Jews and Muslims in South Asia

Reflections on Difference, Religion, and Race

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Yulia Egorova
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780199859979.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

There is much scholarship available on Jewish-Muslim relations, most of which is focused on the Middle East. Lately, there have been studies on the resistance to Muslims in Europe, with the rise of their population there, and the simultaneous resurgence of antisemitism, as well as the links between the two. Until now there has not been a scholarly study, in the form of a monograph, on both Jewish-Muslim relations in South Asia, and a comparison of their status in that part of the world—home to almost one-third of the global Muslim population—with relations there between Jews and Muslims as old as Islam itself. It is in this respect that Yulia Egorova’s Jews and Muslims in South Asia: Reflections on Difference, Religion, and Race breaks new ground as well as filling that lacuna. The text is insightful with the in-depth analysis and impressive in the range of issues it covers. The book provides an understanding of not only the attitudes of South Asian Jews and Muslims towards each other, but also how others perceive them as both have been shaped by colonial constructs of racial and religious difference. It not only sheds light on their everyday interactions and encounters, but also draws attention to the “nodal points where wider global discourses” about them “intersect, co-constitute, and co-produce each other in South Asia” (3). 

Egorova enables us to understand how the Jewish experience in India has transformed into a tool for rhetoric aimed at negating the discrimination against religious minorities, while at the same time, the rhetoric of the Hindu right betrays its European antisemitic roots. On the broad theoretical plane, she finds that the celebration of Jewishness in the discourse of the Hindu right is a cover-up—not just for anti-Muslim, but also for anti-Jewish prejudice—implying that the acceptance of the Jewish minority is subject to their behaving and representing themselves in a manner that collapses their distinguishing features into the mainstream Hindu self, and dependent on the continuity of their numerical insignificance. Here, Egorova draws an analogy with the European right, by pointing out that the Hindu right shares its anti-Muslim rhetoric with European right-wing commentators, who project Jews and Muslims as polar opposites, with the former portrayed as a model minority in sharp contrast to the latter, represented as “inassimilable others” (16). Egorova cautions us against the delusion that Jews are safe in India, for the fact is, they share a number of religious practices and doctrines with Muslims, which has made them vulnerable to anti-Muslim aggression.  

Egorova competently highlights how the Hindu nationalist support for Nazi ideology, including its antisemitism, was mediated by their attitudes toward the non-Hindu minorities of India—even if the right did not wish to target the Jews in their midst but wanted to subject only the Muslims to Nazi antisemitic policies. Interestingly, in the imaginations of the Hindu right, Israelis “thematized as Jews, are seen as the enemy of Palestinians, thematized as Muslims, and therefore as the friends of the Indian state, construed as the state of the Hindus” (15).  However, at the same time, Egorova points out that some of the Hindu nationalists “borrowed directly from the most extreme sources” (158) of anti-Semitic propaganda in Europe, and did so in a manner that completely approved of discrimination, not only against Muslims, but also against Jews. Yet she quickly points out, lest she comes across as an alarmist, that “the multifaceted incarnations of anti-Semitic discourses in India” (158) are confined to specific contexts, restricted to “the political corner of the Hindu right” (158).

Egorova also discusses the abuse of Holocaust memory by the Hindu right. For the advancement of their communalist agenda, the Hindu nationalists utilize the Holocaust as a trope in their anti-Muslim critique. This inference is well illustrated by François Gautier’s use of Holocaust imagery to depict the Indic religious communities as “not only as the victims of Muslims but also as the ultimate victims in human history whose suffering was just as superior to that of the Jewish people as it was overlooked” (60), with such references resulting in the trivialization of the Holocaust. 

Egorova observes that it would not be surprising if, due to the political domination of the Hindu right, the Jews in India find themselves under pressure to bridge the difference between their tradition and Hinduism through rhetoric, while also distancing themselves from Muslims who have lately come to be seen as the most threatening other—even denouncing them. She points out that this is a phenomenon not unknown in the rest of the world. 

Additionally, Egorova also takes note of how the November 2008 attack on the Chabad Centre in Mumbai has adversely affected the attitudes of some Jewish congregations there towards “local Muslims and Muslims in general” (130), despite the fact that no involvement by local Muslims was ever established. Since the attack, security of the synagogues in Mumbai has been tightened which has, in turn, made the boundaries between Jews of European and Indian descent even more prominent. Some sections of Indian Jewry are keen to dissociate themselves from “white,” Western Jews—and their security concerns—which, according to these Indian Jews are intimidating to their Muslim neighbors, and make their perceived connection with the State of Israel even more visible. It may not, however, be prudent to think of any perceived threat from local Muslims as baseless, for a plot by alleged agents of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba to attack Americans in Hyderabad, and the Jewish families in Guntur, was uncovered in 2004, four years prior to the attack on the Chabad Lubawich Centre. 

Jews and Muslims in South Asia is a welcome addition to the corpus of literature on Jewish-Muslim relations, the attitudes towards these two communities in the contemporary world, and their intertwining. It is also the first to focus on South Asia with this as its subject. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Navras Jaat Aafreedi is Assistant Professor of History at Presidency University in Kolkata, India.

Date of Review: 
April 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yulia Egorova is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Durham University.

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