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Editorial | Irresponsible Religious Leaders Must Not Be Allowed To Destroy Lockdown Effort

For better or worse, and with all the errors and confusion involved, the Pakistani state and society have agreed on lockdowns as being central to the country’s strategy for overcoming the Coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, a number of influential religious figures in the country continue to make a mockery of this effort.

Rather than provide clarity and solace to people in this time, they seem determined to pour fuel on the fire that is the Coronavirus outbreak: as if this would somehow prove their lifetime of regressive positions correct. It will not. Such defiance of good sense will only cost us valuable lives and scarce resources as the pandemic spreads through human gatherings – including those of worshipers.

Infamous cleric Abdul Aziz has once again emerged as a symbol of the helplessness of the Pakistani state and society. He has repeatedly made clear his contempt for the Pakistani people, from the time when he fled the Lal Masjid in a burka, leaving supporters – including his younger brother – to fight to the death against security forces in 2007. With his organization’s ability to feed and house children from marginalized backgrounds, he has used his supporters ruthlessly to push forward his programme for Pakistan, which is indistinguishable from that of the many terrorist organizations that have attacked this country. He even prevailed upon his supporters to express allegiance to the infamous Islamic State terrorist group in the past, thus bringing further shame to this country.

And now, Abdul Aziz has taken upon himself the responsibility of proving to the world that Pakistan cannot enforce a public health policy of temporary lockdowns, even when the entire population is at risk. We will not dwell upon this government’s failure to deal with the odious behaviour of this cleric – something it shares with previous administrations. Nor will we speculate on what powerful lobbies might ensure that he has stayed above the law for so long.

In this space, right now, it is only appropriate to beseech authorities to lay aside the usual rules of doing business, much as the rest of the world has. Capitulation before such elements at this moment is something for which history will never forgive those in charge of Pakistan.

The problem is not just of Abdul Aziz or his immediate associates. Leaders of the JUI-F have been joining the fray, with turbulent elements like the outspoken Mufti Kifayatullah publicly calling on supporters to risk their lives in a futile effort to “keep mosques open” during this emergency situation.

Despite efforts to give the problem a sectarian or denominational tinge, it is clear that some religious community leaders from all the major branches of Islam in Pakistan – Sunni and Shia alike – have played a role in destroying the lockdown effort. In doing this, they have gone against the better judgement of the government, medical experts, law enforcement agencies, responsible religious leaders within Pakistan and even the very foreign Muslim countries from which they derive their inspiration. We already noted earlier that these anti-social elements would never dare to defy consensus and government regulations on a lockdown if they were currently residing in Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Muslims ought to have been fortunate in that they follow a faith tradition that explicitly allows for special measures in the public interest. Above all, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is clearly reported to have advised the greatest prudence and good sense in dealing with an epidemic.

Where ever our irresponsible clerics derive their determination to harm the people from, it cannot be from the gentle, humane wisdom of Islam.

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