Imran Khan tests negative for COVID-19, but virus of radicalism permeating through Pakistan complicates challenge posed by pandemic
Imran Khan’s now solid reputation of being a ‘U-turn man’ doesn’t completely explain his support to the religious groupings to carry on with Ramzan. That can only be explained by some systemic factors that are peculiar to Pakistan.
Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan has tested negative for coronavirus after undergoing testing on Wednesday, according to an aide. This was forced on him after Faisal Edhi, arguably Pakistan’s most respected man, tested positive for the virus after meeting with Imran.
Many will pray for the recovery of Edhi, who runs the charitable Edhi Foundation, which offers succor to the poorest of the poor in that country; that too without any preaching about the virtues of jihad in Kashmir like other religious charities operating in Pakistan.
Prayers for Imran may be a little less enthusiastic. Many blame him for the ever rising cases of COVID-19, now officially at nearly 10,000, after Imran dithered and refused to impose a full lockdown in Pakistan on the grounds that the poor would suffer the most.
That stance drew criticism from those who knew of his close links with big business, but was worthy of reasonable doubt. But there’s worse. He now seems to be now colluding with the clergy to carry on with business nearly as usual in the Ramzan period.
A report in Dawn observed that after a meeting with Imran, the clergy had agreed to implement a 20-point guideline for Ramzan that included, among other things, bringing one's own prayer mat, barred hugging or shaking hands, and banned older people from attending. How any of this was to be enforced given the large crowds is anybody’s guess.
For one, no one's going to check birth certificates. President Arif Alvi seems to have okayed this list of ‘suggestions’ as well. Earlier the president suggested rather timidly, that ulema direct the faithful to pray at home. He, however, caved in at a meeting where, barring the president and one official, not one of the religious leaders wore masks or maintained social distancing.
That in itself says a lot about what to expect in coming days as people flock to mosques. And all of this at a time when the Saudis announced the closing of Mecca, and all religions institutions, as have Turkey, Malaysia and other Muslim nations.
That should have made it easier for Imran to follow suit. That he didn’t speaks volumes about the prime minister and the country he ostensibly presides over.
Imran’s now solid reputation of being a ‘U-turn man’ doesn’t completely explain his support to the religious groupings to carry on with Ramzan. That can only be explained by some systemic factors that are peculiar to Pakistan.
One factor is this: religious heads preside over very large institutions and enjoy a level of respect that is unparalleled in most Muslim nations. For example, Maulana Mohammad Hanif Jalandhari is the head of Jamia Khair-ul-Madaris, a great religious university originally founded in India and now in Multan, and its thirty institutions.
He also heads the Wifaq ul Madaris al-Arabia which comprises some 12,000 institutions spread across the country including in Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir and the Northern Areas. These are satraps, and persuading them is no easy task. Jalandhari was at the meeting with the prime minister, as were a host of leaders of such institutions.
A second factor is the now well-known fact that most of these satraps contribute directly or indirectly to Pakistan’s unrelenting jihad into Afghanistan and Kashmir. Either they supply the recruits or they add to the belief system that sustains this covert war.
This kowtowing to the clergy is also apparent in a new development. It appears that Pakistan has removed 3,800 names from a terrorism watchlist maintained by Punjab province. Most of the big religious institutions that provide vital support to terrorist infrastructure are based in Punjab.
While a pruning to allow updating of a terror list is permissible, such a large-scale removal of proscribed names seems to suggest that Pakistan is not just using the global focus on the pandemic to do its dirty work, but also keeping the right-wing happy. This is supplication on a large scale.
A third factor is however the more uneasy question as to Imran’s own beliefs. His reliance on religious superstition, djinns, and such like has been faithfully chronicled by a person in the know. Much of this is laid at the door of his wife Bushra, a mother of five, whose husband divorced her willingly so that she could marry Imran and fulfil his ‘destiny’.
This is the man who is required to lead the battle against a virus that is a worse enemy than Pakistan has ever encountered in its short existence. And yet, he continues even as recently as 22 April, in a tiresome rant on Kashmir.
Meanwhile, a group of senior doctors in Pakistan and abroad have appealed to Imran to reconsider. Pakistan being what it is, the letter first praises ulema and the government for the consensus evolved, but then warns about the predictable difficulty of enforcing social distancing during the long periods of prayer and the already evident conflict between worshippers and those who seek to enforce such norms.
That reputed doctors have to couch their dismay in such diplomatic language indicates the level of extremism that has permeated to the ground levels in Pakistan. The whole episode, involving kowtowing to the clerics, deferring a lockdown, and paring down the terror listing is the end result of more than thirty years of an ‘all of government’ backing of jihadi strategy into both Afghanistan and India.
The ideology has seeped inwards and downwards, until it is now difficult to enforce even the most glaringly obvious health precautions at a time of desperate need. In sum, there is little difference in the thinking process of the terrorist and his sponsor. Many realise this, including some senior police officers in Sindh. But there’s little that can be done when the prime minister himself is a victim of that long nurtured virus. Meanwhile, a pandemic spikes, dangerously.
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