Islamabad, Pakistan – At nightfall, worshipers entered the Abdullah bin Masood mosque, in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, hurried steps to attend the congregational prayer which had just begun.
Inside, more than 200 people gathered, separated by a few feet between them – to maintain physical distance – as they offered tarawih prayers, special Muslim prayers offered during the holy month of Ramadan.
There were no face masks or hand sanitizer bottles to look at, because more worshipers walked past police pickets outside to enter the mosque’s interior, with neon lights flashing from the latticed mirror ceiling.
“Important services have been reopened, and offering prayers as part of the congregation is also an important service,” Hanif Jallandhri, a Pakistani religious leader who heads a network of more than 20,000 mosques and religious schools, to Al Jazeera.
In most Muslim countries, the government has, with the support of religious leaders, close all mosques to the public in an effort to curb the spread of the highly contagious corona virus, which has claimed more than 247,500 people worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
However, in Pakistan, tens of thousands of mosques across the country reopened late last month, after religious leaders won over Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government to enable them to restart congregational services.
This is a unique decision, among Muslim countries, and one that ties into complex interactions about how political and social forces flow in a country where religion is central to public life but has no formal role in the structure of the state.
The result is constant encouragement and attraction between religious and political leaders, as seen in the decision to reopen the mosque.
‘Islamic’ republic vs. ‘Islamist’ republic
Coronavirus cases in Pakistan reached 20,000 earlier this month, with at least 526 people dead and more than 6,200 recovering. Cases have increased exponentially in recent days, and are expected to reach more than 130,000 by the end of May.
At least 2,682 cases, or 12 percent of the country’s total cases, can be traced back to a single religious meeting by the missionary organization Tableeghi Jamat outside the eastern city of Lahore in March. This is the single largest group of those infected in the country outbreak so far.
Part of the problem for Prime Minister Khan’s government – which had advocated for a loose closure since the beginning of the plague – when taking religious leaders was one that returned to the foundation of the country as a homeland for Muslims in the subcontinent, in 1947.
“Pakistan is a kind of unique case,” said Ahsan Butt, a political scientist at George Mason University in the state of Virginia, USA.
“This is a case where the state is built on Muslim nationalism, so Islam and Muslim identity are very important for the State and society at large, and for the conception of the collective self.
“But it was not established strictly as a Muslim or Islamic country, like Iran or Saudi Arabia.”
As a result, Butt explained, religious leaders and institutions wield great influence and social power but were not explicitly part of the State. In comparison, countries where religious authority is integrated into government, such as Saudi Arabia, have been better able to control their religious stance during the coronavirus outbreak, closing places of worship, including the holiest site in Islam, the Kaaba.
“So this leads to a dichotomy: that Islam is central to Pakistan’s existence, however [religious] actors, in their perception, outside the State. The ulamas can influence the country very strongly, but they are not the ones in power. “
Religious parties have never won a large number of seats in Pakistani elections. Butt argues that they depend on “latent power, not juridical power”.
“Their strength comes from their position and status; it comes from the threat of going out on the road.”
‘Impossible to enforce’ plan
Tensions surfaced on April 14, when an alliance of religious leaders from across the sectarian spectrum of Pakistani Muslims – a rare occurrence – jointly stated that they unilaterally reopened the mosque for congregational prayer, in defiance of the government’s lock order.
The move prompted the government to negotiate with a committee of religious leaders, approving a 20-point plan to reopen the mosque from the end of April. The steps include enforcing guidelines on physical distance between worshipers, preventing sick people and parents from attending prayers, providing exterminator hands for congregants and preventing socializing inside the mosque.
A few days later, prominent Pakistani doctors warned that the decision could lead to a surge in coronavirus cases. Religious leaders say they will be responsible for implementing the directives and that the government can act if the rules are not followed.
During a visit to observe the prayer of pilgrims in six main mosques in the Pakistani capital, Al Jazeera observed various levels of compliance with safety directives. In some, a handful of congregants stand more than six feet (two meters) apart and only those who wear facial masks are allowed inside. Elsewhere, hundreds of worshipers gathered, shoulder to shoulder, to pray without any visible safety precautions.
