Safe reopening of mosques – Lessons from Pakistan

OP-ED MAR 01, 2021

A mosque is decorated with lights for the Mawlid an-Nabi holiday celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, in Karachi, Pakistan, Oct. 25, 2020. (AP Photo)

Having stormed the world and shaken the entire global population, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted countries in very different ways, depending on how their governments have responded.

Some took early proactive and decisive measures and are, therefore, in a far better state than those who seem to have looked the other way, hoping that nature would run its course and that normalcy would then somehow magically ensue, with a third category consisting of those who did act but did so in a panic, failing to weigh up the benefits and harms and therefore compounding the problem.

The medium- and long-term effects of this negligence are a burden that the residents of those nations will have to live with for many years to come.

However, for those nations who are now past the peak and have a degree of control over the situation due to them taking early action in implementing a strict regime of testing, tracking and isolation of infected individuals as well as administering the appropriate medication, the question that arises now is the critical one of how their economies can be safely reopened – in both a measured and measurable manner.

The economic and social damage caused by the long-term, wholesale shutdown of economies is as yet unknown, with each new catastrophic estimate being worse than the last as time drags on.

What is clear is that a resumption of normal economic life is critical in order to rescue the livelihoods of billions of people who would otherwise face irreparable catastrophes in their financial as well as physical well-being which would dwarf the effects of the damage that COVID-19 has done.

For example, in July, a U.N. report estimated that 128,000 children worldwide would die over the first 12 months of the coronavirus pandemic due to its economic impact alone.

It is, therefore, the responsibility of every government that has a conscience to take the necessary steps to restore every facet of normal life that would ensure the well-being of all its citizens.

From the dawn of Islamic history, the mosque, aside from being a place where religious rituals are carried out, has served as an indispensable community hub with a myriad of purposes from ensuring spiritual well-being to making sure that the social as well as even the financial and nutritional needs of the local community are met.

It is, therefore, a must that with any safe reopening of an economy, this integral institution is near the top of the list of establishments that are permitted to reopen.

Islamic nations such as Brunei, Malaysia and Turkey have enjoyed a degree of success in controlling the spread of COVID-19 and are at the forefront of those countries that – at least partially – have reopened their places of worship.

This success is due in part to their willingness to study and adopt the successful ideas that other nations have implemented.

The success of Pakistan on the other hand has been underreported – possibly due to Pakistan’s economic weakness as well as the multitude of other social and economic problems it faces as a nation.

Nonetheless, there is great benefit in studying the steps that its government has taken in this regard.

Pakistani example

Back in April last year, a joint statement was issued by senior religious scholars in that country calling for the reopening of mosques there.

It would be wise to analyze the events that led to the release of this statement in order to understand the statement in its proper context and derive its benefits.

Like all other countries, Pakistan struggled at the outset to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and took certain social distancing measures, imposing a general lockdown in the country soon after the first cases were reported on Feb. 26.

During the initial enforcement of these measures, the government consulted with these senior Islamic scholars regarding the closure of the mosques to ensure a successful implementation of social distancing during the lockdown.

They came to an agreement to restrict the congregational prayers to three to five mosque employees, including the imam, muezzin and maintenance staff, and thus agreed to close the mosques to the general public while keeping them internally functional.

This agreement was a remarkable display of flexibility and maturity on the part of these scholars, showing that they were cognizant of the gravity of the situation while at the same time ensuring that the functioning of this vital institution was not completely suspended.

Key to distancing
From a medical/epidemiological perspective, social distancing measures can only work when everyone observes them.

Therefore, the effectiveness of social distancing is not based on an incremental, graduated model but on an almost binary all-or-nothing model. If everyone observes the measures, only then are they effective; otherwise, it is as if no one is observing them. The drastic spikes in cases in certain Western countries bear testimony to this.

With the passage of time, two things became apparent: On the one hand, the incidence of new cases and the mortality rate in Pakistan were much lower than figures being reported in the rest of the world, especially those in neighboring India.

On the other hand, the cumulative economic burden of the lockdown on the country as a whole and more specifically on the poorest sections of society and daily wage workers seemed to be increasingly unsustainable.

As a result, the government announced new lockdown directives and regulations in April due to Pakistan’s specific situation. Under these directives, large sectors of society, industry and services were reopened.

This was based on the rationale that Pakistan (with its widespread poverty and daily wage workers who cannot withstand a prolonged complete lockdown without starving) could not afford to lock down completely like for example a Western country with a solid welfare state, subsidies, grants and benefits could and that the number of deaths due to starvation and disease in such a lockdown would likely be as much or far more than the projected deaths due to COVID-19.

