WORLD religions can be divided into two categories — those that are life affirming and those premised on life negation. Dr Albert Schweitzer identified this distinction: “World and life affirmation unceasingly urges men to serve their fellows, society, the nation, mankind, and indeed all that lives, with their utmost will and in lively hope of realisable progress. World and life negation takes no interest in the world, but regards man’s life on earth either merely as a stage play in which it is his duty to participate, or only as a puzzling pilgrimage through the land of Time to his home in eternity.”
Schweitzer regarded Islam, Christianity and Judaism as life-affirming religions because they acknowledge “the instinctive will-to-live”, whereas to him Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism represented life negation, a condition “when man takes no interest whatsoever in any realisable purpose nor in the improvement of conditions in the world”.
Where would Dr Schweitzer have placed Pakistan’s credo? Somewhere between the two. Its unbridled population growth could not be more life affirming, yet its determination to reject realities existing in today’s Covid-19 world reveals the weaker traits of life negation. We have chosen to discount the advice of international medical experts, to ignore the experiences of China, Italy, Spain, the UK and US. We pray in Arabic but repudiate the advice of the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia that prayers during Ramazan and for Eidul Fitr should be performed at home if the pandemic continues. Instead, we have opted to follow the tenets of an agreement between a group of unelected ulema and our country’s president.
Even the most cursory scrutiny of the 20-point agreement exposes its inconsistencies: worshippers are expected to perform their ablutions at home before coming to the mosque; they are expected to wear masks and forbidden from handshakes and hugs or touching their faces; no carpets in mosques, but hundreds of individual prayer mats disinfected with chlorine are permitted; prayers would be held in the compounds of mosques not within the buildings, but taraweeh preparations are allowed within the mosque premises; social distancing of at least three feet between worshippers would be enforced by the mosque administration and police.
The government’s Janus-headed approach to the virus is unhelpful.
Attendees at the meeting between the president and the ulema included Interior Minister Ijaz Shah, the PM’s aide on health Dr Zafar Mirza and Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri. Where, one wonders, was the representative of the National Command and Control Centre? After all, the NCCC had been established in March to ensure effective coordination among the federal and provincial governments to control the virus. Has the NCCC endorsed this agreement? Is the president aware that he had no executive authority to enter into such an agreement? Does he realise that its enforceability stood vitiated when the ulema refused to guarantee compliance by their adherents? One suspects that this shotgun agreement will prove as ineffective as the one signed with exaggerated publicity by the provocateur Canadian cleric Tahirul Qadri with the PPP government in January 2013.
Social distancing is not new to Pakistan. It has been ostracised often enough internationally, even by the Commonwealth. Today, however, Pakistan is social distancing within itself. Islamabad is at odds with the provinces. Ministers are at odds with each other. The more flamboyant vie to demonstrate their cosmetic concern. Railway bogies are converted into wards on wheels, yet no one asks where are the sterilisation or washing facilities for patients and medical staff. Cavernous Expo centres are crammed with a thousand beds, even though these public spaces have only communal latrines and no facilities for bathing. Three-star hotels in Islamabad have been commandeered for Covid-19 patients but opulent marriage halls throughout the country are exempt.
The government’s Janus-headed approach to the Covid-19 crisis is unhelpfully ambivalent. It advocates a purposeful lockdown and simultaneously wishes to oblige religious and sectoral interests, such as the powerful construction industry. It fears rightly that an extended lockdown will cause an economic collapse which we can ill-afford. At the same time, it knows that any premature suspension of the lockdown could release a plague of unimaginable proportions. As a result, our nation stands divided between those who fear the virus and those who trust in God. As Muslims, we believe that we belong to God, and to Him will we return. Our negligence will allow Covid-19 to decide who, and when.
In the 1990s, Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew visited Pakistan. He was asked his opinion of his hosts. He responded that he had never seen any country more determined to commit suicide. He is not alive to be proven right. We are alive, and can with rational decisive policies prove him wrong.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2020