“It’s impossible to enforce,” said Madiha Afzal, a colleague at the Brookings Institution who studies political economy and extremism.
“The money is in [the mosque leader]. Who will ensure that scholars do this? Could there be an authority that ensures this throughout the country, [five] once a day? “
So why does the Pakistani government itself not enforce these rules more stringently, forcing religious leaders to adhere to the guidelines mandated by the government?
Afzal argues that this is because of how religious authority in Pakistan is organized – in a decentralized structure that is not controlled by the State.
“Pakistan does not have the ability to be authoritarian in religious matters,” he said. “This is an Islamic republic, but it is not a theocracy. This is a very democracy […] complicated relations with religion, “Afzal said.
Butt agrees with that analysis.
“Pakistan is not a fully democratic country, but unlike Egypt, for example, where the State can suppress protest and collective action and freedom of assembly easily, regardless of who is doing it […] Pakistan does not have a fully authoritarian structure, “he said.
The two experts, however, quickly pointed out that the country of Pakistan has a history of taking authoritarian actions against other types of actors – those who oppose the country’s strong military or advocate for reasons that are deemed detrimental to national security interests, for example.
Questions about social power
For religious leaders, bound in the constant push and pull for social and political power with the State, calculus in such situations seems quite clear.
“If you have a religious institution or mosque closed, then the question arises that you have all this [groceries and businesses] open, does that imply that the religious aspects of our lives are less important? “asked Arsalan Khan, an anthropologist who studies the Islamic revivalist movement in South Asia.” This is din [religion] versus the world [worldly concerns] problem.”
For organized religious leaders, Khan said “there is real fear, across the board, that religion will be seen as insignificant”.
“When religious politics are regulated with the understanding that religious feelings are very important for the welfare of society, it is difficult to state that the mosque must be closed.”
Jallandhri, the religious leader, said Pakistanis need to take “spiritual” steps to fight the virus, as well as preventative hygiene measures.
“The government has opened many sectors to facilitate locking,” he said. “Our position is that if you open foodstuffs, markets, banks, other types of businesses, the mosque must also be reopened.”
There are also very real financial implications for religious institutions if they remain closed. The Pakistani government is largely not involved in regulating or financing mosques throughout the country, handing them over to councils and independent religious organizations.
“This [mosques and religious leaders] “basically a freelancer, and this is a pretty fierce market, with tens of thousands of mosques,” said Butt. They need donations [and] much of it comes from pedestrian traffic – if you cut it during the month of Ramadan, then you cut their income significantly for this year, not just that month. “
For religious leaders, there is also the danger of not being seen adequately protecting religious places in society, and being “defeated” by others who are willing to take a tougher line.
“If I, as a leader [a] mosque, don’t take the most extreme position, then the second or third in control of this mosque will seek to replace me and will have a stronger [or more extreme] argument, “said Butt.
Khan agreed, suggesting that senior religious leaders are pushing for a 20-point plan to reopen the mosque with the government reacting to pressure from under their organization.
“There is fear [for them] that lower beginners can rise up, “he said.” Anyone who can control street politics has influence and so on […] The more established religious leaders are very worried about this more radical force coming from below [replacing them]. “
Finally, there is the question of how religion might become something many Pakistanis consider to be an important service – apart from questions about social power.
“The idea that prosperity comes from God is not just religious leaders who say that it is widely accepted [in Pakistan]”Khan said.” This does not have to be built on irrational perceptions of risk. Maybe you accept that risk, but you find that the importance of going to the mosque is greater. “
In a small mosque in the G-8 sector of Islamabad, the question of the ideological coup that surrounded and the potential at the top of religious institutions felt like a distant problem.
A number of devotees gathered for the evening tarawih prayer. Across the street stands the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS), the main government hospital in the capital and the center of efforts to control the coronavirus outbreak here.
The congregation stood shoulder to shoulder, on the bare marble floor, when the imam started praying.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweeted @AsadHashim
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