Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

Islamists are frustrating Pakistan’s fight against coronavirus

Islamists are frustrating Pakistan's fight against coronavirus
Photo by AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images
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The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Pakistan currently sits at 2,042 alongside 26 deaths. With only limited healthcare facilities, the country is facing a perilously delayed reaction. Most of Pakistan’s initial cases were pilgrims returning from places like Iran and Saudi Arabia. But the virus quickly spread thanks to a failure to screen and quarantine. Even so, almost a third of the infections in Pakistan are now being spread from within the community. That figure is expected to rise owing to a combination of appalling mismanagement and masochistic inaction.

Such failures can be gauged by the state’s refusal to shut down the mosques. Weeks after reporting its first coronavirus cases, and over a month since Saudi Arabia and Iran banned prayers in the holiest Islamic mosques, Pakistan has continued allowing Islamic congregations to gather.

After letting the Friday prayers go ahead on 20 March, allowing millions across the country to come into contact with one another, the government refused to shut down mosques across the country last Friday as well.

While local government announced the mosque closures in the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan on Thursday, Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab – with over 110 million inhabitants – allowed mosques to remain open. Official orders that the number of mosque attendants in Punjab and Islamabad be limited were issued just after noon, less than an hour before scheduled Friday prayers.

The potential pandemonium that can be caused by such congregations is revealed by the fact that a 250,000 strong gathering at one Pakistani event earlier this month led to potentially thousands of infections spreading across the Islamic world. 

The annual meeting of the Islamic missionary movement Tableeghi Jamaat in Lahore, which hosts hundreds of thousands of Muslims from around the world, has led to infections spreading to Palestinians, Kyrgyzstanis and across Pakistan. Around 550 worshipers belonging to the Tableeghi Jamaat, including members from Afghanistan, China, Indonesia, Nigeria and Tunisia, are currently in quarantine after a Chinese citizen tested positive for Covid-19.

Prime minister Imran Khan and his government had already been criticised for allowing the vast Tableeghi Jamaat crowds to continue congregating. However, weeks after the event, the ongoing failure to unequivocally shut down mosques underlines a menace that the government considers graver than the Covid-19 pandemic: Islamist backlash.

Pakistan succumbing to Islamism isn’t exactly news. Over the years, the state has allowed Islamists to take up violence over YouTube videos and cartoons. Mobs have burned down Christian neighbourhoods and razed places of worship belonging to non-Muslims and the 'wrong kind' of Muslims. Even on days earmarked to show ‘peace and love’ they manage to kill and injure scores.

They’re provided cover by the Islamism rammed into Pakistan’s constitution, whose codification of Muslim supremacism, and gruesome constituents like the blasphemy law, aggravate a lynching mindset.

The all-powerful Pakistani army has found special utility in the Islamist militants over the decades. In addition to backing cross-border militancy in Afghanistan and India, the Islamist outfits and parties help the army keep check on elected governments.

And now Imran Khan, already indebted to the military establishment for his ascension to power, is the latest civilian leader to be bogged down by Islamists, with his government reeling under the pressure.

Even so, what pressure could possibly justify inaction over the greatest global crisis for at least a generation; a pandemic that could completely alter the shape of the world as we know it?

The state’s failure to control the mosques is rooted in decades of the mosques successfully controlling the state. In Pakistan, Islam isn’t just a way of life; it is the only way of life. Pakistan’s creation owes much to the idea that believing in Islam is sufficient ground to form a nation, and by extension, the institutions of a state. The constant reaffirmation of this idea was then deemed necessary to keep this multiethnic state from disintegrating.

Since then, Islamic exhibitionism has dominated everything from education to workplaces, from film to sports. This Islamist usurpation, from originating in the separatist movement for Pakistan, to its goriest manifestation under military ruler Zia-ul-Haq, has rendered Islam and life inseparable – quite literally in some cases, where the former can only be abandoned in conjunction with the latter.

How then, in the midst of a pandemic, does the government muster the courage to say that religion isn’t quite the answer to everything?

Especially a government that is led by a leader who has 'flirted' with the Taliban. Little wonder then that in his latest address to the nation, Imran Khan announced that he plans to fight coronavirus ‘with faith’.

Nobody quite knows what the world will look like at the other end of the Covid-19 pandemic. But for Pakistan, the rebuilding will need to be led by those who value this world, at least as much as their interpretation of the next.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based correspondent for the Diplomat