Tablighi Superspreaders in Pakistan
Tablighi members pack into vans in Raiwind, Pakistan
Like many countries, Pakistan has been hit hard by COVID-19. As of 9th May, it has a total of 27,474 cases and 618 deaths. Many suspect the real figures are much higher, given that Pakistan has only tested 0.11% of its population of 220 million. This is straining Pakistan’s already broken healthcare system, which only has 3,844 ventilators.
The largest single source of infection has been members of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement, which accounts for 3,000 confirmed infections. The bulk of the infections can be traced to a single event in the second week of March, when thousands of Tablighi members from across Pakistan converged on the city of Lahore for a major religious congregation.
Local authorities initially tried to persuade Tablighi elders to postpone the event to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but were cowed by their refusal. Meanwhile, the central government remained hesitant to order a nationwide lockdown. As a result, the gathering proceeded as planned. It was attended by 70-80,000 people, including 3,000 foreigners, and lasted three days. To make matters worse, after the conclusion of the event, participants were split into smaller groups of eight to 12 people called jamaats and dispatched across the country to proselytize. By the time the first COVID-19 cluster was detected amongst Tablighi preachers on the outskirts of Islamabad on 21st March, thousands of jamaats were already all over the country, praying, eating, and sleeping inside mosques, and going out to proselytize to the public the rest of the time, potentially spreading the virus to millions of people. Health authorities were faced with the herculean task of trying to trace, locate, and quarantine all these jamaats. Whilst they managed to quarantine 20,000 of them, most remain at large.
Tablighi jamaat on the road
Despite this, the Tablighi movement in Pakistan persisted in its proselytization activities, only officially suspending them on 1st April. On 2nd April, authorities in Lahore sealed off the movement’s headquarters in the town of Raiwind, and locked down the entire town. Yet, many jamaats in other parts of the country either did not hear or care about the suspension, and continued their activities. Tablighi members not only violated quarantine orders, but, in one instance, a Tablighi preacher in the city of Layyah stabbed a policeman when he tried to stop him from escaping a quarantine center.
The Tablighi movement has suddenly come under intense scrutiny, emerging as a superspreader of the coronavirus in Pakistan, India, and Malaysia. The movement was founded by Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawai, a Sunni cleric in the late 1920s on the outskirts of Delhi to preach what he called a pure form of Islam to peasants. Over the years, the movement has gathered a huge following in more than 80 countries.
The Tablighi movement has suddenly emerged as a superspreader of the coronavirus in Pakistan, India, and Malaysia.
On the whole, it has steered away from controversy and operates in relative obscurity. However, its stubbornness, irresponsibility, and disregard for public safety during this crisis have cost Pakistan dearly in lives, hospitalizations, and resources.
The reluctance of the Pakistani government to take action against Tablighi Jamaat reflects its reluctance to antagonize Islamic groups in general. For many decades, the state has nurtured these groups, using them to counter democratic and ethnonationalist forces, or even to fight proxy battles against India.
Now, these groups have amassed immense influence amongst the public, and any attempts to crack down on them for ignoring quarantine orders risk triggering an insurrection. Pakistani politicians are also very afraid of being labeled “un-Islamic,” and thus are unwilling to risk the political damage.
Tablighi convoy in Raiwind
Because of this, Pakistan’s government has been similarly unable to stop communal prayers in mosques around the country, and completely mishandled the return of thousands of Shia pilgrims from Iran, which led to the initial surge of COVID-19 cases in the country.
To be sure, Islamabad has been complacent and indecisive in arresting the spread of COVID-19 in general. Pakistan’s populist prime minister, Imran Khan, spent many precious days vacillating on whether to impose a lockdown until the decision was essentially thrust on him by the country’s powerful military in the face of social media outrage over government dithering. On the night of 22nd March, a military spokesperson announced the army was deploying across the country to support the civil administration in enforcing a lockdown. Khan was then forced to take ownership of the lockdown – even though he had spoken out against a lockdown just the day before.
Imran Khan spent many precious days vacillating on whether to impose a lockdown until the decision was essentially thrust on him by the country’s powerful military.
Since then, however, enforcement of the lockdown has been spotty. While main markets in most major cities were closed, the majority of those in the peripheries ignored lockdown orders. People continued to roam around cities and to throng in bazaars and mosques. The government has even partially lifted the nationwide lockdown.
The Pakistani government’s lack of courage and direction, especially in the face of Islamic groups, will exacerbate this crisis. Pakistanis looking for leadership see only rebellious imams…and cowering government officials.