There is no doubt that coronavirus is a matter of serious concern not just to the West, but to the Arab world as well. Unfortunately, Muslim clerics are exploiting the precarious situation and inciting their constituencies throughout the region. They have millions of followers on their social media channels and can spread their messages to huge numbers very quickly. The clerics’ sermons have the ultimate purpose of instilling fear in their listeners to convince them to adopt a religious way of life.”
The inshallah-fatalism that Islam encourages makes people less willing to modify their behavior to diminish the risk of transmission of the coronavirus. If the virus is a way for Allah to punish some and to save others, there’s less felt need to follow government warnings about social distancing – that is, not to congregate in groups. Many have insisted on attending mosques, thinking they are safe from contagion as long as they are in a mosque; the opposite is true. Mosques are places where large numbers of people – hundreds, thousands – pray side by side. These close-quartered crowds provide ideal mediums for the transmission of the virus. Crowds continue to be seen on the streets of Iranian cities, so very different from the empty streets in Italy, France and Spain. In late March Iranians were still shopping, visiting restaurants, meeting their friends at cafes, as if there was no need to modify such behavior. Some may simply not believe the warnings from their government, given its long record of lying to them. Iranians may also believe, not without reason, that the government preaches the need to keep from congregating as a way to suppress anti-government protests.
The continued hold of inshallah-fatalism on the Muslim psyche makes some Iranians indifferent to modifying their behavior, for what Allah wills, will be. Not a few clerics continue to send out messages on social media channels to their huge followings, in which they still insist that the coronavirus has been sent by Allah because Muslims themselves have been lax in their observances; they insist that only a return to a strictly religious way of life –as set out by the clerics themselves – offers hope. Hand-washing, social distancing, sheltering at home – none of that matters. It’s a terrible message to send.
What could change this attitude would be a sudden dramatic spike in cases of, and deaths from, the coronavirus, with much of that increase traceable to a particular mosque on a particular day when Friday Prayers were held. That increase in cases would do two things: first, it would put paid to the widespread belief that the contagion cannot spread in mosques; second, it would show that the coronavirus does not spare even the most faithful of Muslims; third, that it is widely communicated by crowds, and fourth, that the government’s demands — that people wear masks whenever possible, practice social distancing, and, except for buying food and medicines, remain at home — make perfect sense.
Iran’s government – its highest clerics — must insist that the coronavirus is not a “punishment sent by Allah”; that the virus strikes Muslim and non-Muslim alike, and even the most devout Muslims can be, and have been, stricken. That insistence on common sense will not come naturally to the clerical rulers or to many of their subjects, but in the absence of a breakthrough in vaccines and therapies – made by the Infidels, of course — for hard-hit Iran, it’s all they’ve got.