By Inamul Haq
While the world fights the COVID-19 pandemic and searches for a vaccine, the sub-continent looks at this virus through the lens of religion. Many people in the sub-continent with a strong religious faith believe religion has the power to defend them against the virus and other pandemic diseases.
In South Asia, one’s life from birth to death is regulated by religion. It is no surprise then that a large number of people repose a strong faith in God and challenge any allegations against their faith. People have knocked the doors of Gods periodically whenever a pandemic has devastated human life. When the bubonic plague broke out in Europe in the 14th century, religious leaders contended that the disease was a punishment from God for people’s sinful ways of life. Prayers and, more so, penance for one’s sins, including flogging oneself, were seen as ways to protect oneself from the epidemic. However, there was no relief despite all pious exertions.
We agree that religion provides as well advocates a spirit of community and humanity. However, the religious communities ought to advocate precautionary measures, instead of showing rigidity or orthodoxy. The Shincheonji religious group was accused for the rapid spread of the virus in South Korea. In Indonesia and Malaysia, many worshippers tested positive for ignoring government advisories to stay away from religious gatherings. In Bangladesh, people came out on the streets to protest against such advisories. In Pakistan, religious leaders advised people to stay away from gatherings. However, some insisted on coming to the mosques to offer their prayers, encouraged by WhatsApp forwards. Ignoring government advisories, people contributed to the spread of the virus by gathering in places of worship.
All forms of worship, from China to Vatican City to Iran, have been closed as part of the efforts to prevent the virus from spreading. In almost all countries, religious authorities have asked worshippers to follow religious ceremonies on local TV channels or via Facebook Live, rather than congregate at their usual places of worship.
In his first address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that India should maintain Janata curfew on 22 March 2020 and show public solidarity with health workers in the evening by clapping from their home without breaking the practice of social distancing. However, the Janata curfew ended in celebrations on the streets with firecrackers in many parts of the country. Muslim congregational prayers on Friday, Sunday church services, and similar mass gatherings among different religious communities are secretly going on in India irrespective of the perceptible threat of the virus.
In India, the COVID-19 has been termed as an Islamic jihad by the right wing supporters as many people who attended the religious congregation in New Delhi Nizamuddin Markaz have tested positive. The electronic and print media started propagating hate stories and created a narrative that Muslims have been deliberately trying to spread the virus. Some news channels went to the extent of calling it a pre-planned jihad against India.
The question is: Why is only the Tablighi Jamaat being held responsible for the outbreak of COVID-19? If the leaders of Tablighi Jamaat violated Delhi Government order, why did the police and central government remain mute spectators? While some Tablighi Jamaat members are responsible for the outbreak of COVID-19 in Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir, what about the majority of the cases in different states? Kanika Kapoor, who tested positive thrice, attended parties with BJP workers; the MP government was formed amid lockdown crisis; workers and supporters of BJP also gathered in huge numbers; the CM of Karnataka attended a marriage function; people in UP and West Bengal took out Ram Namvi processions in a large number. Why there is no outrage against these people?
Humans always want some relief in times of distress. The religious leaders all over the world have always converted these moments of helplessness into opportunities to make their presence felt due to the negligence of governments. In this time of crisis, we must unite to fight not only against COVID-19 but also against the hate mongers, who use a health crisis for propagating hatred. The religious people should also understand that following government advisory is beneficial for saving lives. The government should deal with the faithful patiently yet firmly. No one is above the rule of law and the law must do its work.
COVID-19 is spreading fast in the world, while hate and religious bigotry are spreading even faster.
Inamul Haq is a research candidate at the Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, India.
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