Coupled with the governments’ gross inability to sufficiently provide for the immobilized and jobless poor workers in a lockdown and compensate them for what they would face or even feed them at the basic level during this time, the Pakistani government seemed to have been led to come to a conclusion: They relaxed the lockdown and opened up all of these sectors.

This would have been in addition to what they saw as the long-term collapse of the economy if a complete lockdown were to be prolonged, which, in a country like Pakistan, would likely cause hundreds of thousands of additional deaths in the medium term.

Now, one may debate the rationale behind these governmental directives and agree or disagree with them – as people indeed have – and with lengthy arguments on both sides, but it needs to be borne in mind that Pakistan is far from having the ideal state of affairs that wealthier nations find themselves in.

The hope was that social-distancing measures would have been effectively implemented by everyone in society doing their part and minimizing the risk of the epidemic and that the poor, destitute and homeless would have been effectively taken care of by the government far more adequately than they were and that the long-term health of the Pakistani economy was protected by economic stimulus and bailout packages for all sectors of society with far more liquidity than was available, like in wealthier nations.

However, and judging from the steps that the government took to open society up and reduce social distancing, it is very clear that the government was well aware that this ideal situation was far from the reality in Pakistan.

Irrespective of whether one agrees or not with the announcement, what was clear is that in the new directives, social-distancing measures that were being talked about were rendered ineffective and nonoperational in large sectors of society and thus, ineffective as a whole.

Major industries and factories, vegetable/fruit markets and nonemergency hospital clinics were being reopened, and even barbershops, bookstores, mechanics, and plumbers were being allowed to get back to work according to government guidelines.

All of the above-mentioned sectors which were being opened attract large gatherings and crowds, rendering social-distancing measures taken by other sectors which were not yet reopened as essentially ineffective.

It was in this context that these scholars came out with the joint statement referred to above.

What they were essentially implying was that if society was going to be opened up anyway and social distancing was not going to be observed in large sectors of society such that it was rendered ineffective on the whole, then there was really no large-scale, epidemiological benefit to simply “singling out” mosques for closure, because social distancing only works when everyone does their part. Otherwise, it simply does not work at all.

In light of the above, they announced the reopening of the mosques but with strict precautions for those who are coming to attend them.

The purpose of the Pakistani government opening the mosques with all of these precautions and caveats was to indicate and clearly give the message that mosques are being opened in a way that is not only responsible but also – and perhaps more importantly – being done in a way that will not add to or increase the risk of the epidemic spreading in a context and situation in the country where large sectors of society had already been opened up and social distancing had been rendered ineffective anyway by the government itself.

What to pay attention to
Pakistan does, of course, have its own particular problems and issues, but there is a lot that the world can learn from the reasoning behind its decision as well as from the manner in which it carried it out.

This is especially so when we look at what happened in neighboring India where the government panicked and implemented an immediate total lockdown which caused millions of people to flee from the big cities and spread the virus to every corner of that country.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan received a barrage of criticism for his initial stance which was seen by some as unreasoned and obstinate.

It was this refusal to follow the lead of others in maintaining lockdowns that paid dividends with him being able to reopen the economy and avoid the devastation that others had encountered, a policy which won praise from no less than the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who acknowledged that Pakistan had utilized its experience in this field by deploying the infrastructure it had built up over many years in fighting Polio to combat COVID-19.

Moreover, Bill Gates himself reportedly telephoned Imran Khan in order to find out the secret of his success.

After more than a year of living with the pandemic and with the holy month of Ramadan almost with us, it is an appropriate moment to reflect upon the many mistakes as well as the huge number of positive developments that mankind has made during this period.

Societies are beginning to reopen once again after renewed lockdowns, and as places of worship once again open to the public, it would be wise to avoid viewing the issue as a zero-sum one with only a full-lockdown or an unfettered reopening as the sole options.

The new “normal” should be seen as one of caution and observation, not a total shutdown.

Moreover, we need to reassess our priorities and ask ourselves what are the vital elements in our lives that contribute to our collective well-being and what is sheer extravagance and waste.

We need to also think globally and shun the one-size-fits-all narrative that has favored rich and industrialized nations for so long; the new maxim should be that if one person is sick, then we are all sick, and we can only prosper as mankind when the poorest and weakest have the same protections as the rich and powerful.

We should also welcome wisdom regardless of its source.

Due to globalization and its effect on our modern lifestyles, we can be sure that COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic that we experience.

We, therefore, need to learn its permanent lessons, and what better way to frame the experience than in the context of the vital institution of the mosque – the very symbol of community cohesion and well-being.

*London-based researcher and strategist specializing in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs


Categories: Asia, Europe, Islam, Pakistan, Turkey

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