Opinion |

How Pakistan Became a Coronavirus Super-spreader to the Entire Muslim World

Iran banned congregational prayer. Saudi Arabia closed the Ka’aba to pilgrims. Imran Khan allowed a quarter of a million Muslims to gather - and returning home, they've spread the coronavirus from Kyrgyzstan to Gaza

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A Pakistani man wearing a facemask walks past closed market shops in Karachi on March 22, 2020, after the Punjab provincial government closed markets amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus
A Pakistani man wearing a facemask walks past closed market shops in Karachi on March 22, 2020, after the Punjab provincial government closed markets to prevent spread of the COVID-19 coronavirusCredit: AFP

On Sunday, the Gaza strip reported its first two cases of coronavirus. The two Palestinian men had recently returned from Pakistan.

They were among the 250,000 people that gathered in Lahore two weeks ago, to participate in the Tableeghi Ijtema [literally "a congregation for outreach"] – an Islamic event organized by the local Tableeghi Jamaat [Outreach Congress].

An offshoot of the South Asian Deobandi Islamic movement, the Tableeghi Jamaat has spent the past century preaching Islam in the region, and now has a presence in over 80 countries. The Raiwind area in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province and home to 11 million inhabitants, hosts the annual Tableeghi Ijtema, which includes hundreds of thousands of participants from around the world.

This year, with the congregation set for March 11-15, there had been calls to postpone the event, given the spread of COVID-19. By the end of February, Pakistan had already reported its first coronavirus cases. On the eve of the ijtema the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a pandemic.

Where Iran had cancelled the weekly Friday prayers and Saudi Arabia had suspended the Umrah pilgrimage by the end of February, the Pakistani government was still dillydallying over forestalling a gathering of over a quarter of a million people in the country’s second most populous city.

Tablighi Jamaat followers journey home from the three-day annual Ijtema religious gathering, mid concerns the 250,000 strong event would spread the coronavirus. Raiwind near Lahore, March 13, 2020Credit: AFP

On March 12, the organizers were asked to disband the congregation, but only after around 250,000 people had already assembled in camps in preparation for the event. The reason cited for the closure of the event wasn’t the fact that world is in the midst of a pandemic which will completely change the global order – it was "rainy weather."

The Tableeghi Jamaat’s reluctance to cite an infectious virus as cause for the disbandment is rooted in its regressive ideology, whose exponents have ranged from militant jihadists to radical preachers to Islamic televangelists unleashing a perilous blend of unscientific fantasies and bigoted fallacies. For these ideologues, cancelling congregational prayers owing to an infectious disease is synonymous with repudiating Allah’s command.

While regressive religionists across divides exhibit dangerous disregard for global calls for social distancing, what is rarer is for a state to continue to kowtow to the clergies, when their precarious abandonment of logic can have fatal ramifications for the entire country.

And yet, at a time when Iran has shut down the holiest Shia sites, Saudi Arabia has banned prayers at mosques – including the two holiest in Islam – and numerous Muslim countries like Turkey, UAE, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, among others have closed mosques, Pakistan allowed the Friday prayers on March 20, nationwide.

The closest the Pakistani government came to even suggesting that the prayer is better off being performed at home, was the tweet of President Arif Alvi, who revealed that he had prayed at home. President Alvi shared a quote of the Prophet Muhammad and ended his tweet with the expression astaghfirullah [literally, "I seek forgiveness from Allah."]

The message of the president, which sought to justify the abandonment of congregation through Islamic scriptures – something that many others have vied to do as well – placed religious dogma over the state’s basic governance responsibilities at the time of a pandemic. Seeking "forgiveness" for the "sin" of praying at home on Fridays only reinforces the menacingly prevalent idea of the coronavirus being a divine test that requires collective prayer.

Little wonder that instead of being restrained, Islamic clerics in Pakistan are currently having a ball with their coronavirus theories, while being invited on television ostensibly as experts on COVID-19.

Prominent Deobandi cleric Muhammad Taqi Usmani revealed on national TV that Prophet Muhammad had come in the dream of a Tableeghi Jamaatmember and "shared the cure for coronavirus." The cure was the recital of certain Quranic verses.

