By Waleed Rikab, Ph.D. candidate
Department of Religion, Rice University
The spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) is challenging governments and religious communities throughout the Middle East and continues to pose risks to numerous vulnerable populations. These risks are not confined to immediate health effects; they will also have severe repercussions on already collapsing economies in several Mideast countries, and on millions of displaced individuals who have fled regions affected by war.
One of the region’s major challenges is determining how to alter long-established religious practices amid the pandemic. There are signs that the spread of the disease is enhanced in regions that have failed to make such changes fast enough. In Iran, the spread of the virus was aided by practices of worship in the shrine city of Qom, which at first was not closed to worshippers. This seems to be the case in Iraq as well, and in both countries thousands of worshippers tried to access places of worship during March 2020 despite their closure.
In the ultra-Orthodox Jewish city of Bnei Brak in Israel, almost 40% of a population of around 200,000 might have been infected, according to one estimate, with religious gatherings continuing despite highly restrictive stay-at-home orders issued by the government. If this estimate is correct, Bnei Brak will have one of the highest rates of infection in the world, straining to the maximum Israel’s ability to contain it. To make matters worse, a higher rate of infection is also reported in several ultra-Orthodox areas in other Israeli cities, including Jerusalem. This has prompted the Israeli government to enact a “general lockdown” during Passover.
Elsewhere, Malaysia, India and Pakistan are confronting a similar ordeal, as they try to track down thousands of worshippers who attended gatherings of the Tablighi Jamaat group in March 2020. At least 154 of those of who attended a gathering in Lahore have contracted the disease, while two others who came back to the Gaza Strip from the conference tested positive for the virus. The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated regions worldwide, complicating any effort to contain an infection once it is introduced into the population.
Among other factors, failure to accept new restrictions on religious worship and to adopt a distant or online form of devotional practice is enabling exponential growth in the spread of the novel coronavirus. Lessons learned from this pattern can be utilized in other places where religious convictions have posed similar challenges. The governor of Florida, for instance, has risked repetition of the mistakes others have made by exempting religious services from a shelter-in-place order. Resistance to restrictions on religious services is found in Texas as well, where local pastors sued the Harris County judge to enable them to conduct in-person religious services despite a stay-at-home order.
Nevertheless, several countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran, have successfully implemented measures to restrict access to religious sites and prayer houses, instructing the faithful to pray at home instead of mosques, and advising pilgrims to suspend plans for the annual Hajj, expected this year in late July.
However, the closure of houses of prayers and the sight of the empty Kaaba, one of the holiest sites in Islam, in addition to the spread of the pandemic, have heightened apocalyptic expectations throughout the Middle East. This is because such developments are reminiscent of the end-time scenarios predicted in traditional Muslim Hadiths (accounts of words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad).
The reaction should not be regarded as extraordinary, as recent evidence suggests that heightened apocalyptic expectations are closely tied to the crises that the Middle East has experienced in the last two decades. The transformation of global issues such as climate change concerns, and regional issues such as political reform, into apocalyptic discourses was seen clearly during and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Fears about the spread of the novel coronavirus as an apocalyptic sign currently dominate Arabic discussions in social media groups, pointing to the speed with which the apocalyptic genre can assimilate and mirror various developments. Instead of viewing apocalypticism as a subset of extremism and violent ideologies, these expectations are better seen in the immediate context as echoing feelings of distress and disenfranchisement caused by the perpetuation of, or return to, authoritarian forms of government in several countries after the Arab Spring. Most recently, these discourses are echoing anxieties about the pandemic. Currently, apocalyptic discourses on social media view the spread of the virus as a sign that believers should repent to return to God’s favor. These expectations are in line with the drive for religious gatherings mentioned earlier and express the need for comfort and assurance in a tumultuous time.
In terms of government reactions to the crisis, Syria is most probably continuing to hide the extent of its coronavirus infections. A pro-government journalist, Rafiq Lutf, issued a series of updates on Twitter during March 2020, in which he exposed several unreported and unacknowledged cases of infection in Syria, and demanded more proactive measures by health authorities. Apparently raising the ire of the regime, Lutf has since said that he will stop reporting on the disease and deleted all of his tweets regarding the virus. He has been silent ever since, aside from a single post in which he congratulates the regime on its efforts to stop the one case of infection the regime admitted to at the time. This exemplifies the risks that journalists, even the pro-government ones, face when reporting on the virus in Syria, and the regime’s policy of silencing the press and suppressing any reports that do not reflect well on its image. Such regime tactics also make it harder to gauge the true extent of the pandemic in Syria. Furthermore, there is a discrepancy between reports about the severe measures the regime has been taking to lock down areas in which infections have spread, and its claims of having only a small number of infections—16 cases as of April 3, 2020. Two groups are especially at risk: tens of thousands of political prisoners held in inhumane conditions following the civil war, and hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians in rebel-held regions in northwestern Syria. In this regard, the truce reached between Turkey and Russia regarding the halt of military operations in Syria is a welcome development, and the U.S. should pressure all sides to abide by their agreements.
Egypt has a similar problem of overcrowded prisons where inmates are held in appalling conditions; many are political activists who oppose al-Sisi’s government. In addition, the coronavirus appears to be spreading among the ranks of the military, and reports in the media suggest that this problem is more severe than the government in willing to admit. As with Syria, pervasive difficulties with the regime’s transparency and its targeting of journalists prevent ascertaining the severity of the situation.
In Lebanon, fears about the disease initially stunted the ongoing protests in the country, which publicly voiced critiques against the lack of basic services and the ongoing government and economic crisis. However, demonstrations seem to be surging again, as protesters feel they have nothing to lose. Recently, protesters voiced their outrage against the government’s efforts at stopping the virus, saying that these measures worsen already calamitous economic conditions, and are driving populations below the poverty line. In Iraq, some return to protesting is seen despite the pandemic. However, according to media reports, the country has thousands more cases of infection than reported, due to its proximity to, and shared religious travel patterns with, Iran. With a crumbling economy and health care infrastructure, Iraq seems ominously unprepared for the pandemic.  In both countries, a return to protests and social unrest is expected after or even during the coronavirus crisis.
Experiences in Turkey also provide valuable lessons for other countries. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is refusing to put the country under strict limitations of movement in an effort to keep the economy going at all costs. This has resulted in a rampant rate of infection, with the government simultaneously silencing any criticism of its actions.
Covid-19 cases in Turkey
The novel coronavirus crisis is producing fears about the future that are manifesting in a greater demand for religious gatherings; this should be countered by disseminating information about the risks of contagion posed by these types of gatherings. Thus, there is an urgent need to implement distant or online worship in places where in-person worship involving many people is still practiced. The presence of heightened apocalyptic expectations is a product of these fears, rather than evidence of radicalization in religious thought as a result of this crisis.
A return to protests in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and even Syria might complicate any attempts to prevent large-scale gatherings in these countries, and only adds to the myriad political and economic problems they are facing during this pandemic.
 Henry Austin, “Hundreds of thousands defy Iraq’s coronavirus curfew to visit martyred imam’s shrine,” NBC News, March 21, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/hundreds-thousands-defy-iraq-s-coronavirus-curfew-visit-martyred-imam-n1165536
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