Pakistan’s Government Is Caught Between a Mosque and a Hard Place

The authorities are struggling to enforce social distancing rules during Ramadan.

By Michael Kugelman, the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Muslims maintain social distancing as they offer a special Taraweeh evening prayer ahead of the first day of the holy month of Ramadan at the Grand Faisal Mosque in Islamabad on April 24.
Muslims maintain social distancing as they offer a special Taraweeh evening prayer ahead of the first day of the holy month of Ramadan at the Grand Faisal Mosque in Islamabad on April 24. Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images

On April 18, the Pakistani government reached an agreement with senior religious figures to keep mosques open during the holy month of Ramadan, which began in Pakistan on April 24.

This is a concerning development, given the serious coronavirus risks posed by large numbers of worshippers crowding into small spaces for days on end for the long and intense prayers that usually occur during Ramadan. While the agreement requires mosques to follow 20 rules—including having worshippers pray 6 feet apart, barring the entry of the old and ill, and banning handshakes—they will be difficult to enforce across Pakistan’s thousands of mosques.

Sanguine observers will argue that these health risks shouldn’t be overstated. They will point to Pakistan’s warm climate, youthful demographics, and the widespread prevalence of a tuberculosis vaccine—all factors that some research suggests are keeping coronavirus numbers down and thereby limiting the pandemic’s impact in Pakistan, even if none of them are guarantees against the virus.

However, one can’t deny Pakistan’s underlying vulnerability. It borders China and Iran, two of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic; its cities are densely populated; and its health sector is overburdened and capacity-constrained even under the best of circumstances.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

The most recent data tells an ominous tale. The numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in Pakistan are much lower than those in many Western and East Asian countries; as of April 24, according to the Covid Watch Pakistan site, there were 11,155 cases and 237 deaths. But the figures are rising rapidly. The number of total cases rose by more than 3,100 between April 18—the day the government agreed to keep mosques open—and April 23. This is the largest increase over any five-day period so far.

The true number of cases is likely higher, given that testing rates remain relatively low. (In recent days, the daily number of government-administered tests has averaged about 6,000 in a nation of 200 million.) Additionally—according to some experts—Pakistan’s lack of an effective mechanism to officially record deaths of any type may mean some coronavirus fatalities are going unreported.

On April 23, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that “without effective interventions there could be an estimated 200,000+ cases by mid-July” in Pakistan.

In effect, Islamabad is allowing large numbers of people to congregate countrywide at a moment when social distancing could not be more crucial. The decision, which was sharply criticized in an April 21 statement from senior Pakistani physicians, is all the more striking because governments in most other Muslim-majority countries have closed mosques during Ramadan.

But the central place that Islam has grown to occupy in Pakistani society and politics keeps Islamabad from closing the mosques and religious leaders from voluntarily shuttering them. The political anthropologist Arsalan Khan traces the history of this dynamic—he calls it “the politics around Islamic authority”—in a useful recent essay.

In 1949, two years after Pakistan gained independence as a new homeland for Muslims from colonial India, the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan passed an Objectives Resolution, which provided guidance for the development of the country’s first constitution. It identified several principles to be included in the constitution. They included: “Sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to God Almighty alone and the authority which He has delegated it to the State of Pakistan through its people for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him is a sacred trust” and “The principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice as enunciated by Islam shall be fully observed.” Such statements foreshadowed the deep links that would emerge between religion and state in Pakistan.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq engineered a large-scale Islamization process that left a lasting imprint on the nation’s legal and education systems. Islamization, not coincidentally, played out in an era when Pakistan was also tightening its ties with Islamists next door in Afghanistan, where it armed and funded mujahideen fighters resisting the Soviet occupation. (Pakistan began pursuing ties with and providing military support to Islamist fighters in Afghanistan during the administration of Zia’s predecessor, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.)

The result was an environment that enabled and empowered Islamic figures and institutions. This has endured to the present day, with major political consequences. As Khan writes, “Zia’s Islamisation expanded the political space for religious political parties and also led to the politicisation of the Islamic ulema who became increasingly involved in matters of the state.”

The clout of Pakistan’s religious communities manifests in many ways today. They enjoy street power (they can quickly mobilize large numbers of people), impunity (the use of violence and hate speech by their hard-line factions often goes unpunished), political influence (they get what they want from the government— from the reversals of changes to parliamentary oaths they deem offensive to the removal of people they don’t like from government advisory councils), and strategic appeal for the state (Islamist militants are used as armed assets to pursue foreign-policy objectives).

Islamabad has declined to take a tougher line on the mosque issue because it defers to the power of religious figures. The government also fears the consequences if the kid gloves that it treats them with were to come off. If it were to order all mosques closed, protests would probably ensue. At best, this would undermine the very social distancing that mosque closures would be meant to enforce. At worst, there could be violence—and threats to the state—at a moment when the government is consumed with curbing the pandemic. In 2018, the Supreme Court’s decision to acquit a Christian woman languishing on death row on blasphemy charges sparked angry protests from Islamists who called for judges to be killed and soldiers to mutiny (threats that prompted the government to arrest protest leaders).

The Pakistani state does not want to be in a position where it must contemplate using force against religious protesters to curb unrest. Violent crackdowns on Islamists—especially in a deeply conservative and religious state—risk triggering large-scale instability. Pakistan’s ongoing economic problems—fueled largely by a debt crisis and guaranteed to worsen during the pandemic—add an additional level of volatility. In 2007, President Pervez Musharraf learned this lesson the hard way when he used force against religious students and militants holed up in Islamabad’s Red Mosque. The operation killed dozens and spawned retaliatory attacks. It also led to the formal establishment of the Pakistani Taliban, which staged an unrelenting campaign of anti-state terrorism for nearly a decade. The sobering lessons of 2007 haven’t been forgotten.

The clerics are aware of their clout and of their status as Frankenstein’s monster—a past creation of the state that the state can no longer control. This helps explain why many mosque leaders oppose voluntarily shutting down mosques and calling for prayer at home. In their public remarks, they acknowledge the risks posed by the coronavirus—and unlike some Pakistanis, who blame the virus on an American or Israeli plot to weaken Muslims, they have largely avoided trumpeting conspiracy theories. Yet they insist that religious duty requires that mosques remain open. For Pakistani religious leaders, it’s ultimately less about considerations of God’s will and more about temporal matters of politics and money.

By closing their doors and turning away thousands of people—some of whom have shrugged off coronavirus concerns and stated their determination to pray at the mosque—they would be ceding political ground to a state that has rarely imposed its will on them and risking the loss of public support from their core constituency. They would also risk losing out on the hefty financial contributions provided to mosques during Ramadan.

To be fair, Islamabad hasn’t simply sat on its hands. This month, it tried to limit attendance in mosques by restricting the number of worshippers to five. Police tried to enforce this regulation, with mixed results. Government officials held a series of negotiations with religious leaders. And the April 18 agreement does stipulate that the government could change its position if it believes the accord isn’t working.

On April 23, Prime Minister Imran Khan delivered an “I did my best”-type appeal. In televised comments, he said the agreement was an ideal “middle ground,” given that Pakistanis were bound to insist on congregational prayer no matter what.

Still, in the end, Islamabad doesn’t have any good options. It can call for a renegotiation of the agreement, which the clerics are likely to reject. It can unilaterally call for mosques to be shut, which may trigger unrest. Or it can just sit back, hold its nose, and hope against all odds that stepped-up testing and contract tracing will keep the pandemic at bay—and mitigate the harmful effects of a decision that risks hastening the spread of a virus that the country is woefully underequipped to stop.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman