The Catholic Church has an illustrious history of public service and contribution to the making of a secular Kerala. Hopefully, the current “jihad” campaign is a temporary aberration, which the clergy will step back from immediately.
An influential Catholic bishop in Kerala has triggered a controversy by alleging that a “narcotics jihad” is being waged by Islamist groups to endanger youth belonging to other religions in the state. Christian girls were falling prey to “love jihad”, he also said, an allegation the church first made some years ago, which has then been weaponised by the Sangh Parivar. Christian and Muslim groups have been organising marches in support of, and against, the bishop’s remarks while the BJP has asked for a central law to deal with “love and narcotics jihad”. The Catholic Church and the Kerala Congress (M), part of the Left government in the state, as well as the Nair Service Society, an influential community outfit, have backed the bishop whereas Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the Leader of Opposition in the Assembly and Congress MLA, V D Satheesan, and a host of civil society actors, including from the Catholic community, have criticised the Church. This face-off has the potential to unsettle communal peace in Kerala, which has an enviable history of three major religions coexisting with minimum conflict or confrontation for decades.
Government must crack down on the production and supply of narcotics. But to paint the business in religious colours, to make it a communal dog whistle, is an act of irresponsibility that must be guarded against. In the name of speaking up for the laity, the Kerala bishop and his supporters may be contributing to the promotion of Islamophobia. This has the potential to build a discourse that scapegoats the Muslim community for the gathering social and economic worries, which of course have no communal basis, confronting people across denominational divides in the state. The crisis in agriculture, and the general economic slowdown, especially after Covid, have pushed the middle and lower middle classes into a precarious situation. Public policies, such as greater weightage given to Muslims in scholarships — an outcome of the Sachar Committee recommendations — have been projected as evidence of appeasement and as a sign of the disproportionate influence of Muslims in politics. International political developments — from the attacks on Christians in Africa to Sri Lanka, to the presence of Christian converts among recruits to ISIS, and the conversion of Hagia Sophia in Turkey to a mosque — too seem to have contributed to the Catholic Church’s sense of insecurity and anxiety. That the non-Catholic churches have so far refused to back the Catholic clergy’s allegations is also revealing.
In the larger interest of Kerala, the Catholic Church needs to halt this campaign that can stoke the fault-lines between communities. Economic worries and political concerns must not become grist for the politics of religious polarisation. The Catholic Church has an illustrious history of public service and contribution to the making of a secular Kerala. Hopefully, the current “jihad” campaign is a temporary aberration, which the clergy will step back from immediately.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 14, 2021 under the title ‘Step back, please’.
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