A Muslim devotee sprays disinfectant in a Mosque ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramazan. PHOTO: AFP

The impending corona catastrophe and the clerics who will pray at home

It’s politically convenient for the government to permit a public health disaster at the behest of the clerics

Faraz Talat April 27, 2020
The clerics insist on keeping the mosques open during Ramazan, and we say “fine”. This is resignation in its darkest, most hostile form. The full sentiment is “Fine, let them die”, because we don’t have the patience anymore to face the clout of the all-powerful Pakistani mullah. No amount of science-based advice from federal health experts or desperate pleas by prominent Pakistani doctors will seemingly get in the way of mass-infection and the resulting socioeconomic chaos. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, never quite known for maintaining a firm stance against religious hardliners, has said “fine” in full knowledge of the consequences.

So then, the only thing to look forward to is the schadenfreude, expected to peak within 14 days; a glorious sense of validation as we watch the sensational news coverage of devout worshippers succumbing en-mass, while congratulating ourselves on our prescience? We’ll be able to definitively prove that the crisis has been caused by our ignorance of scientific realities, and not “immodest women”, as Maulana Tariq Jamil theorises.

“Fine, let them die”, we mumble as we knowingly head towards disaster. But who’s “them”? The powerful bearded men and the clean-shaved elite that backs them are hardly experimenting with their own bodies. Mufti Muneebur Rehman, one of the major proponents for the campaign to open up the mosques, has stated that he’ll personally pray at home. These are not usually the sort of men who mingle with the common rabble on a daily basis, let alone in the midst of a dangerous pandemic. “Them”, ultimately, is the 19-year old asthamatic reluctantly accompanying his devout dada jaan to the local mosque for taraweeh. “Them” is a simple Pakistani Muslim who doesn’t follow public health experts online, and reasonably assumes that the crisis is over from the way everyone around him is conducting business as usual. “Them” is the housewife who plays by the rules, wipes every surface in her home with way too much Dettol, and then sleeps next to her husband after he returns from the congregation.

These are the people we are ‘agreeing’ to sacrifice to prove our point to the likes of Mufti Muneebur Rehman, as he hunkers down in his private home, well over six-feet away from the catastrophe he’s helped fuel. We accuse them of ignorance, but it’s worse than that. According to reports, closure of mosques is just one of their major concerns. The other is a potential shift of donations from mosques and seminaries to other charities during the Islamic month of Ramazan. President Arif Alvi assured the clerics that this won’t happen, stating,
“I appeal to the people not to reduce their funding to these Islamic institutions in Ramazan.”

Our local mosques have been closing, re-opening, and re-closing for a while now. But this renewed interest in opening the mosques has little to do with spirituality. Much of it appears to be about keeping the donations flowing into the religious institutions in what is undoubtedly their most lucrative month. As a Muslim citizen challenges this decision by citing scripture and arguing how Islam mandates quarantine in these circumstances, he/she fails to notice that this is a business decision, not a religious one.

Why then do we keep framing this looming disaster as a fight between the ‘educated experts’ against the ‘ignorant masses’? The masses do what they’re allowed to do by the ruling system. Surely, to avoid congregating in the midst of a deadly pandemic is a matter of ‘personal responsibility’. Who indeed is the government of this “independent nation” to dictate its people what to do? One’s curious if this ‘personal responsibility’ doctrine holds up if you pour yourself a glass of whiskey in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. If you do, whether you’re an educated doctor or an uneducated preacher, the police would gladly arrive at your threshold to nudge you in the ‘right direction’. Ostensibly, the same iron fist does not lend itself to matters as frivolous as resisting a plague with the potential to overwhelm an already dysfunctional healthcare system.

The government’s apathy is unconscionable, but expected. It’s politically convenient for the government to permit a public health disaster at the behest of the clerics, and be able to say “Aha!” two weeks later. The alternative would be anti-climactic: to exhaust itself mud-wrestling an undefeatable opponent, and expect gratitude from a skeptic Muslim public for preventing a catastrophe they weren’t anticipating anyway. Rather, we maintain the privilege of saying “We told you so!” than the clerics accusing us of having over-reacted when we safely arrive at the other side of the pandemic. “See? It wasn’t so bad!”.

But before we get a chance to smugly say “We told you so”, we’d have our own little crisis to contend with. Before the “covidiots” die and we indulge in our dark humor about the Darwin awards, the “covidiots” become carriers. None of us live inside a perfectly impenetrable bubble. We go out to buy groceries every now and then. We absent-mindedly scratch our noses and rub our eyes. Sometimes, we forget to use the hand sanitiser after exchanging cash. When we’re sharing space with a carrier of coronavirus, the tiniest of missteps is all it takes. When the symptoms appear, heaven forbid, we realise that our prescience isn’t enough.

None of us are safe when the nation is sick. We prefer to see ourselves as individuals locked in our own separate rooms, but we aren’t. The box of cereal I purchased today was worked upon by dozens of human hands before reaching my kitchen counter. We glorify individualism, but hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution has taught us to survive and thrive as collectives. The assurance of interconnectivity is the foundation of all our systems. Now is not the time to start believing that we’d be ‘fine’ as long as it’s our neighbors, and not us, who are congregating in mosques. I don’t want to be correct anymore. I just want us all to be safe.
Faraz Talat

The writer is a doctor based in Rawalpindi and writes about current affairs and societal issues.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.