Imams overrule Pakistan’s lockdown as ramadan approaches

While clerics and governments across the Muslim world will greet Ramadan this week under lockdown, working together to shut mosques and urging worshippers to pray at home, in Pakistan, some of the most prominent imams have rallied their devotees to ignore the anti-pandemic measures.

Also read | Pakistan’s fight against coronavirus

Ramadan, which begins in Pakistan later this week, is the holy month in which Muslims crowd into mosques and fast all day, holding feasts after sundown with family and friends. Those are ripe conditions for the coronavirus to spread, and imams around the world are asking people to stay home.

Also read: Coronavirus | Pakistan allows conditional congregational prayers in mosques during Ramazan

But in Pakistan, pandemic or no pandemic, hard-line clerics are calling the shots, overriding the government’s nationwide virus lockdown, which began late last month.

Most clerics complied with the shutdown when it was announced. But some of the most influential ones called on worshippers to attend Friday prayers in even greater numbers. Devotees attacked police officers who tried to get in their way.

As Ramadan drew closer, dozens of well-known clerics and leaders of religious parties — including some who had initially obeyed the lockdown orders — signed a letter demanding that the government exempt mosques from the shutdown during the holy month or invite the anger of God and the faithful.

20 rules to be followed

On Saturday, the government gave in, signing an agreement that let mosques stay open for Ramadan as long as they followed 20 rules, including forcing congregants to maintain a 6-foot distance, bring their own prayer mats and do their ablutions at home.

By the time Prime Minister Imran Khan met with the clerics on Monday, deferentially promising to abide by the deal, critics were demanding to know who was in charge during this national crisis: the government or the mosques.

“The state has become totally subservient to these clerics,” said Husnul Amin, an Islamabad-based professor and scholar on Islam and politics. “It is very difficult for the state to implement what’s best for the public good. The larger public interest is always up against the clerics. It’s completely undemocratic.”

Pakistan’s imams were empowered by the military during the 1980s when mosques across the country churned out jihadists to fight the Soviet military in Afghanistan with the support of the U.S. While other countries tried to curb hard-line clerics’ influence after the Afghan war, in Pakistan, the powerful military continued to use them as tools of foreign and domestic policy.

But their defiance of the lockdown is exposing the limits of the military’s control.

Beyond Army’s control

The military wanted the shutdown, pressuring Mr. Khan to back the measure at a time when he was reluctant and worried about the economic toll. But when the security forces tried to prevent worshippers from gathering at mosques for prayers, they found themselves under attack.

In Karachi, the largest city, scenes emerged of worshippers chasing the police through narrow alleyways, pelting them with rocks and sending several officers to the hospital.

“The military has created a monster they can no longer control,” Mr. Amin said. “They are the creation of the military, and only they could handle them. That may no longer be the case.”

By the time Ramadan approached, police officers were no longer willing to erect cordons around mosques to stop congregants.

While clerics acknowledge that their mosques are perfect vectors for the coronavirus’s spread — worshippers gather to perform ablutions together before cramming into the mosques, shoulder to shoulder in supplication — they say they have to protect their bottom line: money and influence.

“We know the coronavirus pandemic is a global health issue, but religious duties cannot be abandoned,” said Maulana Ataullah Hazravi, a Karachi-based cleric, adding that, “mosques depend largely on the donations collected during Ramadan.” NY Times

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 5:48:25 PM |

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