Islamic Countries: A global risk in COVID-19 like pandemics

According to experts, frequent global pandemics are going to be the new normal of a post-Corona world. Global solidarity and co-operation will be the key antidote to deal with future global pandemics. In this article, we examine the role of Islamic countries in the fight against global disease outbreaks with special focus on their response during the 2019-20 COVID outbreak. In the concluding section, we also look at the options available with world governance organizations to deal with the issue.

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No serious study on any global issue can afford to ignore a religion like Islam that comprises 24% of world population. Islamic countries are primarily located in Middle-East, North Africa, Central, South and South East Asia.
Location on junctions of global transit – passenger & goods
Airports in Middle East act as the stopover points for connecting flights across the globe and major Islamic countries in Asia sit on the maritime trade routes. Islamic countries in Central Asia lie on the traditional Silk Route which serves as a land-based connection between Europe and Asia – going further until Myanmar and consequently towards South East Asia. This makes Islamic countries the ideal points from where contagious diseases could spill over across continents.
Global travel bans become an initial and high priority response during global pandemics. Policies, governance structures and the speed of policy execution in Islamic countries will determine success of global travel restrictions. During COVID-19, Dubai became the notorious source from where the virus spread to South Asian countries. Nearly 70% of the COVID-19 cases in the Indian State of Kerala could be traced back to Dubai in the Middle East.
Abject poverty in OIC member nations
Half of global poverty is present in the Muslim world. According to the Human Development Report (1994), out of the 50 bottom-most countries in Human Development, 23 are Muslim. Only one Muslim country finds a spot in the top 50 Human Development performers – Brunei which is the least populous of all. Dealing with global pandemics requires extremely swift response with regards to building medical infrastructure, expenditure on medical equipment and staff training as well as high end research. The plight of resource-rich Western countries during COVID-19 serves as a grave warning if such a major outbreak were to take place in OIC nations. Even if we assume that all the OIC nations pool in their financial resources to deal with such a situation, it will leave the regional block more fragile in the aftermath. This would mean more dependence of Islamic Countries on foreign aid and a clear field for further tight-fisted penetration of China – an ideal recipe for further destabilization of the region.
Persecution of non-Muslim minorities in Islamic countries during COVID-19
It is important to comparatively understand this section in two parts – how democratic countries treated illegal Muslim migrants and how Islamic countries treated their own non-Muslim citizens.
Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and other Council of Europe member states suspended deportation of refugees to their own countries during COVID-19. Portugal decided to treat all refugees as permanent residents to secure their access to public services during COVID-19 outbreak. Italy, in spite of suffering the worst of all outbreaks, decided to suspend all hearings and appeals against asylum seekers during COVID-19. At the beginning of April 2020, 30% of COVID-19 cases in India could be traced back to Tablighi Jamaat’s religious congregation in Delhi’s Markaz Nizamuddin area. Yet, the Government of India treated the Markaz patients without any religious bias; providing them best of quarantine and medical facilities.

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On the contrary, COVID-19 fatality rate among religious minorities in Iran is higher than their Muslim counterparts. Several Pakistani citizens belonging to minority Hindu community raised alarm on social media when they were denied food and aid by Islamic organizations. United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) too expressed concerns over reports of food and aid being denied to Hindus in Pakistan.
Such stark difference in response of democratic and Islamic countries stems from the underlying ethical and moral standards on which their respective governance is based. While democratic ethos imply that all the citizen should be treated equal, Islamic law, on the other hand, justifies the use of hapless situation of minorities as an opportunity to further forced religious conversion. It is out of this fear that there has been distress reverse migration in the middle of COVID-19, by workers staying in Islamic countries on valid visas. Indian workers returning from Middle-Eastern countries to Kerala during COVID-19 are an apt example of this phenomena. Such incidents caused by hostile attitude of Islamic governments towards minorities go against the principle of localization of affected population – an important measure in the fight against global pandemics.
Religious practices and their link with spread of infections
Owing to their religious importance for Muslims, Mecca and Medina become the melting pot for Muslims across the world. People belonging to different ethnicities visit these places. This makes them one of the most dangerous places on the planet for spread of viruses. Mecca and Medina have a long history of disease outbreaks – the cholera outbreak of 1821 during Hajj killed an estimated 20,000 pilgrims. Another cholera outbreak in 1865 killed 15,000 pilgrims and then spread worldwide. More recently, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-Cov) outbreak started from Saudi Arabia. Even though COVID-19 cases had started surfacing in Saudi neighborhood as early as 29th January 2020 (First case reported in UAE), the sites at Mecca & Medina were closed only in the last week of February 2020!

