Source: Washington Post
By Madiha Afzal, who is a David M. Rubenstein fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State.”
Perform your ablutions at home. Bring your own prayer mats, place them six feet apart. Wear masks. Use the provided hand sanitizer. No handshakes or hugs allowed. No talking in the mosque. No one over 50 years old can enter. No children allowed.
These guidelines are part of a list of 20 standard operating procedures that Pakistan’s government issued on April 18, ostensibly in consultation with the country’s religious clerics, for mosque congregations during Ramadan. In reality, the government caved in to the demands of clerics, who earlier that week said that they would refuse to limit Ramadan congregations, despite a growing number of covid-19 cases in the country.
In Pakistan, the religious right — an amalgam of Islamist political parties and the ulema, or religious clerics — has functioned as a potent pressure force on the country’s government since its inception. It is doing so amid this covid-19 pandemic as well.
Anyone who has been inside a mosque in Pakistan knows these guidelines are impractical to follow. And enforcement is essentially impossible given the sheer number of mosques in the country, each holding prayers five times a day, in addition to extended Taraweeh prayers during Ramadan. Already, a report from a nongovernmental organization in Pakistan’s Punjab province said 80 percent of the mosques it visited last week were violating guidelines. As of Friday, Pakistan reported 17,700 covid-19 cases, with more than 400 deaths.
The government’s line was that it did not want to take unilateral action, that people would have gone to mosques anyway, and that a consensus or “middle ground” solution was necessary. Prime Minister Imran Khan has also said that because Pakistan is “an independent nation” — a democracy — it cannot force mosque closures. But these excuses only distract from the real story.
Pakistan’s Islamist parties have an outsize influence on government, despite having little in the way of direct electoral seats, due to their street power — or ability to generate huge numbers of followers in the streets for protests — and coalition-building abilities in Parliament. These parties are also used opportunistically by opposition parties and the military as a spoiler against governments in power.