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What religious leaders can do

  • Published at 02:48 pm April 13th, 2020
MOSQUE covid spray
Spiritual leaders have a sacred responsibility in this emergency MAHMUD HOSSIAN OPU

Imams, clerics, and pastors can play a crucial role in the fight against Covid-19

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed a tense relationship between many religious leaders’ and followers’ religious freedoms and public health requirements of social distancing.  

In the early days of the pandemic, we saw religious gatherings continue in many parts of the world. In Bangladesh too, we saw mass prayers being held and the regular prayer congregations continuing in mosques across the country. 

This was seen as a flagrant violation of the public health message of social distancing and seriously thought to have propagated the spread of the virus. The public heath world saw religious leaders doing a huge disservice to their communities. Such public perception of religious leaders, imams, and notable clerics stands in stark opposition to their self- perception and indeed some of the real social positions they occupy as community mobilizers. 

Thus, an alignment of the public health message with leaders’ and followers’ social and religious worldviews was of utmost importance. As the conservation on whether to lock down mosques was evolving, we saw several kinds of religious worldviews being put forward. There were many religious players who were in support of strict social distancing and steering clear of all prayers in congregation. 

However, the voices that were heard most loudly were the ones that did not support the halting of public gatherings at prayer. Among those are pietists who believe that illness and death are part of a divine plan, and that there is no need to make prayer in congregation a casualty. 

Illness is not a divine blessing

The lack of consideration for others who may not be welcoming of illness as a divine blessing is striking in this kind of thought. The more alarming message resonating through the voices that wished to keep mosques open to the public was that prayer, as a sign of faith (iman) is the supreme antidote against any virus, whose arrival signals to the faithful an inevitable end to the moral decrepitude of humans. 

Humanity is conceived in this construct not as a collective, but as groups punctured by class, race, ethnicity, and religious affinity and belonging. Thus, devotees believe that certain groups, by virtue of their adherence to the “true” faith that guarantees practices that are morally and ethically superior, will be spared while “infidels” and hypocrites become infected and punished for sins accrued. Such “us versus them” conceptualizations of the pandemic have been heard across religious communities worldwide, encapsulating in them class frustrations, anger at the global order, perceived and real injustices towards their communities, and the hope that their unheard voices and little understood practices may finally be vindicated.

Nature’s revenge

To understand the pandemic as nature’s revenge, as the system imploding and the potential for human intelligence and emotions being undone by ethical frailties is not exclusive to religious communities. 

Many intellectuals, writers, and even ordinary citizens are reflecting upon this moment in history as such, and wondering what kinds of global and everyday power re-configurations the pandemic may usher in. However, a parochial religious worldview that wants to adhere to the “us versus them” narrative, misrecognizes the pandemic’s effects on all of us -- religious belonging notwithstanding. Even if a country like Bangladesh is spared from the kind of virulence we see unleashed in the West right now, we know that difficult times await us as the economic and social consequences of global lockdowns and deaths, hunger and despair begin to manifest in the lives of workers, wage labourers, women whose lives are almost always stifled in difficult times and minorities whose freedoms also take a hit under difficult circumstances. 

There are two narratives of how we may face a post-Covid-19 world -- through solidarity and mutual cooperation, or through heightened fissures, competition and rivalry. Lessons from history unfortunately direct us to the latter as the impending scenario. If that is indeed the case, there is work ahead in the area of resilience building and fostering care and support towards social cohesion. In these efforts, religious leaders may play an important role, as we have seen many religious communities come forward in post-disaster situations in the past. 

A recent noteworthy example is of pastors and imams coming forward during the Ebola outbreak in Africa, by caring for the sick, by taking charge of burials, and in the care of orphans. In Bangladesh too, religious leaders can come forward to substantiate their claims as worthy community mobilizers and influencers in the months ahead. 

What religious leaders can do

In order for this to happen, religious leaders can think creatively about tending to their community and followers’ economic needs. They may use the coming month of Ramadan to solicit charity/zakat to put into Covid-19 recovery initiatives. 

Religious leaders can use their existing institutional frameworks to bolster various kinds of social protection projects they already run, and perhaps start new ones. They may keep a watchful eye over minority groups to ensure that they are not marginalized from relief and other welfare efforts, and that their other freedoms are not curtailed. 

They should also be mindful of women’s rights and freedoms and can play an active role in ensuring girls’ re-enrollment into school does not fall through the cracks, that domestic violence is prevented, that household and care work is shared, and that precarious economic and social conditions do not lead to forced and early marriage for girls. 

In the past several years, clerics and imams have been engaged to prevent violence against women, and early marriage. It is important that those narratives of religion and gender continue to be stoked for further growth in the Covid-19 recovery period. 

Indeed, religious leaders may lend themselves to the important task of building cohesion against rivalries and potential disorder through a unifying spiritual message, and resilience through whatever safety nets they may provide in the face of economic hardships. 

However, for that to happen, it is of utmost importance that the religious narrative on development, rooted in an inclusive narrative of self and other, is one that sees all of humanity as equally created and all of us embroiled, in some form or manner in the havoc wreaked by the pandemic. 

For religious leaders to have a say and play an effective role in the recovery phase, it may be productive for them to forge strong networks with other religious groups who share this vision of community and development and mobilize the networks to cooperate with other civil society groups and government. 

However, channeling and soliciting the help of religious groups productively also means that many of their ideas and ethos have to be taken into consideration. To that end, it is important to understand the kinds of measures that they tend to hold close to their hearts and bring them in conversation with the public health messaging and narratives of development. 

For example, as we approach the month of Ramadan, what might social distancing and lockdowns mean at a time that is always more busy, productive, religiously observant and social? How can Ramadan’s religious and spiritual thrust trump the distancing where our physical bodies may continue to need separation, while our religious goals keep us united in seeking solace and providing various kinds of support? 

Islamic religious leaders would do well to formulate creative ways to stay connected and advocate steps for the tangible and spiritual common good during this holy month. I am certain we will see many good examples coming out of other countries which may be worth staying attuned to. 

Building a stronger nexus between like-minded religious groups globally and at home and creatively carving out religious messages that are sympathetic and helpful from a public health and development standpoint will be the call of the day. 

I write, thus, to open up these possibilities for religious leaders. I write equally for an understanding and appreciation of the fact that regardless of the reported hindrances caused by religious leaders, the faith world is not uniform and there is discussion, movement, and dynamism within it. 

The Religious Ministry’s instruction on April 6 to halt congregational prayers in mosques is a result of such a conversation, even if acrimonious at times, that evolved within the faith world. The pandemic and its aftermath will warrant a dynamic discourse and coalitions that will encourage and sustain it.  

For religious leaders, could there be any other way to remain relevant, to remain close to people’s needs and to offer them hope in the days to come? 

Samia Huq, PhD, is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Brac University. She is the Director of the General Education Program, Interim Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Research Fellow at Center for Peace and Justice (CPJ), where she runs the program on Faith and Development, in collaboration with the World Faiths Development Dialogue at Georgetown University.

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