Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu in the US Congress, on Modi, Hinduism, and linking Islam to terror

Washington has no shortage of politicians struggling to be seen as a maverick. But Tulsi Gabbard isn’t one of them.

As one of the first two female combat veterans elected to US Congress and also its first Hindu and first American Samoan representative, she wears the label quite easily. And this week, the 34-year-old congresswoman from Hawaii reminded everyone of it, as she broke ranks with the Democratic party establishment and relinquished her post as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee on Feb. 29 to endorse Bernie Sanders for president. (Her role with the DNC, the party’s governing body, would have required to stay neutral in the election.)

Described last October by the Washington Post as “the Democrat that Republicans love and the DNC can’t control,” Gabbard offered a sample of her independent streak a year ago, when she spoke out of sync with her fellow Democrats and criticized US president Barack Obama’s handling of Islamic extremism—specifically over his unwillingness to brand ISIL an “Islamic” group. “[Obama] is completely missing the point of this radical Islamic ideology that’s fueling these people,” Gabbard told Fox News last February.

Her viewpoint on this subject is all the more notable given her military experience in the Middle East, where she served in a field medical unit in Iraq and was a trainer for the Kuwait National Guard.

But it also aligns nicely with the stance toward Islam held by India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu nationalist leader, Narendra Modi, with whom Gabbard shares a great rapport.

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Gabbard was among the few to criticize the US government’s decision to deny a visa to Modi before he was prime minister, in the wake of accusations that his government in the state of Gujarat did not do enough to save Muslims during the horrific communal violence carried out there in 2002. The Gujarat riots claimed more than 1,000 people, including close to 800 Muslims. Gabbard had called the no-visa decision a “great blunder.”

And in November 2013, five months before Modi would win election as prime minister, Gabbard opposed a House resolution that called for “religious freedom and related human rights to be included in the United States-India Strategic Dialogue and for such issues to be raised directly with federal and state Indian government officials,” saying it would weaken the friendship between India and US.

Critiques of her stance, like this one published on the American social-justice site Alternet.org, accused her of putting politics before policy:

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.

Speaking at a fundraising event for the BJP in August 2014, where she articulated the plight of Hindus around the world who have suffered persecution, Gabbard said that Modi’s election victory was only possible because “people stood up, one by one by one by one, and said we will demand that this change occurs.”

In September 2014, the new Indian prime minister made it a point to meet Gabbard following his historic post-election speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden. And the congresswoman gave Modi a gift—a copy of the Bhagwad Gita that she swore by when elected to office—and assured him of her support for a Modi pet project of declaring an International Yoga day.

“We had a wide-ranging discussion on several issues our countries have in common, including how America and India can work together to help combat the global threat posed by Islamic extremism,” Gabbard said after the meeting.

For all that and more, Gabbard was treated as royalty on her visit to India last year. As she hobnobbed with the Indian prime minister and foreign minister among others, The Telegraph, a Kolkata-based newspaper, called her “the Sangh’s mascot” in the US. The Sangh, a moniker for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is a right-wing hindutva organisation and the ideological guardian of the BJP party that rules India now.

With Modi set to stay in power until 2019, and Sanders doing better than expected in the Democratic primaries (or at least was up until March 1, when Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton handily won key states like Texas and Virginia in the “Super Tuesday” state contests), it can’t hurt the BJP and India to have a friend like Gabbard in the US.

On March 2, Gabbard answered questions from Quartz via email about her support of Modi, her approach to Hinduism, and the connection she draws between Islam and terrorism. The transcript below has been condensed and lightly edited:

Quartz: Could you tell us about your reasons for supporting the BJP and Narendra Modi, and why you referred to him being denied a visa as a “great blunder”?

Tulsi Gabbard: There are many different areas and sectors where the United States and India’s growing friendship can cover mutually beneficial ground such as defense, renewable energy, bilateral trade, and global environmental concerns such as climate change. Modi impressed me as a person who cares deeply about these issues and as a leader whose example and dedication to the people he serves should be an inspiration to elected officials everywhere.

It is very important that the US and India have a strong relationship of mutual respect. The denial of a visa to prime minister Modi could have undermined that relationship had he used it as an excuse to reject having a strong bilateral relationships with America. This would have been bad for both of our countries. For many reasons—not the least of which is the war against terrorists—the relationship between India and America is very important.

