In this deeply unsettling time, we have seen some of the best of human nature, faith and community spirit.
In Italy, for example, families under lockdown took to balconies to re-enforce a community spirit and to demonstrate that they are not alone. In London and New York, there are weekly "clap for our carers" public demonstrations of respect and solidarity with embattled health care workers. Families, neighborhoods, faith communities, youth groups and all kinds of ad hoc communities are doing their best to protect the vulnerable, ensuring them food supplies and company, even at a distance.
But we are also seeing the worst of human nature. However, as ever, extremist individuals and groups are using this period of trepidation to try and promote hatred, racism and extremism. Their narratives are simple and sound much like a broken record, though they will have some traction with the disaffected, misinformed and unaware. They are feeding off fear, and - especially for modern societies - the unusual and dispiriting experience of individual powerlessness in the face of the pandemic.
The narratives espoused by Muslim extremists are depressingly familiar: the "other" is blamed. One target is inevitably history’s favorite scapegoat, the Jews. But ordinary Muslims are in the extremists’ sights as well. And sometime, both are targeted together.
At a Friday khutba (sermon) in a mosque in Yemen two weeks ago, pro-Houthi scholar Ibrahim Al-Ubeidi announced that "Coronavirus is part of a plan by the Jews, Israel and the United States to control Mecca and Medina; the Saudi clan is a Jewish family brought into power to order to Judaize these cities." Al-Ubeidi turned a religious prayer ritual into an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that also blamed the House of Saud: anything to link a virus to Jews and those Muslims that extremists don’t like.
For Muslim extremists, blaming the pandemic on Jews and Muslims they see as insufficiently pious or radical is a "natural" progression of a well-established and fixed worldview. As Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, director of research at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism notes, "Jihadis see the [coronavirus as] manifestation of the wrath of God, both upon the non-believers for their rejection of God’s law and crimes against Muslims, and upon those Muslims who have forsaken the duty of Jihad."
In the eyes of Jihadis, COVID-19 has become the front line of action against non-Muslims and those Muslims seen as "collaborators, or too passive," in contrast to those fully ensconced in the idea of perpetual war through jihad.
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It is these kinds of confrontational ideas and interpretations that are being promoted by Islamist extremist groups right now. Another set of manifestations of this "perpetual state of conflict" – and of the belief that came through the narrative that COVID-19 struck China and Europe as a “curse from God” and with the Chinese being particularly afflicted because of their mass persecution of the Uighur Muslims.
In India, Islamist extremists are hoping to capitalize on the fear and alienation of the country’s 200 million plus Muslim population. Those feelings have been simmering for some time, but have brought into sharp relief by the community's scapegoating for the coronavirus outbreak.
Attacks on Indian Muslims, fuelled by a resurgent Indian nationalism and anti-Muslim hatred running rampant and unchecked through parts of India, often fuelled by the ruling BJP party and its policies, have now mutated into specific blame for COVID-19. Islamist extremists themselves are the flipside of their Hindu supremacist nationalist foes, considering Hinduism and its followers as "idol worshippers," less than human, and worthy only of subjugation.
Islamist extremists hope to take the justified fear of India’s Muslims and exploit it for their own purposes - to further ramp up alienation, interfaith tensions and recruitment - to turn it into violence. ISIS recently released its second propaganda magazine focused on India, Sawt al-Hind (Voice of India). Its cover page headline - "So where are you going? A call to Muslims of India" - invited them to join the Islamic State as an answer to the riots in Delhi targeting their community.
Anti-Shia rhetoric is also deeply embedded in Jihadist thinking. So Iran’s coronavirus crisis offers another obvious target, "proving" their extremist teleology. Iran has had to struggle with a rapid spread of the virus with over 70,000 confirmed cases. Tehran has responded Beijing-style by controlling the flow of public information, but the regime’s struggle to contain the outbreak and tend to the infected have been affected by international sanctions.,
In relation to COVID 19, the Jihadist narrative is that the Shia, as heretics who serially commit the sin of shirk (idolatry/polytheism), are paying the price for their ungodly actions, and Iran, as a country of heretics, even the more so. This medievalist and factionalist thinking still carries some resonance for some within non-extremist Sunni communities who see disease, famine and persecution as a form of divine retribution for disbelievers for their sleights against God.
Allied to these beliefs is the wider framing of a more apocalyptic struggle with the "decadent West." Coronavirus, in this telling, is a sign that victory is on the horizon against with a culture consumed with materialism and what extremist see as a lethal belief in individual autonomy rather than God.
Rather than leaving the future to God for protection and salvation, Western consumers stock up on toilet rolls; they panic-buy food rather than trusting that God will provide until the time of violent action to shake up the ungodly West; where materialism’s complexity dares to challenge the simplistic worldview of working towards the afterlife alone rather than challenging events.
To many of us, these views may sound like unwelcome echoes from the distant past, if not barbaric. But like all meta-narratives, and most conspiracy theories, they provide a rationale to current events, an answer to the loss of agency and the vulnerability that the pandemic has imposed, and a horizon to what comes after, despite the nihilism of those narratives.
For some extremist individuals and groups, the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to inflame tensions and to further promote hatred and intolerance. Using God as an excuse for the spread of disease, famine or pestilence is nothing new. The tipping point will be if enough "believers" translate their narratives into violent acts.
We may be fighting an unseen enemy, but we must be equally vigilant against the visible extremists who seek to exploit this emergency for hatred - and the loss of yet more lives.
Fiyaz Mughal OBE is the founder and former director of Faith Matters, an organization dedicated to countering extremism in Britain. He is the Founder of Tell MAMA and a past trustee of the U.K's National Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. Twitter: @FaithMattersUK