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Editorial | Religious Leaders Should Stop Undermining Pakistan’s Struggle Against Coronavirus

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Some of the official hand-wringing over imposing the inevitable Coronavirus-related lockdown has decreased. It cannot be said that it is a thing of the past, because the Prime Minister still does not seem entirely convinced.

But a far bigger challenge remains unaddressed, effectively nullifying any positive effects from the lockdown. Prayers and worship-related congregations continue to bring large numbers of people together in cities across the country.

Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar has issued a fatwa suspending Friday prayers for the duration of the Coronavirus pandemic – specifically at the request of Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi.

It remains to be seen if the obvious Islamic perspective on dealing with a pandemic – i.e. responsibility to the community, rationality and prudence – will be upheld by the government in the face of religious leaders promoting suicidal attitudes in the middle of a major public health crisis.

By his own account, the Prime Minister, in congratulating China on its containment of the Covid-19 outbreak, noted that not a single case was transmitted from China to Pakistan. It was pilgrims returning from Iran and Saudi Arabia who appear to have been the primary vectors for Covid-19 in Pakistan. Unfortunately for these pilgrims, their families and their wider communities, the Pakistani government seems to have treated the issue without any seriousness in the earlier weeks of the pandemic. The horrific conditions at Taftan are just one example of that approach.

At this current stage of Pakistan’s fight against Covid-19, when one would imagine that everyone would be roughly “on the same page”, it turns out that we are anything but in agreement. Pakistan’s religious leaders – across sectarian lines – have responded quite poorly to the crisis. In fact, many of them have actively undermined the efforts of public health authorities to contain the virus. They have not only spread wrong information about the virus, but they have also – with some exceptions – openly defied the effort to keep people indoors and safe from the virus.

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Cases as far as Palestine have apparently been traced to travelers who returned from a massive religious gathering in Pakistan associated with the Tableeghi Jamaat.

We had noted earlier that many Muslim-majority countries did not have such a tough internal struggle in adopting the necessary measures, particularly the Arab countries of the GCC region. They moved into an emergency system for praying at home which has precedents in the time of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) himself.

Those countries which failed to adopt these measures in time – such as Iran, Malaysia and Indonesia – are now dealing with their own Covid-19 problem on varying levels of intensity. Pakistan, too, could end up paying the price for the harmful, irresponsible, irrational and obstructionist attitude of religious leaders from both major sects.

The government, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) and others are still wondering how to approach an issue to which the answer is clearer than day. Even the Sindh government, with its otherwise proactive attitude in dealing with the pandemic, has failed to ensure cooperation on this count from various religious congregation leaders.

None of the religious elements in Pakistan would ever dare to defy official lockdowns if they were currently residing in Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries or Iran. They would obediently pray from home. But their own home country is not to be spared their self-destructive experiments.

Two burning questions now remain.

First: what faith or religious morality are the religious leaders in Pakistan serving with their stubborn and destructive approach, when so many other Muslim-majority countries had no doubts about what needed to be done?

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Second: who will the government blame if its helplessness in the face of some religious leaders ends up imposing a terrible toll (God forbid!) on this country?

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