Mosques become Coronavirus Battleground Issue in Pakistan
As night falls, worshippers file into the Abdullah bin Masood mosque in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, rushing up the steps to serve newly recommenced congregational prayers. Inside, more than 200 people are assembled, parted by a few feet within them – to sustain physical distancing – as they offer tarawih prayers, a particular Muslim prayer offered in the holy month of Ramadan.
There is not a face mask or container of hand sanitizer to be observed, as larger worshippers walk past the police post outside to people into the mosque’s inner chamber, with its fluorescent lights flickering off the latticed reflector ceiling.
“Essential services have been resumed, and offering prayers as part of a congregation is also a vital service,” Hanif Jallandhri, a Pakistani religious leader who manages a network of more than 20,000 mosques and religious institutions, tells Al Jazeera.
In most Muslim countries, authorities have, with the backing of religious leaders, closed down all mosques to the people to hold the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus. In Pakistan, however, tens of thousands of mosques across the country revived late last month, after religious leaders predominated upon the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to enable them to restart congregational services.
It is an unprecedented decision, among Muslim countries, and one that draws into the complex interplay of how political and social power flows in a country where religion is central to public life but does not have a formalized part within State structures. The result is a constant push-and-pull among religious and political leaders, such as has been seen over the decision to reopen mosques.
Cases of the coronavirus in Pakistan passed 20,000 early this month, with at least 526 people dead, and more than 6,200 have recovered. Cases have been growing exponentially in recent days, and are anticipated to hit more than 130,000 by the end of May.
At least 2,682 cases, or 12 percent of the country’s total cases, can be traced back to a single religious gathering by the Tableeghi Jamat missionary organization outside the eastern city of Lahore in March. It is the biggest single group of those affected in the country’s outbreak so far.
Part of the issue for Prime Minister Khan’s government – which has upheld for loose shutdowns since the inception of the outbreak – when taking on religious leaders is one that goes back to the foundation of the country as a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent, in 1947.
“Pakistan is a kind of unique case,” says Ahsan Butt, a political scientist at the George Mason University in the US state of Virginia. “It’s a case where it’s a state established on Muslim nationalism, so Islam and Muslim identity are critical to the State and the broader society, and the idea of the collective self. But it is not raised strictly as a Muslim or Islamist state, like Iran or Saudi Arabia.” Ahsan Butt added.
As a result, Ahsan Butt describes, religious heads and institutions wield a vast deal of control and social power but are not explicitly a part of the State. By contrast, states where religious authorization is blended into governance, like Saudi Arabia, have been more able to manage their religious establishments during the coronavirus outbreak, shutting down areas of worship, including the holiest site in Islam, the Kaaba.
“So, this drives to a dichotomy: that Islam is central to Pakistan’s being, but (religious) actors are, in their opinion, outside the State. Clerics may impact the country very well, but they are not the ones really in power.”
“Religious parties have never got a significant number of seats in Pakistani elections. Butt claims that they rely rather on “latent power, not juridical power. Their power comes from their reputation and status; it comes from the warning of coming out on the street”, Ahsan added.
Tensions appeared to the fore on April 14, when an association of religious leaders from across the Pakistani Muslim sectarian spectrum – a rare phenomenon – came together to declare that they were unilaterally reopening mosques for congregational prayers, in resistance of government lockdown procedures.
The step urged the government to bargain with a committee of religious leaders, agreeing to a 20-point plan for reopening mosques from late April. The measures include implementing physical distancing guidelines among worshippers, obstructing the sick and elderly from attending prayers, giving hand sanitizer to congregants and restraining socializing within the mosque.
Days later, leading Pakistani doctors warned that the arrangement could drive to a spike in coronavirus cases. Religious leaders say they will take responsibility for implementing the directives and that the government can act if commands are not obeyed.
Ahsan Butt concurs with that analysis. “Pakistan is not a fully democratic state, but unlike Egypt, for instance, where the State can clamp down on protests and collective action and on freedom of assembly pretty easily, regardless of who is doing it, Pakistan does not have that fully authoritarian structure,” he says.
For religious leaders, bound in a regular push-and-pull for social and political power with the State, the calculus in such a situation looks relatively clear.
“If you have religious institution or mosques shut down, then the topic arises that you have all these other [groceries and businesses] that are open, does that indicate that religious aspects of our lives are less important?” asks Arsalan Khan, an anthropologist who studies Islamic revivalist movements in South Asia. “This is a Deen [religion] versus Duniya [worldly concerns] enigma.”
For leaders of organized religion, Arsalan says, “there is a real fear, across the board, that religion will be rendered unimportant. When the politics of religion is organized around the sense that religious feeling is vital to the wellbeing of society, then it is hard to argue that mosques should be closed.”
Hanif Jallandhri, the religious leader, says Pakistanis need to take “spiritual” steps to fight the virus, in addition to hygiene precautions. “The government has opened various sectors to ease the lockdown,” he says. “Our position is that if you open groceries, bazaars, banks, other types of businesses, then the mosque should also be opened.”
There are also substantial financial implications for religious institutions if they remain closed. Pakistan’s government is mostly uninvolved in managing or financing mosques across the country, leaving that up to autonomous ethical boards and organizations.
“These [mosques and religious leaders] are radically freelancers, and it is a pretty vicious market, with tens of thousands of mosques,” says Ahsan Butt. “They need the contributions [and] a lot of it comes from foot traffic – if you cut that throughout Ramadan, then you cut their earnings significantly for the year, not just that month.”
For religious leaders, there is a further danger of not being seen to guard the place of religion in society enough, and being “outflanked” by others who are ready to take a harder line. “If I, as a leader of a mosque, don’t take the most radical position, then the second or third in command of this mosque will look to succeed me and will have a stronger [or more extreme] argument,” says Ahsan Butt.
Arsalan Khan admits, suggesting that senior religious leaders who stirred for the 20-point plan to reopen mosques with the government were responding to pressure from the bottom of their organizations.
“There is a fear [for them] that lower-tier upstarts could rise,” Arsalan says. “Whoever can control the politics of the street, has leverage and so, more established religious leaders are anxious about these more radical powers that come from the bottom [replacing them].”
Finally, there is the question of how religion may well be something many Pakistanis think to be an essential service – despite issues of social power.
“The idea that wellbeing comes from God, this is not just religious leaders that state that it is a generally accepted thing [in Pakistan],” says Arsalan. “This is not certainly built on an irrational perception of the risk. It may be that you admit those risks, and yet you find that the value of going to the mosque is greater.”
At a small mosque in Islamabad’s G-8 sector, questions of outflanking and potential ideological coups at the top of religious institutions feel like distant matters. A handful of worshippers meet for the nightly tarawih prayer.
Across the road is the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS), the capital’s central government hospital and the heart of battles to control the coronavirus outbreak here.
The worshippers stand shoulder-to-shoulder, on a bare marble floor, as the imam starts the prayer.