Do you remember October 30, 2006? Or maybe July 10, 2007? How about December 4, 2009? The months of January and February 2015? Or perhaps February 29, 2016? We’ll come back to them.
Mosque closures and a ban on congregational prayer are important issues. What lies behind the refusal of some extremely important religious leaders to take Covid-19 seriously and enact a temporary moratorium on congregational prayers?
Let us first state clearly the facts.
Close human contact – anything exceeding a few moments can qualify as prolonged – is the primary mechanism for the spread of the novel coronavirus or Covid-19.
Masks, gloves, repeated handwashing, all offer some measure of mitigation against the spread of the virus, but the chances for reduced infection is dramatically reduced when people congregate in large numbers, in close quarters.
There are two defining aspects of Pakistan’s fight against Covid-19. There is the congregation of devotees returning from pilgrimages in Iran, and there is the congregation of devotees mobilizing at Raiwind. Those are it. Those are the defining hotspots of the coronavirus in Pakistan. Combined, the various provincial and federal governments and the district administrators all around the country have actually (to date) done a remarkable job of suppression.
All of these facts point to two urgently required measures that Pakistan’s religious leaders need to make: the first is to develop a consensus for a temporary moratorium on congregational Juma prayers, and the second is to develop a consensus for a moratorium on congregational Taraveeh prayers during the holy month of Ramadan/Ramazan.
So far, this consensus has not emerged. In response to the absence of the decisions that science and experience should lead to, many Pakistanis have taken to the mass media, and social media in particular to express their disappointment, their disdain, and their disgust. I believe our ability to convince and persuade religious leaders of the seriousness of the threat of Covid-19 is not helped by harsh language. We need to persuade these leaders. They will not be cowed by memes. Quite the opposite.
First, let’s set the context properly. Any and all congregations will result in more people dying, sooner due to Covid-19. So the debate about congregations needs to be rooted in two overarching principles: one, we are trying to save lives, not win an argument. So the focus needs to be on saving lives.
And two, we are indiscriminate when it comes to congregations. When we speak of congregations, but we ignore five types of places where people are assembling, and only focus on one, we are ensuring that the people who see themselves as guardians of that ‘one’ type of congregation, will no longer pay attention to the maths, or the science. They will be defensive and will focus on guarding that domain, that territory, that space that is theirs.
What kind of numbers are we dealing with? Well, no one knows how many mosques there are in Pakistan. And before you immediately conclude how weak the state is and how easily it cowers before right wingers. Do consider this: no one knows how many human beings there are in Pakistan either. Why? Because the census results from 2017 have still not been announced. Why? Because the Mohajirs in Karachi and the Baloch in Balochistan do not trust the census. Perhaps they are fearful of the data and its consequences. Perhaps they are good people with legitimate concerns. Or perhaps they are malign actors with skewed incentives. We cannot and should not decide so rigidly that speaking to them about it becomes a battle.
After the December 16, 2014 Army Public School terrorist attack in Peshawar, the National Action Plan spurred the Ministry of Interior to try to consolidate data about madressahs. The estimate for total madressahs is anywhere between 35,000 and 40,000. The number of mosques could be any order of magnitude greater than this.
A police official in Karachi in 2004 said there were 3,000 mosques in Karachi. In City District Lahore, police sources indicate approximately 5,000 functional mosques. Turkey and Egypt at 82,000 mosques and 114,000 mosques (both much more controlled states and societies) have on average, between them, about 1,000 people per mosque. But both are much more urban than Pakistan, thus likely having a disproportionately large number of mosques. Even a conservative estimate for Pakistan however, will not yield anything less than 100,000, and likely somewhere closer to 200,000.
That is a lot of mosques. If Taraveeh prayers are held at only half of the lower side estimate alone, and only an average of 100 faithful pray there, this gives us roughly five million devotees that will be at risk every night from about the 23rd of April to the 22nd of May.
If even the most conservative R0 for Covid-19 is taken as 2, meaning that each infected person (whether symptomatic or not) is going to infect at least two other people, we are looking at a major outbreak spike during Ramazan. Why?
Assume that only half of all mosques with Taraveeh (25,000) have only one infected asymptomatic person attending Taraveeh prayers. This one person only infects two people on the first night of Taraveeh (ignore for a moment that each of those infectees lives in average sized households of roughly six persons per household). That means the minimum total number of new infected persons on night one of Ramazan alone? 50,000. If we take a fatality rate of even 0.5 percent, again, conservative, this means that the total number of fatalities from the first night of Ramazan alone will be roughly 250. That is for one night. But the growth rate is not linear. By the end of the third night of Taraveeh, there may be 350,000 infections, and 1,750 potential fatalities. May Allah protect us.
Now, let’s go back to those dates. A madressah was droned by the United States on October 30, 2006. At least 80 were reported killed. The siege of Lal Masjid in Islamabad broke into a firefight on July 10, 2007. We still do not know how many died there. But we do know what it did to Pakistan for the next seven years. A Friday prayer congregation was attacked on December 4, 2009 at Parade Lane Masjid in Pindi. Serving army officers and their children were killed. January and February 2015 saw a series of five attacks on Imambargahs across the country with at least 110 killed. On February 29, 2016 the assassin of Governor Salmaan Taseer was hanged to death.
The mosque is as much a political space, contested and bloodied, as any other in Pakistan. So the defensiveness or territorial behaviour of religious leaders is not an anomaly. The difference between past debates and today is that Covid-19 is a terrorist, and drone, and killer, unlike any other we have ever experienced. So to save lives, we have to focus on the outcome we seek, not the burden of politics and blood that has come before it.
Each Friday, at least one hundred thousand mosques in the country collect donations that keep them running. We can frame this transaction in many ways, but the most important is that ordinary Pakistani Muslims invest in these mosques as social and political institutions.
To convince them to not attend requires respect and care, but as Ramazan approached, now also extreme urgency. May Allah always protect us. But may we be led by people capable of tying our camel.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.
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