Asif Ashraf Jalali, a cleric from the Barelvi sect, vowed to hold an Islamic conference, personally "guaranteeing" the safety of all those attending, saying that even if one case of coronavirus is reported from the congregation he "should be hanged."

The prominent Shia cleric Zameer Naqvi declared on TV that he, too, has the cure for coronavirus, but won't share it because the government and the masses are not sufficiently "serious," and feared he could be mocked - just like "Aristotle and Socrates" were.

Even as the tally of coronavirus patients in Pakistan crosses 1,000, underlining a precipitously rising curve, the government’s first priority has been to ensure the Islamic clerics that their one-stop shops aren’t under any threat. The Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, whose government has reacted criminally late to the spread of COVID-19, met Islamic clerics from various sects in the lead up to last week’s Friday prayers to ensure them that mosques won’t be shut down in the province.

Friday congregational prayer amid an outbreak of the coronavirus disease along a road in Peshawar, Pakistan. March 20, 2020Credit: FAYAZ AZIZ/ REUTERS

In return, the government expects support from the influential clerics at a time when the failure to take timely action against coronavirus is the latest in a long list of issues that have alienated the masses, the most prominent among them being the multi-pronged economic crises.

Perhaps already resigned to what might lie ahead, the government is more interested in fortifying its position against the backlash that could come in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemonium. Already backed by the all-powerful military, the government wants to keep the clergy on its side as well.

On cue, Islamic cleric Tariq Jamil, who leads the Raiwind congregation, was invited on to national television on Sunday, where he unequivocally backed Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had been under pressure to announce a nationwide lockdown.

Where governments have long subjugated themselves to the Islamists, who in turn have historically been used by the Army has tools to keep the civilian leaderships, and potentially dissenting masses, in check, this latest act of submission actually has unprecedentedly far-reaching repercussions.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks to the AP, in Islamabad, Pakistan. March 16, 2020. Khan called for an end to sanctions on Iran which, he said, hampered Tehran’s anti-coronavirus effortsCredit: B.K. Bangash,AP

Coronavirus cases rooted to the Tableeghi Jamaat alone have now expanded to the province of Sindh and the capital, Islamabad, where an entire locality has been quarantined after five members of the congregation were tested positive. In addition to Palestine, now residents of Kyrgyzstan, affiliated with Tableeghi Jamaat, have also tested positive.

Given that the Tableeghi Ijtema took place two weeks ago, which is also the incubation period of COVID-19, we are witnessing the cases linked to that gathering being reported this week, with more reports expected to follow.

Considering that Pakistan’s numbers are prodigiously underreported, one can only imagine the actual gravity of the spread that might have been caused by the millions who came together for the latest Friday prayers. What makes the alarm bells even more ominous is that there still is no closure of mosques in the offing, with another Friday looming.

In its bid to be ‘more Muslim than Mecca,’ Pakistan might end up becoming a super-spreader of the COVID-19. With a trajectory worse than Italy’s, and a deteriorated healthcare setup, Pakistan is headed towards an unimaginable crisis.

Imran Khan and his government appeasing the Islamists shows that they’re already making preparations to deflect the blame for what is to come. Meanwhile, this appeasement has become a root for the spread of the disaster, which is now engulfing the rest of the Muslim world.

Khan believes he has a friend in the shape of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He is also rallying in support of lifting sanctions against Iran. He generously praises Turkey’s Erdogan - who visited Pakistan last month - on the issue of Kashmir. He recently sent President Alvi to China as reaffirmation of support, and believes he has taken the country back into the U.S.’s good books with the Taliban deal.

However, should the coronavirus crisis reach gory proportions, Khan and his government is unlikely to find much backing – neither global, nor from within the mullah-military nexus. Meanwhile, every Friday that he allows congregational prayers, exponentially adds to the pandemonium.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat. His work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Foreign Policy, Courrier International, New Statesman, The Telegraph , MIT Review, and Arab News among other publications. Twitter: @khuldune

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