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Editorial | Authorities Must Carefully Handle Religious Tensions During Covid-19

The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the fault-lines in various societies – from India’s majoritarian hostility to its Muslim population, to racial and class-based divisions in a number of countries. Pakistan is no different. Among other divisions, the pandemic has cast Pakistan’s sectarian tensions in sharp relief.

The role of this or that community as initial vectors for the virus entering Pakistani territory has been debated in a very ugly manner by sectarian hotheads – often with little regard for facts. And on top of that, any restrictions on religious gatherings, or lack therof, are interpreted in sectarian terms by some partisan religious lobbies. Whether the government takes a step or fails to, it treads on painful sectarian divides in the country.

Consider the case of the Yaum-e-Ali processions, marking the martyrdom of Imam Ali (AS) every 21st of Ramzan. The federal government has asked provinces to implement Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) which prevent any Yaum-e-Ali rallies from being organized this year.

Let us consider three aspects of this situation.

First, the fact that from a scientific or medical perspective, it is indeed sound policy to prevent any mass public gatherings. Concentrations of human beings for any purpose become a means of spreading the highly contagious virus, and Pakistan’s healthcare sytem already seems unable to cope with the effects of the outbreak in the country. Religious community leaders who are adamant on bringing out Yaum-e-Ali processions must realize that their demand flies in the face of public health and endangers the faithful who would be exposed to infection. The pandemic is not just a policy problem, but also an ethical challenge that requires us all to show good sense rather than self-destructive stubbornness.

Second, from the perspective of those who normally organize Yaum-e-Ali rallies, mostly Pakistan’s Shia Muslim communities, it can easily appear as if they are subject to special restrictions. After all, this is a country whose leadership has announced that it cannot “afford” a lockdown. Business activities are proceeding across the country and markets are filled with crowds. Moreover, religious community leaders have already negotiated, extracted or dictated (depending on your perspective) an arrangement where mosques remain open not just for Friday congregational prayers but for Taravih gatherings and Aitekaf in the month of Ramzan. The latter two observances are generally not considered ‘farz’ (obligatory). When everything proceeds as normal in the midst of a deadly pandemic, but one particular sect among Muslims cannot enjoy the same latitude, some members will surely wonder about the double standard. And hardliners will, of course, profit from fanning such sentiments in ever more provocative terms.

But speaking of hardliners and provocations, let us consider a third particularly disastrous aspect to this situation. A member of banned sectarian outfit Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ), a Toofan Khokhar, has made a particularly dangerous statement. He says that if Shia Muslims somehow still manage to take out processions to mark Yaum-e-Ali on the 21st of Ramzan, the ASWJ will also organize rallies throughout Pakistan on that day, regardless of Coronavirus restrictions in the country.

Ideally, Pakistani authorities from the highest level should have achieved clarity that no gatherings of any kind can be permitted until the threat from the Coronavirus pandemic recedes. Decisive policy-making could have mitigated both the threat to public health and sectarian harmony.

Now, it is of the utmost importance that additional religious gatherings of any kind are avoided. Above all, authorities must discourage rallies of the kind that the banned sectarian outfit ASWJ has threatened, whose purpose is purely malevolent.

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