by Shuva Das
For a few months now, countries from across the globe sustained lockdowns in various forms to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus known as the SARS-CoV-2. This development exposed a clash between some requirements of the prescribed measures for social distancing and the traditions of major religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. In the world’s eighth-most populous country, Bangladesh, as elsewhere, the pandemic keeps the entire nation at high risk with a persistent rise of cases from 8 March 2020 onwards. In April, the United Nations issued a warning to Bangladesh, arguing that the country could face two million deaths from the fatal virus.
Yet the measures that Bangladesh adopted so far to maintain social distancing in its ongoing lockdown have remained ineffective at best. Several reasons stand out, yet chief among these are daily shopping, financial considerations, and religious commitments. In the densely populated country, daily gatherings of people effectively emasculated the social distancing measures, with crowds coming together in markets without virtually any caution. Besides, since scores of people live hand to mouth, the allegedly corrupted government system for relief distribution and the uncooperative stance of many private industries including the monumental garment sector further aggravated the poor implementation of the lockdown; and with it, the plight of the country’s citizens. Thus, people of this economic line cannot but attend to their work.
Moreover, religion also appeared as a significant hurdle and concern for social distancing measures in the majority Muslim country because of certain sensitive issues pertaining to the (observation of) religion. In this article, I will explain this particular aspect.
Islamic preachers of Bangladesh in Waz Mahfils (instructive and explanatory Islamic discussion) presented outlandish divine conspiracy theories for the outbreak of coronavirus. Their coronavirus-related speeches are widely shared sensations on social media pages of Bengali speaking people around the world. Over the eruption of the coronavirus in China, Kazi Ibrahim, a prominent Islamic preacher, claimed that an Italian Muslim resident held a heavenly conversation with the virus in his dream. According to Ibrahim, the coronavirus told the dreamer that the almighty Allah sent it as soldier to attack the Chinese for repressing and harassing the Uyghur Muslim population.
Another popular Islamic scholar Tarek Monowar told in a speech that a singer execrating Azan (prayer) has lately visited Bangladesh and performed at a stadium. Monowar then vented the coronavirus was looking for enemies of Islam to terminate them. Another cleric came up with an idea that except for adherents of Islam, the rest of the world would soon be infected by the virus. Other similarly invented tricky statements after the virus spread in Iran and also other Muslim countries including Bangladesh. Iran is supposedly paying dearly for its presumed distortion of the Islamic faith, while Muslims of other countries must not be pious enough to be saved.
Such kind of remarks by these so-called religious scholars injects blind faith among the laity and was lambasted by renowned atheist scholars like Richard Dawkin and Christopher Hitchens for long. A professor of Islamic Studies at Dhaka University, Bangladesh, said to the New Age, a national daily newspaper, those spurious speeches of the clerics ─ who, without any expertise nor knowledge about the disease gave an expert opinion on the matter ─ wrongfully represented Islam, a religion of peace and harmony.
What the Islamic pundits of Bangladesh try to establish through their lectures filled with manipulation and bigotry is to erroneously show the superiority of Islam and to increase their followers. In this regard, there is an indirectly substantial resemblance between Bangladeshi Islamic scholars and India’s Hindu nationalists belonging to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the present ruling party of India. Some leaders of the BJP have prescribed cow urine and dung for the prevention and remedy of the coronavirus. Not surprisingly, cow urine drinking party was arranged by Hindu hardliners on 14 March 2020, to seek divine intervention against the scourge of the virus. Also, they boast that the traditional greeting system with “Namaste”, vegetarian eating culture, and traditional treatment of medicine (Ayurveda) of Hinduism have protected India from any epidemic.
In reality, India, however, experienced several pandemics, namely cholera, dengue fever, and malaria. Through such false, irrational narratives, the messages of Indian Hindu nationalists are generating intolerance and religious hatred among Hindus against the Muslim minority in the country. Similarly, the Muslim preachers of Bangladesh can breed the same bigotry sentiments among Muslims to the other religious groups. Such groundless statements by the Bangladeshi Islamic scholars are a looming threat to the social distancing measures of the country. Its population has a very tender mindset and they are highly gullible to religious teachings by the clerics. In so doing, social distancing measures are ignored by a vast number of Muslims, with many people prioritising their religious practices above safety measures against the virus to score more “points” in securing their ticket to Paradise.
On 18 April 2020, after defying the lockdown order of government, around 100,000 people participated in the funeral of a famous Islamic preacher in eastern Bangladesh, this against the backdrop of the ongoing outbreak in the country. The swarmed event caught the attention of the international media and rightfully drew a lot of criticism. The police could not do anything to prevent the unexpected flood of the mass. In turn, the government immediately tried to exonerate themselves by withdrawing several important police officers from the region. It is a method similarly used by the authoritarian Chinese government to uphold their positive image during a bad situation, by blaming or suspending responsible government officials.
The above-mentioned gathering was a follow-up of a recent mass prayer in Bangladesh where an estimated thirty thousand Muslims attended to seek holy intercession against the virus. Two big consecutive failures of the government to prevent the mass religious gatherings indicate not only their haplessness but a form of appeasement policy to Islamic groups. Yet it is an old pain. Every ruling government of Bangladesh maintains such a policy in order to secure Muslim votes and regime support.
In addition, though the Bangladesh Islamic Foundation, a government organisation affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, urged people not to take prayer in mosques with more than five to ten people. This specific order has been breached in many places, even with several violent incidents. One person has recently died and several others got injured in a violent clash over who could pray at the mosque. Here, it is important to mention that general people of the country have seemingly nothing but God for their mental gratification and their battle against the pandemic.
As per Islamic instructions, if any persons including the sick could get affected by a risk of death or epidemic, it is allowed to pray at home. The Prophet Muhammad also gave clear instructions to Muslims in quarantine: ‘If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place’. Islamic instructions like this ought to be reiterated by religious scholars; to prevent a massive number of people from attending a funeral, a religious gathering, or prayer places amid the epidemic.
The failure of the Bangladesh government to address religious gatherings, fanaticism, propaganda, and religious manipulation led to an ineffective implementation of social distancing measures. It was reported earlier that unchecked religious practices triggered infection considerably in some countries: in Korea by Shincheonji Church; in India by Tablighi Jamaat; in Israel by Ultra-Orthodox Communities; and so on. Bangladeshi people and its government ought to learn from these countries. The government should also counter those lockdown-disrupting clerics by legal decrees and establish a strong monitoring system to filter out any misinformation from social media. As always, it will remain true that ‘religion is for individuals while the pandemic can be for all’.
Shuva Das holds a BSS (Hons) degree in International Relations from Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science and Technology University in Gopalganj, Dhaka, Bangladesh. His articles have appeared in Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies and in The Oxford University Politics Blog, among others.