Last week, Pakistan’s president met with prominent religious leaders to formulate a plan for congregational prayers during the month of Ramzan (Ramadan). The Pakistani state agreed to a 20-point action plan after consultation with religious scholars of all sects.
The crux of the plan is that the government in Pakistan has decided to keep all mosques open, a key recommendation made by clerics of all major seminaries. The decision could have disastrous public health implications amid the COVID-19 pandemic as its implementation and agreed guidelines are unlikely to be followed or enforced across the thousands of mosques across the country. What is particularly unfortunate is that the current government didn’t even put up a fight to enforce its decision on the clergy. Rather, the meeting with the clergy was called by the government to agree to what the former had demanded more formally.
Last week’s decision on the part of the government essentially showed who runs the actual state in Pakistan. While arguments about radicalization and the influence of right-wing forces in Pakistan carry weight, what is unknown is the true power of the clergy if they were to unite against an elected government or the state’s priorities. In such a case, the state would either be sitting with the clergy or negotiating its way out, as we have seen with this decision and countless others before that.
The government’s acceptance of the clergy’s demands cannot be considered a consensus, as described by the country’s president, but an outright capitulation. The fact remains that the government was never going to impose a lockdown on the mosques or congregational prayers. Any such decision was not going to hold in any form or shape.
For weeks, clerics have defied the government’s lockdown orders and with the month of Ramzan a week away, it only made sense that the government would formally agree to their demands. By doing so, the government not only gave away more space to the far right, but also conveyed to them that they have all the power and tools to direct an elected government’s policy decisions.
Reportedly, “The clerics accepted to implement the precautionary measures in mosques to stop local transmission of coronavirus but declined to take any responsibility related to the enforcement of measures.” It’s bizarre that a government that has failed to adequately provide protective equipment to doctors operating on the frontlines to contain the pandemic expects clerics to stop local transmission when millions gather across Pakistan in less than a week.
Another meeting of clerics with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan saw the latter not only promising to keep mosques open, but also assuring the Ulema of introducing an interest-free economy in Pakistan. Moreover, Khan assured the clergy that he would soon announce a special worship day called a “Day of Forgiveness” to get rid of the coronavirus. In return, clerics appreciated Khan’s decision to reopen mosques and called it “Islam friendly.”
These announcements and meetings come in the wake of last week’s beating of a woman police officer by a local Mullah in Karachi over the issue of enforcing a government-mandated lockdown during Friday prayers. The cleric involved in the case not only obtained prearrest bail, but was also given a hero’s welcome by his disciples.
All these developments accentuate that one of the key letdowns of Pakistan’s National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism remains associated with the failure to streamline religious seminaries. To this day, thousands of seminaries continue to operate outside the government’s control with leaders of various sects freely acting like cartels whenever they find an opportunity to squeeze more space from the state.
Simply put, a government that cannot execute a lockdown in the context of a health emergency should not be expected to bring powerful cleric alliances into the state’s fold. The decision to keep mosques open has the potential to make Pakistan’s COVID-19 problem a real challenge. The Pakistani state cannot continue to find its way out of every crisis by either recruiting one group of clergy against the other or submitting before all of them.
The latest decision should be a cause of concern for the international community.