Imams over­rule Pak­istan’s coro­n­avirus lock­down

Cler­ics’ in­flu­ence on govern­ment crit­i­cized as mosques re­main open

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Canada & World -

MARIA ABI-HABIB AND ZIA UR-REHMAN

While cler­ics and gov­ern­ments across the Mus­lim world will greet Ra­madan this week un­der lock­down, work­ing to­gether to shut mosques and urg­ing wor­ship­pers to pray at home, in Pak­istan, some of the most prom­i­nent imams have ral­lied their devo­tees to ig­nore the an­tipan­demic mea­sures.

Ra­madan, which be­gins in Pak­istan later this week, is the holy month in which Mus­lims crowd into mosques and fast all day, hold­ing feasts af­ter sun­down with fam­ily and friends. Those are ripe con­di­tions for the coro­n­avirus to spread, and imams around the world are ask­ing peo­ple to stay home.

But in Pak­istan, pan­demic or no pan­demic, hard-line cler­ics are call­ing the shots, over­rid­ing the govern­ment’s coun­try­wide virus lock­down, which be­gan late last month.

Most cler­ics com­plied with the shut­down when it was an­nounced. But some of the most in­flu­en­tial ones im­me­di­ately called on wor­ship­pers to at­tend Fri­day prayers in even greater num­bers. Devo­tees at­tacked po­lice of­fi­cers who tried to get in their way.

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.

On Satur­day, the govern­ment gave in, sign­ing an agree­ment that let mosques stay open for Ra­madan as long as they fol­lowed 20 rules, in­clud­ing forc­ing con­gre­gants to main­tain a two-me­tre dis­tance, bring their own prayer mats and do their ablu­tions at home.

By the time Prime Min­is­ter Im­ran Khan met with the cler­ics Mon­day, 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.

“The state has be­come totally sub­servient to these cler­ics,” said Hus­nul Amin, an Is­lam­abad-based pro­fes­sor and scholar on Is­lam and pol­i­tics. “It is very dif­fi­cult for the state to im­ple­ment what’s best for the pub­lic good. The larger pub­lic in­ter­est is al­ways up against the cler­ics. It’s com­pletely un­demo­cratic.”

Pak­istan’s imams were em­pow­ered by the mil­i­tary dur­ing the 1980s when mosques across the coun­try churned out ji­hadis 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 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 wor­ship­pers from gath­er­ing at mosques for prayers, they found them­selves un­der attack.

In Karachi, the largest city, scenes emerged of wor­ship­pers chas­ing the po­lice through nar­row al­ley­ways, pelt­ing them with rocks and send­ing sev­eral of­fi­cers to hospi­tal.

“The mil­i­tary has cre­ated a mon­ster they can no longer con­trol,” Amin said. “They are the cre­ation of the mil­i­tary, and only they could han­dle them. That may no longer be the case.”

By the time Ra­madan ap­proached, po­lice of­fi­cers were no longer will­ing to erect cor­dons around mosques to stop gath­er­ings for prayers.

While cler­ics ac­knowl­edge that their mosques are per­fect vec­tors for the coro­n­avirus’s spread — wor­ship­pers gather to per­form ablu­tions to­gether be­fore cram­ming into the mosques, shoul­der to shoul­der in sup­pli­ca­tion — they say they have to pro­tect their bot­tom line: money and in­flu­ence.

“We know the coro­n­avirus pan­demic is a global health is­sue, but re­li­gious du­ties can­not be aban­doned,” said Maulana Ataullah Hazravi, a Karachibas­ed cleric.

And, he added, “mosques de­pend largely on the do­na­tions col­lected dur­ing Ra­madan.” That point — money — was high on the list of griev­ances that the cler­ics raised in their let­ter last week.

Wor­ship­pers open their wal­lets wide dur­ing Ra­madan, do­nat­ing millions of dol­lars. And in places like Pak­istan, where mosques are not un­der the au­thor­ity of the state, the money can make or break imams and the fol­low­ings they try to build, of­ten to par­lay into po­lit­i­cal power to chal­lenge the govern­ment.

Pak­istani cler­ics have fre­quently used their re­li­gious au­thor­ity to get loy­al­ists to lay siege to the cap­i­tal, for ex­am­ple, forc­ing the state to change poli­cies they dis­agree with.

That dif­fers from coun­tries like Egypt or the United Arab Emi­rates, where the au­thor­i­ties give cler­ics guide­lines or even spe­cific re­marks for their Fri­day ser­mons.

“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,” Amin said.

The cler­ics, ob­servers said, may worry that if the govern­ment forces their mosques to close dur­ing Ra­madan — us­ing the pan­demic, from their point of view, as a cover — it could pro­vide an open­ing to fi­nally bring them un­der the state’s au­thor­ity.

An ed­i­to­rial in the prom­i­nent news­pa­per Dawn de­manded that the cler­i­cal estab­lish­ment take a back seat and let the govern­ment man­age the cri­sis.

“This should not be seen as an af­front to re­li­gion,” edi­tors wrote last week.

“Rather, it is an at­tempt to save the lives of the gen­eral pub­lic.”

But in pri­vate meet­ings with of­fi­cials, cler­ics warned that the state would in­vite “God’s wrath” if it re­stricted prayers dur­ing Ra­madan, Hazravi said — code for the po­lit­i­cal chaos that imams have un­leashed in the past.

FA­REED KHAN THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Wor­ship­pers pray Wed­nes­day at a mosque in Karachi, Pak­istan.

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