Politics of faith

29 Apr 2020


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

MOST Muslim countries have stopped congregations at mosques, and even Islam’s holiest places are shut in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Not so in Pakistan. It is not just about the power of the pulpit; it’s more to do with the culpability of an inadequate leadership unable to take charge.

For the leadership, matters of faith appear to take priority over the lives of the believers. Last week, doctors called on the government and clerics to reverse a decision to allow prayers at the mosques during Ramazan out of concern that large gatherings would lead to an explosion of coronavirus cases. But the pleading of the doctors on the front line of the battle against the pandemic has gone unheeded.

Rationalising the decision, the prime minister said that people could not be stopped from going to mosques in a free country. Many would argue that this argument has little to do with religious freedom. The restrictions on congregations in other countries have been imposed in order to save human lives that are more important than anything else. The government has simply given in to the demands of some vested clerical interests.

The so-called 20-point accord with a group of clerics laying out conditions for mosques to observe during prayers is nonsensical. Most of the rules such as maintaining a gap of six feet between worshippers and barring those over 50 years of age from joining in the prayers at the mosque are very difficult to implement.

Even the pleading of those on the front line of the battle against the virus has gone unheard.

A survey conducted by an NGO has shown that more than 80 per cent of mosques in Punjab and the federal capital flouted the rules for the first taraweeh prayers. Mosques continue to be crowded and many worshippers are not even seen to be using the mand­atory facemasks. As per the agreement those mos­ques failing to fulfil the specified conditions would be closed. One knows well that it could never happen.

Unsurprisingly, there has been complete silence from the administration over the report on this defiance. A TV report showed the president visiting Faisal Mosque in Islamabad; he was reportedly happy to see that rules were being observed. But he seems to have ignored reports about other mosques defying the agreement.

It is evident that congregations have been one of the biggest sources of the spread of the coronavirus in the country. A large number of initial cases were among the pilgrims returning from Iran and participants of the annual gathering of the Tableeghi Jam­aat in March this year. Tens of thousands attended the congregation in Raiwind despite the outbreak.

Instead of showing responsible behaviour, Maulana Tariq Jameel, who is associated with the missionary group, blamed the media and women for the pandemic. His misogynistic comments at a fund-raising event with the prime minister in attendance have provoked a strong backlash. His influence over the political leadership in power and other power centres is well known.

Indeed, most clerics acknowledge the hazards of cramped mosques in Ramazan. That may also be the reason why many clerics who have been at the forefront of the campaign themselves are not going to mosques and prefer to pray at home with their close family members. While keeping themselves away from the crowd, they are least bothered for the safety of others.

They conveniently reject the example of Saudi Arabia and Iran closing mosques for communal prayers when it clashes with their vested interests, and say that this does not apply to Pakistan’s situation. It’s hard to find any logic in this argument. Some reports suggest that besides a show of power, there are possibly financial interests that could also have been a reason behind their pressure to keep mosques open during the holy month. This is the month when maximum donations are collected. The flow of funds is critical to keeping their establishments running.

Signs of the approaching catastrophe are palpable with the exponential rise in the numbers of victims in the last one week, following the government’s decision to prematurely relax the restrictions. In fact, there is little semblance of even a partial lockdown at the moment and the breakdown of social distancing is apparent. The government’s mixed messages have compounded the confusion in policy.

The centre’s contradictory statements undermine the efforts being made by the provincial governments and the Command & Control Centre established to coordinate efforts. Consequently, the number of coronavirus cases has risen at an alarming rate, and according to WHO, could go up to more than 200,000 in the next few months.

An extremely fragile healthcare system unable to deal with the load could collapse completely. More worrisome is the fact that given inadequate safety measures, an increasing number of doctors are falling victim to the infection thus exacerbating the crisis. At least three doctors have died so far of the virus and a large number have contracted the infection. Despite their vulnerability, the medical community has not turned its back on its responsibilities.

Yet some of those who advise the prime minister have dismissed the warning as a false alarm and even accused the doctors of playing politics. That shows their callous attitude towards the threat of the spread of the infection. Notwithstanding the prime minister’s muddled approach, most Pakistanis support the demand of the medical community for the strict enforcement of the lockdown at least till the curve of the disease starts declining.

A recent survey conducted by Gallup Pakistan shows that most people acknowledge that the coronavirus is a serious threat to themselves and their families. For that reason, some 68pc support enforcement of a complete lockdown in the country.

Undoubtedly, a shutdown even for a shorter period has serious economic consequences, pushing more people into poverty. But it is always better to take hard decisions for long-term gains. The next few weeks are going to be extremely critical and one can only hope that the worst is over soon.

The writer is an author and journalist.


Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2020