Religious authorities, Islamists not in driver's seat as Maghreb copes with pandemic

The public health emergency has left radical Islamist influencers isolated in the lockdowns.
Monday 27/04/2020
People walk past a closed mosque outside Tunis. (AP)
Change of venue. People walk past a closed mosque outside Tunis. (AP)

TUNIS--Leading Muslim clerics and religious authorities in the Maghreb have found themselves compelled to defer to scientists and medical experts in the government-led drive to halt the advance of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to sociologists, this trend could signal a hierarchical shift in Maghrebi societies giving science, education and public health reform precedence over interpretations of the faith by religious scholars and Islamic activists.

The virus has caused the death of at least 628 people and infected more than 8,500 in the Maghreb as of April 27, according to the region’s health authorities.

Seeking religious comfort has become an individual exercise at home replacing congregational religious rituals as imams and other religious figures accepted mosque closures and ban of mass prayers even during the holy month of Ramadan as a vital necessity to preserve lives.

The public’s mood in favour of reconciling faith, science and accepting reality checks to slow the spread of the disease was bolstered by the attitude of most religious clerics who have been working together with governments to keep mosques shut and worshippers praying at home.

There was no noticeable resistance from radical Islamists against the shuttering of mosques and halt to communal worship.

Many Imams and other Islamic figures from Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya even warned the faithful that concealing information about COVID-19 infection from the authorities is a sin.

They also described neighbours praying together at house terraces a religious misdeed.

The few expressions of incitement by radical preachers against anti-pandemic restrictions drew small groups of sympathisers. There were small nightly protests “against the virus”, swiftly stopped by the authorities. Some also tried to stage communal prayers at car garages, house terraces and building roofs.

According to experts, the small clusters of intransigence led by headstrong radical preachers exposed the limits of radical Islamist influence and the general ebbing of political Islam in the Maghreb.

Semantic usage is offering a powerful indicator. Doctors and nurses are praised as soldiers of “Jihad” (holy war) for life against the coronavirus. Medical workers who are victims of the pandemic are called “Chouhada” (martyrs) by clerics who pay tribute to the doctors and nurses’ self-sacrifice. “Jihad” and “Chouhada” used to be the militants’ description for waves of Jihadists, who were bred by radicalisation venues across the Maghreb since the Afghanistan war against the ex-Soviet Union in the 1980s, the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s and more recently the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya.

Idled by the virus and its dangers, radical Islamists in Tunisia jumped on a statement by the culture ministry written in French to assail culture activities amid coronavirus as waste of money that should be better used to fund hospitals. Their attempts did not trigger any enthusiastic support by the public.

In Morocco, Islamist extremists assailed a secularist intellectual for circulating medical guidance for ill people to “keep their throats wet” as a precaution against infection during Ramadan.

Authorities found it easier this time to curb hard-line clerics’ influence among crowds as the pandemic blunted traditional arguments used by extremists to dwell on the supposed victimisation of Muslims by “Western crusaders and Jews,” apostate communists or secular  domestic governments.

Frog-leaping across continents, oceans, cultures, religions and other divides, the pandemic left radical Islamist influencers isolated in the lockdowns.

“As much as it revealed the moderation and flexibility of this religion and the easy rules in time of calamities, the coronavirus highlighted the extremism of some zealots in these most difficult circumstances that cause death and suffering,” said Tunisian imam and scholar Badri Ben Mnaouar Madani.

He called to punishment with “the whole sheer of the law” of those Tunisians under the influence of extremists who opposed the burial of virus victims at local cemeteries even after doctors declared the burial safe under specific public health precautions.

“At one time, the Church had refused the burial of (famous French playright) Molière. In Tunisia, Islamist extremists protested against the burial of renowned Islamic intellectual Tahar Ben Achour. We do not need to see such behaviours repeated now,” he said.

“Furthermore, those who die because of COVID-19 are considered martyrs,” he added.

Quoting the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad), Muslim scholars say victims of epidemics are deemed “martyrs”.

Algerian Islamic scholar and mosque preacher Kamel Chekkat said: “Anyone who hides his coronavirus sickness and causes the contagion to spread to others commits a sin. The same for anyone who is aware of the infection of another person and withholds the information.”

Doctors have stepped in to give advice to people even on the observance of the religiously-mandated obligation of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan amid the pandemic.  Imams took cue from them.

“Many scientific studies demonstrated that fasting during Ramadan does not undermine the immunity of faithful,” said doctor Samia Chemali, who works at a state hospital in Rouiba, outside Algiers.

Tunisia’s highest Islamic authority, Mufti  Othman  Battikh, encouraged people to pay attention to advice of doctors whether it is on fasting, burial of the dead or other religious issues that have  a bearing on the spread of the disease.

“It is up to the doctor to tell whether a patient fasts or not during Ramadan. It is not a matter for the Mufti to decide,” he said.

The Islamists were stripped of another traditional tool they used to reach out to poor and others in time of stress: Delivering aid and organising charitable drives.

Governments allocated money and aid parcels to millions of families across the Maghreb to alleviate economic difficulties and assert the state role and presence.

Curfews and confinement measures limited the ability of Islamist groups to organise free Iftar banquets during Ramadan, which they used in the past to buttress their political constituencies.

Tunisian President Kais Saied even carried in person aid parcels to the poor invoking the example of the second Caliph of Islam Umar Ibn al Khattab, pushing the limits of the undeclared competition between the state and Islamists.

COVID-19 in the Maghreb (as of April 27)
Countries Total cases New cases Total deaths
Algeria 3,382   425
Morocco 4,115 +50 161
Tunisia 949   38
Libya 61   2
Mauritania 7   1
Region Total 8,521  


      Source: Worldmeters