Clerics’ obstinacy

How and why have hardline clerics been able to defy successive governments regarding their own interests?


he Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government has given in to the clerics’ demands that religious congregations in mosques for prayer and Taraweeh be allowed during Ramazan despite the risks this entails during the coronavirus pandemic. This is in sharp contrast to what most Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, have done to forbid such congregations in the interests of public health and safety. In the holiest of holy months, Saudi Arabia has gone so far as to close the Ka'aba. The conditions agreed with the clerics to practice social distancing, ablution at home, bringing personal prayer mats to the mosques, no collective sehri or iftar, aetakaf at home etc, are already proving infructuous just days after this agreement. A survey reveals that 80 percent of the mosques in the Punjab are violating these conditions. It remains to be seen now whether in the light of these reports President Dr Arif Alvi, who negotiated the agreement with the clerics, will follow through on his assertion that if the clerics failed to adhere to these conditions and the incidence of infected cases rises, these concessions may be revisited. But don’t hold your breath on this one. Only time will tell what havoc this may reap in the form of an uptick in coronavirus infections as a result.

The PTI government’s mixed messaging since the start of the coronavirus pandemic almost two months ago has fed into an atmosphere of seeming to be dithering on the issue. The whole debate about protecting lives versus livelihoods misses the point that lives have to be saved first before livelihoods are even possible. But between the PTI government’s contradictory pronouncements and the hardline clerics calling the shots on issues of their concern, the outcome was perhaps inevitable. The clerics were already restive about the restrictions on religious congregations imposed by the government in March 2020. This restiveness resulted in the clerics demanding on April 14 that these restrictions be lifted. Certain clerics, notably Maulana Abdul Aziz of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid fame, defied all restrictions and continued to welcome Friday prayer congregations. It took the government days, if not weeks, to finally stop this by surrounding Lal Masjid to prevent devotees congregating for Friday prayers. Elsewhere, particularly in Karachi, there were clashes between devotees and the police when the latter tried to stop prayer congregations in the southern metropolis.

With the advent of Ramazan, to the clerics’ concern about losing their ‘constituency’, clout and power was added a very material interest. Ramazan is when the mosques collect the maximum donations that allow their ‘businesses’ to continue throughout the year. The clerics’ community was not likely to yield this ‘bonus’ easily, coronavirus pandemic risks notwithstanding.

The interesting question to be asked is how and why hardline clerics are able to defy successive governments regarding their own pet interests. The roots of this mullah power are traceable to the period when religious parties and sects proved invaluable for the state’s establishment for manning jihad in the neighbourhood, west and east. The chickens of this 1980s-onwards jihad project finally came to roost when it began to appear as though the state had become subservient to the clerics. Even after the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan ended in the late 1980s, the Establishment continued to use hardline clerics and their followers as tools of foreign and domestic policy.

But as often happens with proxies (always a double-edged sword), once they have tasted ‘power’, autonomy if not independence from the original mentors follows. Defiance of the lockdown (however partial and full of holes) has exposed the limits of the Establishment’s control of these erstwhile obedient proxies. It is the old metaphor of the tail eventually ending up wagging the dog.

The clerics’ power rests centrally on the mosque and the pulpit, reinforced over time by the street power they have accumulated while their mentors looked the other way (deliberately, critics would argue). In the controversy over the need for social distancing and other precautions versus the clerics’ insistence on ‘business as usual’ and invoking ‘God’s wrath’ if religious congregations were disallowed, the implied threat from the clerics was the use of their street power to create political and social chaos unless their irrational demands were acceded to. In this obstinacy, our enlightened clerics have even chosen to blithely ignore the advice and warnings of doctors and medical experts regarding the risk of our bare bones healthcare system being overwhelmed if coronavirus pandemic infection cases explode exponentially as has happened in several countries around the globe that have struggled despite much better healthcare systems. As it is, our inadequacies in this regard have been badly exposed by lack of protective clothing for doctors and medical staff that has resulted in several of them being infected and some deaths, not to mention our dearth of testing kits and ventilators. Yet our clerics insist on ignoring the experts’ perspicacious projections about large Ramazan congregations increasing the risk and likelihood of infections on a much larger scale than we have witnessed so far.

The writer is a veteran journalist who has held senior editorial positions in several newspapers

How have religious scholars been able to defy governments regarding their own interests?