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COVID-19 and Religious Fanaticism in Pakistan

Yaqoob-ul Hassan was a Research Analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 21, 2020

    The Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) Pakistan held its annual gathering, starting March 11, 2020, in Raiwind, Lahore, where its Markaz is headquartered, with participation from about 80 countries. Both the federal and state governments failed to persuade the TJ to cancel the event. The five-day event was shortened to just two days because of rain, but by then the damage was already done. The first four cases reported in southern Sindh were attendees of the TJ gathering in Lahore. This was the beginning of Pakistan’s corona nightmare. Since then, as of April 20, more than 8,400 positive cases have been registered in the country, with most of the cases traced to the Raiwind congregation.1

    According to the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) of Government of Punjab, as of April 19, about 1531 cases have been reported from Raiwind congregation alone.2 In Sindh, until April 2, about 94 TJ members had tested positive.3 While the exact number of coronavirus cases related to TJ is not available yet, thousands of TJ members who participated in the Raiwind congregation are still being tracked down by officials.4 The Raiwind gathering was held in the immediate aftermath of the TJ’s international annual event, held in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, from February 27 to March 1, 2020.5 This event was attended by over 16,000 people, including 1,500 foreigners. The Ijtima (religious congregation) participants subsequently participated in Tabligh congregations in both India and Pakistan, playing a critical role in the spread of the disease in both countries. 

    Negligence or Helplessness?

    The Imran Khan-led government initially did not take the issue of possible spread of COVID-19 seriously. The Pakistani prime minister refused to enforce a lockdown in spite of compelling reasons to do so. Instead, he urged people to maintain social distance. Interestingly, while many Pakistanis practised social distancing following government instructions and provinces went for complete lockdown, the ulema and other religious groups defied government instructions and went ahead conducting Jumma (congregational) prayers in mosques.

    In order to bring religious leaders on board, Pakistan President Arif Alvi, sought a fatwa (a religious decree) from the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, an authority on Islamic injunctions, to suspend congregational prayers at mosques. In his fatwa, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar quoted the hadith (sayings of the Prophet) in which the Prophet advised his companions to offer prayers at home in case there is a strong rain, or if they were unwell and their illness could cause problems for others or lead to a pandemic.6 However, the ulema insisted that closing mosques and stopping Jumma prayers and sermons contravened the principles of Islam. According to Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman, the head of the government-appointed Ruet-t-Hilal Committee (tasked with spotting the new moon in Pakistan), insisted that they cannot close mosques as it was “not possible in any circumstances in an Islamic country”.7 Their stance reflected the inflexible attitude of these religious groups, driven by narrow political interests to remain relevant by anointing themselves as the protectors of faith, rather than choosing to adopt progressive interpretations of the injunctions in Islamic jurisprudence.

    These religious leaders also termed the enforcement of lockdown as a Western conspiracy against Islam, indirectly supporting Imran Khan’s secular objections to the lockdown (as it would disadvantage the poor and the destitute). The ulema branded COVID-19 as a punishment (azaab) from Allah for not conforming to religious diktats and asked the common people to offer more prayers soliciting Allah’s grace in this hour of crisis. Mufti Taqi Usmani, one of the most influential religious leaders in Pakistan, a recipient of Sitara-e Imtiaz (star of excellence) in the field of public service in 2019, and Shaykh al-Hadith at Darul Uloom, Karachi, went to the extent of saying that it was “not possible to get rid of corona without asking God for forgiveness.”8

    Why did the ulema in Pakistan reject the government order to close down mosques and ban Friday prayers even when the epitomes of the Islamic centres of the two sects — Sunni and Shia — Saudi Arabia and Iran, mandated and enforced such shut-downs domestically in their countries? The answer lies in the competition between various religious groups for social legitimacy at one level and between these groups and the state at another. The debate on whether the state should be allowed to prevail over the ulema on religious matters is an ongoing one in Pakistan. In the case of most other Muslim majority countries, whether they are democratic or authoritarian, it is the state which prevails over the religious groups while maintaining public order.

    However, in Pakistan, both the political and religious leaderships are locked in an eternal squabble over the issue. This competition has, more often than not, pitted the state and the ulema against each other in the public sphere. The current government’s reluctance to use its authority to close mosques and reinforce its ban on Friday congregations is a manifestation of its weakness and vulnerability vis-à-vis the ulema over any issue concerning Islam. The governments have been always reluctant to take the ulema head-on. If the past is any guide, the threat of street protests issued by the ulema could have been a disturbing prospect for the government, as it would have weakened its efforts at combatting COVID-19, given the street power that religious groups command.

