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Opinion

‘We need more solidarity’ – religious gatherings during Covid-19 in Pakistan

In the second of our three part series on the impact of Covid-19 on attitudes towards Hazara Shia minority in Quetta, Pakistan, Marzia Akhlaqi, Sajjad Hussain and Farwa Batool describe how a survey reveals that widespread social media hype (around a ‘Shia virus’) apparently influenced majority opinion that others’ religious rituals and festivals should have been banned, even as their own were allowed to continue.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact populations across the globe, it has affected the most marginalised communities, who experience political, economic, and social exclusion, on top of the devastating effects of the disease itself.

All sorts of large gatherings, including religious ones, might have played a role in ‘spreading the virus’ in 2020. However, arbitrary and discriminatory blaming of certain religious groups seem to have more to do with pre-existing prejudice than a genuine concern for containing the spread of Covid-19. The case of India’s Deobandi Sunni Muslims, Tablighi Jamaat, is a clear example. Although the Tirupati Balaji temple in Andhra Pradesh remained crowded with Hindu devotees around the same time, Hindu nationalists focused on the Tablighi Muslim congregation at Nizamuddin Markaz in Delhi, blaming a missionary conference it held as a ‘super-spreader’ event.

Commenting on India’s response to Covid-19, the renowned Israeli public intellectual historian Yuval Noah Harari said, “ . . . some people are blaming the epidemic on minorities, on Muslim minorities, even saying that it’s a deliberate act of terrorism . . . This is complete nonsense. It is extremely dangerous. We don’t need more hatred, we need solidarity, we need love between people.

Contradictions in attitudes toward religious gatherings in Pakistan

While many Pakistani activists were quick to highlight this discriminatory treatment in India, they were, however, silent when other (non-Muslim) minorities were scapegoated in Pakistan in the same way.

Like many other religious communities around the world, in Pakistan both Shia and Sunni Muslim groups have occasionally violated WHO Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and disregarded social distancing guidelines in favour of carrying out religious rituals. For example, Shia groups refused to scale down the processions of Shab-e-Qadar (Yaum-e Ali), marking the death anniversary of Hazrat Ali, while Sunni groups and scholars then refused to back down from holding Taraveeh prayers, a ritual repeated every night of the Holy month of Ramadan throughout the month (Shia do not pray Taraveeh as a religious ritual) – and similarly the Friday prayers. However, followers from each community have attempted to single out the other for these violations while showing more tolerance for such violations when it is a community of their own.

In the same vein, it was unsurprising to see that Sunni and Salafi scholars and groups were quick to single out Shia pilgrims returning from Iran for being responsible for the spread of coronavirus, whereas media groups and Shia groups followed India’s example and to blamed a congregation of the Tableeghi Jamaat for contributing to the spread of the virus.

These communal allegations give weight to the concerns sociologists and academics have underlined that the pandemic could intensify racial inequalities and discrimination.

Researchers in Quetta explore tolerance for Covid-19 SOP violations between different religious communities

It was in this feverish atmosphere that a group of university students in Quetta city – including the co-authors of this blog – conducted a brief survey with support from the IDS-led Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) programme, which included questions aimed at gauging comparative tolerance for violations of the Covid-19 SOPs.

Quetta, capital of Balochistan province, is a particularly rich site for research, since it is home to a half million minority Shia Hazara community, who experience regular and violent targeting. In 2013, nearly half of all Shia killed in Pakistan were Hazaras.

In spring 2020, the situation was not helped when Shia pilgrims returning from Iran were accused of importing the virus into Pakistan. Notifications by the Inspector General of Police, Balochistan, sent members of the Shia Hazara community “on leave to prevent the outbreak of Covid-19” while the Water and Sanitation Authority (WASA) stated that “Employees belonging to Hazara tribe and residing in Marriabad and Hazara Town should be restricted to their areas”. Finally, the Chief Secretary, the most senior administrative authority in Balochistan, announced that Quetta would be cordoned off from the rest of the province and Hazara localities within it would be cordoned off from the rest of Quetta.

The socio-political situation was worsened by government notifications specifically singling out Hazaras as potential carriers of the virus; especially when these ‘super spreader’ allegations have not yet been supported by laboratory evidence.

In an attempt to measure how attitudes had been influenced by such government statements, our survey asked its non-Shia respondents if they thought the Shia procession of Youm-e Ali (on 16 May, 2020) should have been allowed to go ahead as it did. Only 17% agreed. However, when asked if (Sunni only) Taraveeh prayers should have been allowed, 42% were in favour of lifting restrictions placed on them and the weekly Friday prayers.

This ‘selective condemnation’ of the acts of others while tolerating similar acts on part of one’s own group is simply not fair. The global community may still be searching for unanswered questions about how exactly Covid-19 spreads (especially with new strains and variants emerging), but one thing is clear: to fail to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated is not the way out of this crisis.

Marzia Akhlaqi is a social activist and an economics graduate. She tweets @MarziaAkhlaqi

Sajjad Hussain Changezi is a Rotary Peace Fellow and a graduate of Global Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research and activism revolve around human rights in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. He tweets @Changovski

Farwa Batool is a rights activist from Quetta. She is a student of literature at Government College University (GCU) Faisalabad and she tweets at @farifarwaa

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