The tally of coronavirus cases in Pakistan has surged past 2,000, with 26 deaths. But people in the country, especially the Islamic clerics, have still not taken the pandemic seriously and are refusing to stop religious congregations.
While the local government announced the closure of mosques in the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan, last Thursday, Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab – with over 110 million inhabitants – allowed mosques to still remain open.
Official orders stating that the number of mosque attendees in Punjab and Islamabad has been limited were only issued just after noon, less than an hour before the scheduled Friday prayers.
The potential pandemonium that can be caused by such large congregations was revealed after a large gathering, involving 250,000 people, was held, earlier this month, that further led to potentially thousands of infections spreading across all Islamic countries in the world, The Spectator said in one of its reports.
The annual meeting of the Islamic missionary movement ‘Tableeghi Jamaat’ in Lahore, which hosted thousands of Muslims from around the world, has led to infections spreading to Palestinians, Kyrgyzstanis and across Pakistan.
Around 550 worshipers belonging to the congregation, including members from Afghanistan, China, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Tunisia, are currently in quarantine after a Chinese citizen, who was also a part of the congregation, tested positive for COVID-19.
Prime minister Imran Khan and his government had already been criticised for allowing the vast Tableeghi Jamaat crowds to continue congregating. However, weeks after the event, the ongoing failure to unequivocally shut down mosques underlines a menace that the government considers graver than the COVID-19 pandemic: an ‘Islamist backlash’.
The above succumbs to the fact that the government’s reluctance to ban congregational prayers carries within it the fraught tensions of Pakistan’s identity.
Amid such a situation, how will the government control the epidemic outbreak?
Over the years, the state has allowed Islamists to take up violence over YouTube videos and cartoons. Mobs have burned down Christian and Hindu neighbourhoods and razed places of worship belonging to non-Muslims and the ‘wrong kind’ of Muslims.
In addition, the all-powerful Pakistani army has found special utility in the Islamist militants over the decades. In addition to backing cross-border militancy in Afghanistan and India, the Islamist outfits and parties help the army keep a check on elected governments.
And now Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician, already indebted to the military establishment for his ascension to power, is the latest civilian leader to be bogged down by Islamists, with his government reeling under the pressure.
What pressure could possibly justify inaction over the greatest global crisis for at least a generation especially after the United Nations, earlier this week, predicted that less developed economies in South Asia will witness a reduced growth rate, possibly in the negative?
The state’s failure to control the mosques is rooted in decades of the mosques successfully controlling the state.
In Pakistan, Islam isn’t just a way of life; it is the only way of life. Pakistan’s creation owes much to the idea that believing in Islam is sufficient ground to form a nation, and by extension, the institutions of a state, the report said.
How then, in the midst of a pandemic, does the government muster the courage to say that religion isn’t quite the answer to everything?
To avoid a perilously delayed action to contain the spread, Pakistan should have shut down the mosques just weeks after local coronavirus cases were initially reported in the country, and over a month since Saudi Arabia and Iran banned prayers in the holiest places in respective countries.