Suraj Rajan K
I came across the Facebook page “Kerala Nasrani” (meaning Saint Thomas Christians from Kerala) during the COVID-19 lockdown. The page was primarily involved in sharing videos and information regarding the activities of the Catholic Church in Kerala. To my surprise, the feeds were strange, and the posts felt like it was drafted with the aim of targeting Muslims by spreading Islamophobic messages and selling the ‘Jihadi’ narrative.
What garnered my attention was why a Facebook page, marked as a religious organisation is spreading hatred and misinformation regarding a particular community?
On exploring the page explicitly states: “The aim of this Facebook page is to fight against all those entities like racial groups, atheist groups, Satan worship groups and Anti-social groups who are against the existence of Christian groups in Kerala”.
This was shocking as never before I have heard nor seen the Catholic Church or its subsidiaries using social media platforms and closed groups to spread its propaganda targeting a particular community. On scrolling through their older posts from April and May, a pattern could be identified. The main topics of conversation included Love Jihad, EWS reservation for Christians, glorification of President Trump, and lately about the upcoming Kerala local elections, etc. Almost 90% of the posts were written in Malayalam, showing who their target audience really was.
The curiosity leads me to do further scouting and to my astonishment I found at least 15 more Facebook pages and associated private groups, writing about similar topics with more zeal and thus spreading even more false news and reaching more and more people. Groups like “Knight Templar India”, “The Soldiers of Cross”, “Truth Fighters”, “Christian League”, “Christian Brotherhood” are some of the many and I could with at most surety say that there are even more groups active and is indulging in this act of spreading hate, not just using Facebook, but through other social media platforms including Telegram and WhatsApp.
The commonality that I observed in many of these pages is regarding the frequent use of the term ‘Jihadi’ to address people from the Muslim community or any matters related to Islam. Though there is no universally accepted definition for ‘Jihad’ a commonly accepted one is put forth by Cambridge which says that “Jihadism (a.k.a. Jihadi movement, and its variants) is a 21st-century neologism found in Western languages to describe Islamist movements perceived as military movements “rooted in political Islam” and “existentially threatening” to the West”. The lack of clarity in understanding what “Jihad” stands for and how “political Islam” is different from the mainstream religion is not reflected in the contents of these pages. One such post on the Kerala Nasrani page says: “If you wish to live as a proud Christian in Kerala, you should resist the Jihadis who are trying to make Kerala Islamic; your resistance would be the biggest benefit for your upcoming generation”.
The loose and carefree use of such a politically sensitive term to address Muslim groups which consists of political parties and NGO’s is a dangerous act, as it would lead to the formation of biased opinions and spread of misinformation with an ulterior motive of societal division.
Another prominent topic of discussion in these groups is regarding “Love Jihad”. Though the government and police authorities are still unable to find solid proof corroborating organised conversion for marriages, the admins of these pages take complete liberty in declaring that an incident where a Christian girl out of her choice decides to marry a Muslim man is an act of Love Jihad. Along with this, they also give a constant warning and predatory messages to the followers and one such message reads: “The awareness and protests about love Jihad should reach girls between the age of 14 and 24 years old, and it’s also unfortunate to see the overconfidence that my daughter or sister won’t fall into the trap of love Jihad”.
From being vocal in criticising and branding the Tanishq advertisement as an example of Love Jihad through their platform, they often share newspaper cuttings and talks by prominent priests and leaders, endlessly ranting about this phenomenon. The admins of these groups believe that it is their moral responsibility to educate the followers regarding these matters. But in truth, this so-called ‘education’ is Islamophobic as well as misogynist. These acts could be viewed as ‘so-called’ protective rantings or moral policing of ‘concerned Christians’ who still believe and treat women as weak, easy to be manipulated, and a group that still requires ‘men’ to save them from the threats, thus using the teachings of Manusmriti rather than the Holy Bible. Many reports from across the world have repeatedly exposed claims of “love Jihad” as at best-fevered fantasies and at worst, deliberate election-time inventions.
Though the Jihadi and Love Jihad narratives were cultural, at a political level the recently announced EWS reservation for forward communities which encompasses the Catholic community was controversial and these pages, which work similarly to the IT cell of political parties, were spreading misinformation against political parties and religious organisations. They were bashing political parties belonging to the left and centre but were indeed happy with the stand of the political right. These social media groups were indeed successful in creating a conversation and keeping the EWS reservation as a bargaining and polarising tool. This would be smartly used till the 2021 Kerala elections by these Christian IT wing groups.
Not just on matters affecting Christians in Kerala, these groups are very much vocal about international happenings also. The notorious comparison of Turkey floods 2020 as the wrath of God and as an act of punishment for Hagia Sophia, show how they misinterpret the holy text to satisfy their fundamentalist ideas. The recent victory of Joe Biden and his VP Kamala Harris was also met with aversion. A message posted on Nov 7, 2020, on the page of Kerala Nasrani says: “Joe Biden has become the president of USA, understand that the end is near. Embrace yourself to face the sufferings written. Pray for the life of Biden, if something terrible happens to him, the ‘Jihadi lady’ would say that Kashmir is part of Pakistan and rule the world. Islamic terrorism will grow, and all the sins will be glorified. Let us embrace for the suffering”.
Days before the US elections, these social media platforms without any sense of shame was used for garnering the votes of the Kerala Christian diaspora in the USA in favour of President Trump. A very famous charismatic priest from Kerala using an official catholic church TV platform urged people to vote for Trump. In his address, he said: “Trump’s victory is important to save the world from darkness, and adds that if a mistake is made, there would be no point in repenting”.
This would be the first time ever in the history of Kerala Catholic Church that public media was used to direct its believers to vote for someone which the institution favoured for political or any other reasons. This act raises an important question as to whether the church institution would do the same in the upcoming Kerala election of 2021. Only time could reveal these answers.
It is difficult to confirm whether institutionally the Catholic Church is using social media pages and groups to spread hate and misinformation. Though many of the pages which I mentioned at the beginning of this article have only 15k-20k followers, if given time and a lack of intervention, they would attract people in large numbers and would even corrupt the mind of young ones by injecting biased views and thus making them cyber warriors for their political causes.
The dangerous spread of hate through these platforms is in effect against the Christian values of truth, peaceful coexistence, etc which cannot be justified in any possible way. In a country where faith is politically motivated, other religions might be involved in similar activities, but it is no excuse for the Christian community to do the same where social media platforms should be used to spread Islamophobia, fake news, etc. Though I am an ardent supporter of free speech, this spread of misinformation must be curtailed and severe action should be taken against the propagators who use them to achieve their political goals.
Suraj Rajan K is a research fellow at the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University