Coronavirus pandemic exposes radical Islamists’ waning influence

“The fundamentalist Salafists give no consideration to science, the modern state. They live outside science and the boundaries of the nation-state,” said Moroccan writer Ahmed Assid.
Thursday 30/04/2020
Egyptian men perform the "Zuhr (noon) prayer" at a public park in the capital Cairo, on March 27, after a decision from the Ministry of Awqaf (religious emdowments) to close mosques and suspend Friday prayers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP)
Egyptian men perform the "Zuhr (noon) prayer" at a public park in the capital Cairo, on March 27, after a decision from the Ministry of Awqaf (religious emdowments) to close mosques and suspend Friday prayers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP)

TUNIS - With mosques shut, schools closed and many cities in lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, the influence of Islamists has clearly dwindled in North Africa despite their attempts of Salafists at exploiting the dire situation to their advantage.

In an effort to stay relevant during the global crisis, Salafists called for demonstrations defying curfews in Morocco and Tunisia. Some rejected experts’ views about the disease entirely, saying that it is either a hoax or an expression of God’s anger to punish sinners.

Moroccan Islamist preacher Abdelhamid Abou Naim said the closure of mosques went against the precepts of Islam and that the state should not have the authority to shut them down.

A radical Islamist with an Egyptian accent put out a video message urging people who had contracted coronavirus to intentionally infect state officers as revenge for counterterror operations. “Do not die alone,” the man is heard saying in the video. “Enter military and police facilities and shake hands and kiss officers.”

For secular intellectuals and progressive Islamic scholars, the virus further exposed the emptiness of fundamentalist ideas and countries are acting quickly to counteract their message.

“The fundamentalist Salafists give no consideration to science, the modern state. They live outside science and the boundaries of the nation-state,” said Moroccan writer Ahmed Assid.

Abdelilah Khadri, head of the Moroccan Centre of Human Rights, said: “The marches at night in some cities in Morocco under the pretext to beg God to protect us from the disease reflect ignorance of the religion.”

“The demonstrators are hiding behind the religion to spread chaos and confusion. It is sure that those who take the initiatives to stage these marches are a minority but they are followed by crowds driven by religious emotions,” he said.

Tunisia’s Interior Ministry said police arrested “marchers against the virus” and urged people to stay home in observance of the health lockdown.

In Algeria, the government selected some 90 Islamic scholars to speak in the media about the disease to counteract extremists’ messages.

Islam Said Lakhel, a Moroccan university professor who is an expert on radical Islamic movements, said extremists’ reaction to governments’ efforts to halt spread of the virus bring out “hatred even in a moment of a scourge like coronavirus.”

“When the authorities closed schools and universities, extremists stood silent, not out of respect for the decision but out of hatred for modern education. When the mosques were closed, they waged a campaign against the state,” he said.

“They seized the pretext of the measures to tackle the spread of the disease to declare the people apostates and the country a war field.

“The coronavirus outbreak forced the sheikhs of extremism and terrorism from their caves to exploit the psychological climate in the country to charge people with hatred and anger against the king and the state.

“Terrorism is not only explosive belts but it is fundamentally fatwas and speeches to legitimate it,” he added.

Many said they hope the deep socio-economic problems exposed by the crisis, such as inadequate health care and extremist ideologies, will be addressed by the state after the pandemic is brought under control.

“The coronavirus was a blow to the Islamist bigotry that thrived from natural disasters as it emphasises guilt feelings and individual flaws citing God’s anger against sinners,” said Algiers university teacher Kebbi Rabah.

“The bigots are losing their arguments. The disease is hitting even the most pious places on Earth. They are left with rancour and grudges as the Chinese beat the monster of coronavirus with science,” he added.

Algerian writer Amin Zaoui said: “In Algeria and North Africa in general, religion has colonised all spaces of our daily life. The religiosity has become a way of life. A politicised religion and a religion of appearance have stifled the reason among society.”