QZ: You took on the US president for his reluctance to name ISIS as an Islamic extremist group. Do you still stand by this criticism?

TG: In order to defeat the terrorists who have declared war on the United States and the rest of the world, we need to understand their ideology. In other words, the war can’t be won just militarily. We must defeat them in the ideological war, not just on the battlefield. In order to defeat their ideology, we need to recognize what their ideology is.

The ideology of these terrorists is “Islamism.” It is a radical political ideology of violent jihad aimed at bringing about an establishment of a totalitarian society governed by a particular interpretation of Islam as state law. Referring to terrorists as “Islamist extremists” is simply an accurate way to identify ISIS and other Islamist extremist organizations whose ideology is rooted in one form of Islamism or another.

The majority of Muslims are practicing the spiritual path of Islam within their own lives in a pluralistic, peaceful way. So by calling organizations like ISIS Islamic or Islamist extremists [emphasis hers], we are making a distinction between the vast majority of Muslims who are not extremists and a handful of those who are.

QZ: How much of that sentiment is influenced by your experience serving in the military in the Middle East, versus your interest in Hindu/Muslim conflicts in India?

TG: My experience serving in the Middle East has shaped many of my views. This has nothing to do with any “Hindus/Muslim” conflict in India or anywhere else. It comes from the understanding that in order to defeat the terrorists who have declared war on the United States and the rest of the world, we need to understand their ideology.

My two deployments in the Middle East reinforced the fundamental military wisdom that you can’t defeat an enemy if you don’t understand him. We cannot win this war if we do not understand our enemy’s goals, [or the] ideology that inspires them and fuels their recruitment propaganda. And the first step to understanding an enemy is correctly identifying him in a way that makes clear his ideology.

QZ: You referred to the suffering of Hindu minorities across the world, in a speech you gave during a fundraiser attended by some of the top leaders of the BJP. Do you think that in India there exists a similar situation?

TG: Throughout the world, Hindus are victims of discrimination. Recently, a Hindu priest in Bangladesh was brutally hacked to death by ISIS terrorists and two others were injured trying to help him. Unfortunately, even in the United States, as well as different pockets of India, such discrimination exists.

While there is no doubt there is some discrimination directed toward different “religious minorities” in India, throughout India you will find Muslims, Christians, and people of all kinds of religions free to practice their faith. However, you will not find this degree of tolerance or openness in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or other Muslim countries. In fact, if you are not a member of the government-approved religion in those countries, it is government policy that you will be punished and discriminated against. To my knowledge, this does not exist in India. However, if India were to enact government policies that punish their citizens simply for being of a “minority religion,” I would condemn that action.

The essence of the Hinduism that I practice is karma yoga and bhakti yoga, which means to love God and all [emphasis hers] of His children, regardless of their race, religion, etc., and to use my life working for the well-being of everyone.

QZ: A report in The Telegraph, an Indian newspaper, referred to you as the mascot for the right-wing RSS in India. How do you respond to that? Do you think that is true and would you like to be associated with the RSS?

TG: Both in India and here in the US, I have held meetings with members of both the BJP and the Congress Party. As a member of the US Congress, my interest is in helping produce a closer relationship between the United States and India, not just between the United States and one political party of India.

I have no affiliation with the RSS. Sometimes people on both sides, for their own purposes, try to say I somehow favor, or am part, of the BJP or take photos of me at Indian events and circulate them for their own promotional reasons. But the fact is, I’m not partial to BJP, the Congress Party, or any other particular political party in India.

QZ: Some media reports suggest that you seem to be supporting the Indian diaspora, mostly because they are huge contributors to your campaign, especially with your Hindu identity. How do you respond?

TG: Through my election to Congress and my swearing in on Bhagavad-gita, those in the national media, my colleagues in Congress, and regular Americans across the country have all been very respectful, and even proud of America’s diversity. I assume the reason Hindus all across the country have been so supportive of me, is because when they see me, they see the potential for themselves and their sons and daughters.

There are many Hindus in America who feel they need to convert to Christianity or take “Christian” names if they or their children are to succeed in this country. I have found that simply being the first Hindu elected in Congress has been liberating to so many because it shows that every American, regardless of their background, race, or religion, has the opportunity serve our community in any capacity he or she may choose.

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