Pakistani preachers turning into super spreaders

Pakistani preachers turning into super spreaders

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When a group of preachers arrived in Latif Khan’s neighborhood of Kot Hathyal on the outskirts of Islamabad, he and other residents hosted the annual welcoming feast. Goats roasted, rice simmered in broth and as a grand finale, the preachers delivered a sermon: how to become a good Muslim.
In the morning came the horrifying news — over half a dozen preachers, called tableeghis, including Kyrzykh nationals, had the highly contagious coronavirus.
“Last night everyone was praising me for hosting a lavish dinner for holy men, now everyone is cursing me,” said Khan, a property dealer  whose real identity is withheld.
“I went through quarantine, my family and everyone in the neighborhood got locked inside,” he said over the phone. The neighborhood has now been sealed.
Far away from Islamabad lies the old city of Hyderabad in Sindh province, where more than a hundred such tableeghis including a Chinese citizen tested positive for the virus.
The testing took days because of resistance by baton armed preachers.
“Go away, you are tools of infidels. They (infidels) want to see our mosques closed down. They want to see the guardians of Islam be paralyzed by disease,” a police official quoted furious preachers.
“It’s the wrath of God and one can only be rescued by prayers.”
Diagnostic tests were conducted only after police officials negotiated with influential religious leaders to pacify protesting preachers.
Meanwhile, in a town in southern Punjab, a preacher stabbed and injured a policeman on duty in a quarantine center.
Over 2000 miles away, two Palestinians in Gaza diagnosed with the disease had reportedly visited the tableeghis’ main congregation in Pakistan.
It began when last month, the Pakistani Tableeghi Jamat went ahead with its annual congregation, the Ijtima, held at its headquarters in Raiwand, Lahore.
The annual three-day event draws together hundreds of thousands from across the world. Political leaders, civil society activists and social media influencers had been urging the government to cancel the event. The cause of the indecision could be that the contagion was simply not understood. Or because of the huge influence of the group, which has support in official circles, the military establishment and even in sports and showbiz circles.
Cricketing stars like Shahid Afridi, Inzimam, Saeed Anwar are staunch followers of the Jamat.
And so it came to be, that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government didn’t ban the event despite warnings.
However, the congregation ended after only a day citing ‘bad weather.’ But the damage was already done. And it didn’t end there either.

From Raiwand to Gaza and from the mountains of the northwest to the plains of Sindh, scouting suspected cases among mobile groups of preachers is becoming a crisis for already struggling authorities fighting the virus in a resource starved country.

Owais Tohid

Convoys of proselytizing tableeghi teams went off across the country to continue preaching, and though some mosques have been geotagged and turned into quarantine centers for the tableeghis, in many parts of the country, district administrations don’t know who or where they are-- triggering concerns of greater spread.
From Raiwand to Gaza and from the mountains of the northwest to the plains of Sindh, scouting suspected cases among mobile groups of preachers is becoming a crisis for already struggling authorities fighting the virus in a resource starved country.
Pakistan has the fifth largest population in the world, where diseases like measles, tuberculous and polio still exist. It already has over 2,000 cases of coronavirus with 20,000 suspected cases and that too with limited and targeted testing. With 55 percent of the population largely illiterate, a quarter of the population living below the poverty line and a weak health infrastructure, fighting the pandemic while burdened by a fragile economy seems an uphill task.
The surge has begun. Reported cases have doubled in a week, and given the lockdown, experts are predicting a crippling blow to the economy.
The government is being widely criticized for its indecisiveness over whether to enforce a complete lockdown or not, mishandling of Shia pilgrims from Iran and of an unreasonable clergy resisting the closure of mosques.
Saudi Arabia has meanwhile halted pilgrims, closed down mosques including the two holiest places in Islam. Scholars in Egypt issued a decree for the closure of mosques. Across the Muslim world, these footsteps were followed. But Pakistan remains reluctant to close down mosques, mainly because of the rigid position of its obstinate clergy.
Part of the obstinacy comes from years of state policy which encouraged people to become custodians of religion, creating the conviction that individuals must play an independent role in upholding faith.
In Karachi, where authorities forcibly closed mosques, people took to fighting with police officials and demanded a reopening. In other places, they prayed on the roads en masse.
The state has now tried to change its trajectory. It has publicized religious decrees that say only the state can declare jihad, and that vigilantism is against law and religion. But instead of playing an effective role to help contain the spread of the outbreak, some clerics are coming up with their own theories.
Some call the pandemic the wrath of God, others term it a conspiracy of the West to weaken the Muslim Ummah. Zameer Naqvi, a Shia cleric, claimed to have found the virus cure on national television.
“I have found the cure but won’t present it before people because I could be mocked like Aristotle and Socrates,” he said.
Ashraf Jalali, a cleric of the Barelvi sect of Sunnis, even invited his followers for a public gathering last month. “Hang me if a single follower who attends my congregation gets infected with coronavirus.”
The negative impact of propaganda and such theories is being felt in small towns and rural areas where people are ignoring appeals by law enforcers to not gather in mosques.
The danger looms large. Meanwhile, groups of tableeghis, carrying not just their shoulder bags but possibly also the virus, continue their far flung journeys across the country.
– Owais Tohid is a leading Pakistani journalist/writer. His email address is [email protected]
He tweets @OwaisTohid.

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