specific cases discussed here, it is clear Modi and the BJP’s anti-Muslim arguments are having a large effect nationwide. According to a report on communal hate crimes, ninety percent of such offenses against Muslims reported in the country since 2009 have occurred during Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister of India (Fact Checker 2018).

Similarities and Contrasts

Broadly considered, Modi and Trump share a similar worldview regarding the extent to which Muslims should be considered full political, social and cultural actors in Indian and American society, respectively. Despite the many similarities in Modi’s and Trump’s treatment and views of Muslims, there are several significant differences between how the two leaders have treated that population. For one, while both view Muslims as essentially foreign and alien, the actual Islamic presence in both societies is of long-standing, although the size of the Muslim population in India is much larger and its influence much more obvious.

Islam arrived in India during the 7th century CE, via a series of political, economic and military conquests by Arabic and Persian empires (Sethi, 2007). For several centuries, these interventions took the form of varying degrees of direct and indirect rule by various kingdoms located in present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. This extensive history of interaction, co-existence and conflict has meant that Islamic influence suffuses Indian culture, politics and society. Indeed, Muslims today constitute roughly 14% of India’s total population, a sizable 172 million people. While Islam has been present in the United States since the early days of the colonies, it has not been until recent decades that Muslims have begun to comprise a measurable proportion of the overall population. Tweed and Diouf, respectively, have estimated that 10-20% of African slaves (between 35,000 and 70,000 individuals) brought to the colonies and the United States were Muslims (Tweed 2009, Diouf 2013). In the latter half of the 19th century and first two decades of the 20th, tens of thousands of Muslims immigrated to the United States from the Ottoman Empire. As of 2017, 3.45 million Muslims lived in the United States, a little more than one percent of the nation’s overall population. Interestingly, despite these very different histories, both Modi and Trump speak of Muslims as similarly and completely incommensurable with the supposedly “pure” Hindu or Christian societies embodied by the BJP and Republican Party respectively.

Further, both Trump and Modi have been able to gain votes in their respective countries by framing this minority group as a threat against the majority. In each nation, the leaders have exploited the fear and vulnerabilities of a share of the majority population and scapegoated the Muslim minority as responsible for those concerns. However, international concerns also play an interesting role here. Under Trump, the U.S. has strongly allied itself with one Muslim-majority country, Saudi Arabia, against another, Iran, and so the President often talks out of both sides of his mouth when talking about Islam.

In contrast, Modi’s targeting of Muslims has little to do with India’s geopolitical interests. Instead, his policies can usefully be understood as a continuation of the British imperial legacy of “divide and rule.” By targeting Muslims in India Modi has been able to mobilize the strong support of Hindu fundamentalist groups. In so doing, the prime minister has diverted these groups’ attention from economic, development and unemployment concerns by blaming Muslims for their woes. Indeed, both Trump and Modi have found it useful to “other” Muslims in order to distract domestic attention away from their governments’ actions. During Modi’s regime, the failure of government to deliver on issues of development, unemployment and the alleviation of hunger has been very well covered in the nation’s media, yet that fact has been pushed aside by many in favor of anti-Muslim sentiments. Currently, India’s GDP growth is at an all-time low. Similarly, Trump’s tenure as President has been marked by constant chaos, a skyrocketing federal deficit and growing national debt as well as revelations of improprieties and charges of law breaking. Modi and Trump’s use of anti-Muslim rhetoric has usefully diverted many voters in their nations from focusing on these issues.

Balancing majority interests and minority protection is a perennial issue for democratic societies. Today, as we see many democratic states moving toward more authoritarian politics, the question of minority rights must be at the forefront. In both India and the U.S., anti-Muslim rhetoric has been used to delegitimize members of that minority, to contend they do not belong to the nation and to sanction violence against them. The status of Muslims in these two societies under President Trump and PM Modi should serve as a warning for how minority communities can be used and abused for short-term political gain at the expense of democratic tenets of civil and human rights.


1 During the early 1900’s, hundreds of gaushalas (cow shelters) were built as part of the early Hindutva groups efforts to support Hindu nationalism. Cow protection, which was supported by Mahatma Gandhi, also had the backing of the Congress Party after Independence.


Concerned Citizens Tribunal. "Crime Against Humanity." Citizens for Justice and Peace. 2013.

Cummings-Bryce, Nick. “Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar is ‘Ethnic Cleansing,’ U.N. Rights Chief Says.” New York Times. rohingya-ethnic-cleansing.html September 11, 2017. Accessed March 7, 2019.

Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: NYU Press. 2013.

Federal Bureau of Investigations. “Hate Crimes Statistics, 2016.” 2017.

Hooper, Ibrahim. “CAIR Report: Anti-Muslim Bias Incidents, Hate Crimes Spike in Second Quarter 2018.” cond_quarter_of_2018. July 12, 2018. Accessed on March 7, 2019.

Nussbaum, Martha. “Genocide in Gujarat: the International Community Looks Away.” Dissent Magazine. Summer 2003. Accessed online March 7, 2019.

Pilkington, Ed. “Donald Trump: Ban All Muslims Entering US.” The Guardian. December 15, 2015.

PTI. “VHP wants national level law to ban cow slaughter.” The Indian Express., 2017.

Saldanna, Alison and Madhavapeddi, Karthik. “Our New Hate-Crime Database: 76% Of Victims Over 10 Years Minorities; 90% Attacks Reported Since 2014.” October 30, 2018. Accessed on March 7, 2019.

Sethi, Atul. “ Trade not invasion brought Islam to India.” The Times of India. . June 24, 2007.

Sequeria, Devika. “How Selective ‘Activism’ Brought Goa’s Beef Traders to Their Knees.” The Wire. knees. January 16, 2018.

Tweed, Thomas. “Islam in America: From African Slaves to Malcolm X.” National Humanities Center: UNC-Chapel Hill. TeacherServe Essay. 2013.

White House. “Executive Order Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States.” protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states-2/ March 6, 2019. Accessed on March 7, 2019.

White House. “Presidential Proclamation Enhancing Vetting Capabilities and Processes for Detecting Attempted Entry Into the United States by Terrorists or Other Public-Safety Threats.” enhancing-vetting-capabilities-processes-detecting-attempted-entry-united-states- terrorists-public-safety-threats/ September 24, 2017. Accessed on March 7, 2019.

Pallavi Raonka

Pallavi Raonka is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech.  Her research interests include resource extraction, land-grabbing, indigenous communities, peasant livelihoods, development and social movements in India.  Her dissertation analyzes the forms of resistance Adivasis have employed in response to corporate land grabs.  Before joining Virginia Tech, she earned her master’s degree in rural development at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India and her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara, India. She has also previously been engaged in advocacy work on issues related to food security with several subaltern grassroots groups in India.

Anthony Szczurek

Anthony Szczurek completed his Ph.D. in the Virginia Tech Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) program in early 2019.  His research interests include India's growing global influence and international climate politics.  Dr. Szczurek’s dissertation examined the evolution of the Indian state's political imaginary of climate change.  He previously received his master’s degree in international affairs and bachelor’s degree in psychology from the New School.

Publication Date

March 11, 2019