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April 22, 2020

Convenient retreat

Opinion

April 22, 2020

As a vocal lobby of ‘ulema’ in the past week stepped up demands for a return to congregational prayers in mosques across Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan was conspicuous by his absence.

The eventual agreement that saw the government concede most of the demands presented by the religious lobby led by Mufti Munibur Rehman, saw Prime Minister Imran Khan remain out of the limelight, effectively marking a ‘convenient retreat’ in the face of a mounting challenge.

Since last month’s imposition of a shutdown across Pakistan in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, some of the country’s Imams have already defied the government. It was hardly surprising that smack in the middle of Islamabad, the well known ‘Lal Masjid’ notably refused compliance every Friday.

Events leading up to Saturday’s agreement signed on the government’s behalf by President Arif Alvi said much about Pakistan choosing to present its own interpretation of Islamic tenets, stepping away from leading Islamic countries worldwide. It was also a powerful reminder of the state of Pakistan today significantly weakened and unable to enforce its writ.

The agreement followed a landmark proclamation by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh of Saudi Arabia ordering the performance of ‘taraweeh’ prayers at home, among preventive measures.

In seeking to enforce ‘social distancing’ the deal in Islamabad allows worshippers to stand apart by six feet – a questionable arrangement in view of regular Islamic practices. Additionally, enforcement of the removal of carpets and disinfection of thousands of mosques across Pakistan in the narrow window leading up to Ramazan remains an uphill task.

As Pakistan like many other countries remains in an unprecedented danger zone, the first priority must be to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. But with the new agreement in place, there are set to be one of two plausible outcomes. Either an already overstretched state and its weak institutions will be pressed to enforce the law by assigning an effective 24-hour policing of thousands of mosques across Pakistan or there will be major gaps in enforcement of key conditions of the agreement. Either way, the risk will be enhanced in Pakistan’s battle against the deadliest of all pandemics to face the country in its 73-year history.

For Prime Minister Khan, already surrounded by gaps in tackling the crisis, there are additional questions over his ability to steer the ship at this difficult moment. His refusal to build bridges of cooperation with the opposition parties and create a wider national consensus, has forced the government in a ‘go it alone’ political mode. If indeed the fallout from the pandemic grows in time, only Khan and his PTI will have to bear the onus of responsibility.

An added question has been thrown up with the controversial launch of the ‘Corona Tigers force’ – the prime minister’s response to tackling the challenge of delivering relief to the needy across Pakistan. In the process, Khan appears to have abandoned the idea of reaching out to Pakistan’s large and well functioning civil society which in the past has been at the forefront of the response to national challenges.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's economic outlook presents little hope for optimism. In a year when the economy is set to contract by up to 1.5 percent following a series of policy failures, the future can be hardly promising. The slight lift to the rupee's exchange rate last week following news of a new emergency loan of $1.4 billion from the IMF, and a two percent belated lowering of the interest rate by the State Bank of Pakistan, may have given an impetus to the stock market and the rupee. But these are no more than temporary 'mood lifters'.

The underlying powerful reality is led by serious gaps surrounding Pakistan's food security, resulting from both long-term and short-term failures. As Prime Minister Khan awaits the detailed investigation report on the sugar and wheat crisis, he must own up to the failure of his own government in allowing these essential items to be exported in the first place.

For Prime Minister Imran Khan, it may have been a convenient moment to retreat from Saturday’s agreement. But retreating from the government’s wider failures may not be an equally convenient option.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on political and economic affairs.

Email: [email protected]