Oil is the primary driver of India’s relations with the Middle East, but Islam is the second and far older driver. Islam penetrated India across the centuries, by military conquest and peaceful commerce. Many Hindus see this history as one of foreign occupation, yet Islam has become an integral part of India’s identity and culture. The common Indian and Arab struggle against British colonialism added a strong political bond. As a result, concern for Islamic issues, including Palestinian opposition to Zionism, moved into the center of India’s domestic and foreign politics, and remained there long after the end of British rule.
Currently, there are approximately 180 million Indian Muslims, an estimated 20 million are Shiites. India holds the world’s second largest Muslim population. After partition in 1947, seven percent of its citizens were Muslims. Today, they are said to represent 15 percent, but precise figures are not available. The great majority of India’s Muslims is moderate and wants to remain Indian. However, there is also a Muslim awakening and a radicalization of a minority, which is fueled by foreign Muslim money and propaganda, as well as by some of the Muslim Indian workers returning from the Gulf. Against these negative trends stands a resurgent Hindu nationalism and the steady rise of a Western-oriented professional middle class, which was integral in bringing Modi to power. How these different trends will evolve and interact with each other is difficult to predict. However, India is likely to retain several lessons from its long experience with domestic and foreign Muslim politics: Most Indian Muslims barely reacted, both when India established diplomatic relations with Israel (1992) or when it became more openly friendly to Israel (2014); and second, relations with Israel have not damaged India’s relations with either the Arab world or Iran. On the contrary, the Israel relationship forced them to realize that India might not automatically support whatever they said or did against Israel, as it had in the past. In addition, India’s hope that strong support for Arab causes would inhibit Arab support for Pakistan turned out to be an illusion. The Arabs have always supported Pakistan against India, irrespective of India’s Israel policy.