    Military’s Role

    The military in Pakistan has appropriated Islam over the past several decades and has effectively positioned itself as the principal saviour of the nation and its faith. As on several occasions in the past, this time too, the army acted swiftly to enforce a countrywide lockdown, recognising the gravity of the situation without paying much heed to either Prime Minister Khan’s ambivalence about enforcing a lockdown or the reluctance of the ulema to behave responsibly. There is a view in Pakistan that Imran deliberately encouraged the military to announce the lockdown because he knew that religious organisations would not protest against the military and, moreover, he would be spared of the wrath of the vociferous mullahs. By so doing, the Pakistani Prime Minister not only lost an opportunity to prove his mettle as a leader capable of taking strong decisions but also reconfirmed the popular perception that the civilian government in Pakistan would continue to play second fiddle to the military in all circumstances.

    State on Back foot

    While the government failed in its efforts to persuade religious leaders to ensure lockdown and follow social distancing norms, it is even reluctant to call out the TJ for its key role in spreading the virus in the country. Naming and shaming the TJ could invite the anger of the right-wing elements in the society, including within the government as also within the army. Over the years, TJ has infiltrated the Pakistani military and the trend has been extensively explored by Shuja Nawaz in his recently published book The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood. This started with Zia ul Haq’s Islamisation of the Pakistan military, where keeping beard, offering five-time regular prayers and spending time with the TJ were given priority over other standard criteria for promotion.9

    The benign image TJ has created and the goodwill it has among religious groups could be gauged from the recent statement of late General Hamid Gul’s son, Abdullah Gul, who is associated with the pro-army Milli Yak Jehti and Difa-e-Pakistan Council and known for his pro-Jihad sentiment. Gul asserted that the media outlets were “spewing venom” against the TJ, which is “hurting sentiments of millions of people”. He called for the imposition of heavy fines on “religion-weary news anchors, producers, and all news directors …”10 A cleric in Karachi told his followers that they were “not too weak to let this one virus empty our mosques.”11 On April 3, when police tried to stop a Friday prayer congregation at a mosque in Liaqatabad, Karachi, a religious mob pelted stones and attacked officials.

    Urdu Media Pitches for TJ

    Over the years, since its inception in 1927, the TJ has carefully built its image as a peaceful and apolitical organisation devoted to piety and spiritual reformation. The Pakistani vernacular media, known for its conservative biases, has been particularly liberal in its praise of TJ’s activities within Pakistan and beyond. Therefore, quite predictably, apart from a few editorials and commentaries in the English language media criticising TJ for its irresponsible behaviour, the coverage of TJ’s role in spreading the coronavirus in Pakistan’s vernacular media has been rather sparse and uncritical. Instead, the Urdu media focused its attention on Shia pilgrims returning from various religious sites in Iran as the potential source of spread of virus in the country.12 These infected pilgrims, according to the vernacular media, were allowed to enter at Taftan border in Balochistan without being properly quarantined, while there was a disproportionate hullabaloo being raised over the TJ.

    Conclusion

    On April 5, 2020, a Chinese delegation of health experts advised Pakistan to extend the lockdown for another 28 days.13 However, the continuing religious gatherings on Fridays to offer Jumma prayers show that the religious leaders are unwilling to close mosques, even as the state is disinclined to take action against them. Moreover, the stubbornness of the TJ members who are not voluntarily disclosing their participation in the Raiwind congregation is making both social distancing and lockdown redundant. Pakistan’s efforts to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak may get severely constrained due to the religious group’s obstinacy. Their pressure on the government to keep the mosques open is also likely to increase with the advent of Ramadan (a month of fasting) starting from the last week of April. At this juncture, when the world has already witnessed more than 165,990 deaths (as of April 20),14 and 8,418 people have tested positive in Pakistan with 176 dead,15 stupidity has superseded wisdom, enhancing the COVID-19 risks in Pakistan. 

    Once the coronavirus reaches the third stage of community transmission, Pakistan’s health care system which is already in shambles may not be able to deal with the pandemic effectively. The country that is still struggling to combat rabies and polio due to opposition by religious fundamentalists to vaccination, would find itself in a huge crisis, unless, of course, either sanity prevails among its ulema and religious leaders to ensure that their followers abide by the rules of lockdown and social distancing, or the state enforces its writ with all the power at its command, howsoever politically risky it may turn out to be.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

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