Analysis |

Plot Against Islam? In Ill-prepared Mideast, Coronavirus Spreads Conspiracies Too

In Iran and Egypt, government incompetence in handling coronavirus cases is met with an increasingly suspicious public

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Tehran Municipality workers clean a metro train to avoid the spread of the COVID-19 illness on February 26, 2020.
Tehran Municipality workers clean a metro train to avoid the spread of the COVID-19 illness on February 26, 2020. Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Tunisian cleric Bechir Ben Hassen, who lives in France, has no doubt about why Allah punished the Chinese with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

According to him, “The virus is a soldier in Allah’s army. Today, it’s toppling people as if they were insects. The Chinese authorities imposed a siege on a million Uighur Muslims, and now, 50 million Chinese are besieged because of the virus, and they can’t find a cure for it because this is God’s will.

“Allah has soldiers, including angels and viruses and plagues, and if he wants to set them on the public, nothing in heaven or on earth can stop him ... Just as he drowned Pharaoh’s armies in the sea, he has given the Uighurs victory over the Chinese authorities via the coronavirus.”

>> LATEST UPDATES: Iran coronavirus death toll rises to 354, authorities urge everyone stay home

This religious interpretation infuriated Ziyad al-Hamdani, an internet user from Iraq. “Don’t put yourself in Allah’s place,” he told the cleric. “Allah doesn’t take collective revenge on an entire community. He doesn’t burn the wheat with the chaff. If you want to defend your religion to the world, act like a human being.”

One religious website wrote that it’s against Islam’s nature to derive comfort from other people’s troubles. “If trouble has afflicted the unbelievers, pity and compassion obligate us to help them,” it said.

The religious explanations sought by clerics in Islamic countries are no different than the ones offered by certain Jewish religious scholars who are quick to explain why a certain woe has befallen either non-Jews or Jews because of some deviation from the straight and narrow.

Yet this “soldier in Allah’s army” is causing particular trouble for Muslim clerics, because the virus is already running rampant in Muslim countries like Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and Lebanon, and it makes no distinction between Sunnis and Shi’ites or between Arab and non-Arab Muslims.

If the coronavirus isn’t God’s revenge, then it is obviously the work of Islam’s enemies, and especially of those who are plotting against Iran. Iranian President Hassan Rohani – who until now has stood like a rock against what he termed coronavirus hysteria and against plans to close the Masumeh shrine in the holy city of Qom, where most of the country’s coronavirus cases originally appeared – explained, “Our enemies want to shut down Iran through fear of the coronavirus. This is a plot by our enemies, and we mustn’t let them succeed.”

But in the end, he was forced to give in to pressure from parents and students. He announced that schools and universities will close for one week, on condition that the universities continue giving classes online. Officially, 26 Iranians have died of COVID-19 so far.

Pilgrims wearing masks walk through the courtyard of the shrine of Imam Ali on February 25, 2020 in the holy Iraqi central city of Najaf.Credit: AFP

“We have all the necessary means to deal with the coronavirus,” declared Iran’s health minister, whose deputy has been stricken with it. But the public, which can’t obtain face masks to protect themselves, doesn’t believe him.

After the government’s efforts to hide its responsibility for the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane and its false reports about the number of people killed in demonstrations, Iranians are taking their own steps to ensure they don’t get sick. They suspect the government is failing to promptly report the true extent of its spread so as not to undermine the parliamentary election that took place on February 21.

Prior to the election, government agencies and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei mobilized to encourage voters to go to the polls and even threaten them not to stay away, since a large turnout would prove how supportive the public is of the regime. These efforts didn’t work; turnout was the lowest it has been since the Islamic Republic was founded in 1979. But had the government reported the true spread of the coronavirus in real time, turnout would presumably have been far lower.

A young man from Qom told the opposition website Radio Farda that shortly before the election, his mother caught the virus, and he had to take her to the hospital, where she died. “But they didn’t check me because I wasn’t coughing,” he added.

“In the end, they ordered us to bury her ourselves, without washing the body,” he continued. “When we told them the burial should be done by people who have protective clothing against the virus, they told us it’s not their responsibility.” He considered it a completely transparent attempt to hide the cause of his mother’s death so as not to spark a panic before the election.

Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, who, as noted, caught the virus himself, has also criticized the policy of concealment and denial. But when one report said 50 people had died of the virus, he challenged that figure, adding that he would be “willing to resign if even a quarter of what is being reported were true.”

If American sanctions on Iran weren’t enough, the coronavirus is completing the process of Iran’s isolation. Turkey has closed its border with Iran and isn’t letting Iranians land in its territory. Qatar has ordered its citizens to leave Iran and has provided planes to take them directly to special isolation rooms set up in Qatari hospitals.

But the worst blow has been China’s plummeting purchases of Iranian oil, due to a drastic decline in Chinese production. China is Iran’s most important trading partner.

The 20 percent drop in Chinese oil purchases and the fact that the Gulf States have closed their ports to Iran due to the virus will scramble Iran’s budget calculations. The Iranian rial took another beating this week, plunging to a rate of 158,000 to the dollar. That will obviously affect the inflation rate, and also unemployment, which is expected to climb to over 20 percent (officially).

On top of all this, Iraq, which is Iran’s most important trading partner for products other than oil, has barred the entry of people and goods from its neighbor. And if the Iranian government is forced to bow to public demand and shut down shopping centers as well as educational institutions, the economic damage will be much greater, and could well bring protesters into the streets again.

The country most likely to benefit from Iran’s isolation by Iraq and the Gulf States is Turkey, which plans to take China’s place in selling durable goods to Gulf markets. Turkey’s trade with Iraq, which currently totals some $16 billion a year, could grow by dozens of percent, and the same is true for its trade with Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. Turkey will also probably significantly increase exports to Iran.

But all this, of course, is on condition that Turkey doesn’t become a new locus of the virus, which has hitherto passed it by.

People wearing protective masks stand at a bus station in the Iranian capital Tehran on February 24, 2020.Credit: AFP

Egypt is only now starting to prepare for the coronavirus invasion, after the first case was recently discovered there. But as in Iran, the government is trying to conceal how far the virus has spread.

Health Minister Hala Zayed sparked a flood of mocking responses on social media when she said that the virus isn’t expected to strike Egypt, because “it lives in China, not in Egypt,” and that she didn’t intend to bar entry to Chinese visitors, “because the World Health Organization hasn’t recommended doing so.” She also said the virus isn’t infectious.

A picture of the minister wearing a mask incorrectly, so that it failed to cover her nose, quickly went viral and because a source of jokes about her conduct. And it later turned out that the first coronavirus case in Egypt, whose discovery Zayed attributed to the health system’s efficiency and diligence, was actually discovered by the Chinese Embassy in Cairo, which informed the Health Ministry of an Egyptian who had arrived from China.

Reports on social media say that despite the claim that there is no coronavirus in Egypt, the government has begun spraying people with disinfectant at malls and places of entertainment. Additionally, the Egyptian media has been “asked” not to exaggerate in its reports about the virus.

But Egyptians are particularly furious over the gaping shortage of face masks and their astronomical price. One Egyptian who was wearing a diaper in place of a mask posted a video on Tik-Tok in which he explained that he was forced to use it because a mask cost $6. Egyptians attribute the shortage to the wholesale export of masks to China, where a mask sells for the equivalent of 200 Egyptian pounds (almost $13), compared to only 10 pounds in Egypt.

Seven Egyptian factories are manufacturing some 60 million masks, and the health system is importing another 145 million to meet the demand, which is for about 180 million masks. The heads of various professional medical associations have asked the government and parliament to issue a regulation banning the export of masks, but so far, no such regulation has been issued.

As in Iran, in Egypt, too, the virus and the way the government and the health system are dealing with it have become a focus of public criticism and protests, which is embarrassing President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s government. Only on Thursday did cabinet ministers report on the steps they have taken to prevent the spread of the virus. Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said that no one had yet contracted the coronavirus inside Egypt, “but if such a case is discovered, Egypt is ready for any scenario.”

These reports doubtless didn’t do much to calm ordinary Egyptians, who are running between the pharmacies that sell face masks and the bakeries that sell pitas at government-subsidized prices. They’re already well acquainted with the meaning of the phrase “ready for any scenario.”

As one internet commenter wrote, “The worst is yet to come. But maybe the coronavirus will also agree to infect the government, and thereby save us from it.”

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