Religious Fanaticism Rules Pakistan

Overruling the governments directions, the Imams of Pakistan urge the public to participate in Ramadan functions at the mosques.

Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection, self-improvement, and heightened devotion and worship. Muslims believe that Ramadan teaches them to practice self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate, thus encouraging actions of generosity. All the other years Ramadan was celebrated in all its fervour. But this year with the restrictions and the precautions one needs to take against the coronavirus, it’s going to be a real test of self-discipline and self-control. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing Muslims to adapt, observing the holy month more at home than in the mosque, more online than in person, and with greater uncertainty about the future.

For the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan is a social and spiritual high point, a time to gather with friends and family and to focus on fasting, prayer, and scripture. But the coronavirus pandemic is transforming this Ramadan across the world, clearing out mosques, canceling communal prayers, and forcing families to replace physical gatherings with virtual meet-ups.

But in Pakistan, there the pandemic seems to have no effect on the celebrations of Ramadan.

Pakistan opens up for Ramadan

This year many people were expecting that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government would impose a strict ban on mass prayers – including the special Ramadan prayers in mosques – to slow the spread of COVID-19. But Khan, a conservative politician who enjoys right-wing support, decided against shutting down the mosques. The government, however, urged Islamic clerics to ensure social distancing rules during Ramadan prayers. In a snub to Khan’s leadership, Pakistan’s powerful military urged people to pray at home, warning the “next 15 days are crucial”. But that advice was largely ignored or downplayed across much of the country, home to about 215 million people who are used to living in old, cramped, multi-generational quarters.

While clerics and governments across the Muslim world will greet Ramadan this week under lockdown, working together to shut mosques and urging worshipers to pray at home, in Pakistan, some of the most prominent imams have rallied their devotees to ignore the anti-pandemic measures. Pandemic or no pandemic, hard-line clerics are calling the shots, overriding the government’s nationwide virus lockdown.

As Ramadan drew closer, dozens of well-known clerics and leaders of religious parties — including some who had initially obeyed the lockdown orders — signed a letter demanding that the government exempt mosques from the shutdown during the holy month or invite the anger of God and the faithful. Some clerics even warned that the state would invite the “God’s wrath” if they restricted prayers during Ramadan.

When Prime Minister Imran Khan met with the clerics, deferentially promising to abide by the deal, critics were demanding to know who was in charge during this national crisis: the government or the mosques?

Giving in to their demands, the Pakistani government has allowed Islamic clerics to hold mass prayers during Ramadan, prompting the medical community to condemn the move.

Imams overrule the government

The reason why imams have such power in Pakistan is that they are backed by the military. Pakistan’s imams were empowered by the military during the 1980s when mosques across the country churned out jihadists to fight the Soviet military in Afghanistan with the support of the United States.

While other countries tried to curb hard-line clerics’ influence after the Afghan war, recognizing the dangers they posed, in Pakistan, the powerful military continued to use them as tools of foreign and domestic policy.

But their defiance of the lockdown is exposing the limits of even the military’s control.

The military wanted the shutdown, pressuring Mr. Khan to back the measure at a time when he was reluctant and worried about the economic toll. But when the security forces tried to prevent worshipers from gathering at mosques for prayers, they found themselves under attack.

While clerics acknowledge that their mosques are perfect vectors for the coronavirus’s spread — still they allow worshipers to gather in large numbers to perform ablutions together before cramming into the mosques, shoulder to shoulder in supplication. Why, you ask?

The answer is simple-money and influence.

Worshipers open their wallets wide during Ramadan, donating millions of dollars. Mosques depend largely on the donations collected during Ramadan.

Also, clerics don’t want to lose their social and political control over society. They fear that if Muslims don’t come to the mosques, they will lose their power, their influence. And in places like Pakistan, where mosques are not under the authority of the state, the money can make or break an imam and the following they try to build, often to parlay into political power to challenge the government.

This has majorly affected the health-care system of the country. The country’s bare-bones medical system, stretched during ordinary times to fight basic diseases, is now completely overwhelmed. With Ramadan approaching, they fear that allowing large congregations in mosques will increase the likelihood of infection. Experts feel that the coronavirus can spread exponentially during the holy month. But as long as the country is being run by the madrasa chap illiterates, who are paying heed to these experts.

Viewpoint

Khan has been slammed for an apparent “lack of policy” to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics say his government has been sending mixed signals about the lockdown, which has resulted in people not taking it seriously. The prime minister has also been lenient with Islamic groups even though the primary coronavirus infections were detected among the returning pilgrims from Iran and the Sunni hardliners who refused to follow social distancing rules in their assemblies.  The Imran Khan government has been facing failure after failure as far as coping up with this pandemic is concerned. First, the government was late in taking a decision about the lockdown, and then they were unable to provide basic facilities like personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and other medical equipment to the health care officials. As if that wasn’t enough Khan’s government is seeking advice from Islamic clerics now, instead of consulting health experts. One thing is certain, if not their poor economic conditions, then their religious fanaticism will definitely make them a victim of this deadly pandemic.

28 Apr 20/Tuesday                                                                                       Written By: Saima Ibrahim