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Offering collective prayers multiple times daily in large groups is part of the Islamic way of life. Friday prayers occupy an even more special place in Islam. Any disruption to this ritual is not taken well by majority of the Muslim populace. Friday prayers continued to be with fervour and huge participation in Indian cities even after the Government of India had announced complete lock-down during COVID-19. When police started keeping a watch on mosques, gatherings moved over to parking spaces and terraces of private building. While several other non-Muslim religious bodies had already cancelled large congregations voluntarily by the end of February, the Tablighi Jamaat decided to go ahead with its program at its headquarters in Markaz in New Delhi. The event was held with participants coming from some of the COVID-19 hot-spot countries. The Government of India had a tough time tracing the Markaz patients who had dispersed throughout the country.
If this is the situation of democratic countries, where law of the land is above any religious text, we can only imagine the affairs in Islamic countries where the Government and population both owe primary allegiance to Quran. The Quran teaches Muslims to see difficult circumstances as a test of faith. They are temporary hardships to strengthen the believers (2:153-157). Such scriptural backing promotes Muslims to disobey the laws of the land. For instance, “Mosques should not be closed, they are houses of Allah, and he protects them.” was the statement by the head of the Islamic Salvation Front, Ali Belhadj and Abdallah Djaballah, president of the Islamist party, the Front for Justice and Development, Algeria.

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Scientific, logical and rational response from Governments and citizens is an important aspect in the fight against global pandemics. In Islamic countries, where science and reason are considered subservient to religious scriptures, the response from Governments and Citizens during global pandemics puts the entire planet at risk.
Democratization of Islamic countries
The civic sense instilled in the population under democratic governments is an absolute necessity to deal with any future global pandemics. Any given Islamic country, is home to several ethnicities and sects. When such multi-ethnic population is ruled by authoritarian dictators, it is hardly an incentive for the minorities to obey government orders during national and global emergencies like pandemics. The conflict between citizens and dictators gets even more stark when the dictator is seen as a Western puppet. On the other hand, decisions and orders of a representative government, comprising of due representation to minorities, are more acceptable to the population at large. Such cohesion between the decision-making body and its citizen is important to ensure that the global measures are implemented successfully at ground level. If over-centralization and unitary system are characteristic of a dictatorial form of government, decentralization and federal system are the characteristic of democracies. Implementing any globally decided necessary measures during pandemics draws better success in a decentralized mechanism rather than when trying to implement them in a mammoth, centralized setup.
The democratic discourse in Islamic countries needs to be promoted with urgent international support and solidarity. Educated citizen in Islamic countries have shown enthusiastic inclination towards democratization of their countries – Arab Spring Revolts stand as an example. Taking such revolutions to its logical end of installing a full-fledged democratic system should be high on international agenda.
Governance of International Transit Points
As discussed in the initial part, some of the very important global transit hubs (passenger as well as goods movement) are located in Muslim countries. As an initial measure, alternatives should be sought to such hubs in democratic countries as it will be easier to implement international laws and decisions taken in global interest. Ultimate long-term aim should be to entrust the governance of such airports and seaports to an international organization comprising of all nations and structured on democratic principles.
Foreign Aid to Muslim world
Historically, the aid from the Western world to Muslim countries has been based on narrow-minded Western strategic interests with no regard to checks if such aid is actually helping in bringing the Islamic countries into mainstream democratic fold or fixing responsibility on the recipient countries. International organizations too have been arm twisted by Western countries in this endeavor. Going forward, any such aid to Muslim world should be conditional to Muslim countries playing their responsible part in world efforts during pandemics and world health issues. Increased transparency in reporting from Islamic countries to World Health Organization could be a starting point.
Based on 2013 statistics, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) stated that illiteracy rates in the Muslim world ranges between 40 percent among males and 65 percent among females. Dealing with pandemics may require drastic behavioral changes. It is easier to shape behavior in educated population which shows more acceptance to guidelines based on scientific reasoning. A major chunk of population in Islamic countries takes their initial lessons in Madrasas. Such medieval form of education during formative years has a direct impact on attitude of the child once it reaches adulthood. There needs to be a shift in Islamic countries towards modern forms of education to instill a scientific temper in their population.

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Islamic countries will continue to be a liability and global risk during pandemics if there are no international efforts to change the situation. If there is any hope of Islamic governments and Muslim population playing their due role as global citizen, it is imperative that the international community comes together to use all possible means to hold Islamic countries responsible for any adverse actions during pandemics. Focus also needs to be simultaneously kept on efforts towards democratization of Islamic countries starting with educational and social mainstreaming of their population with rest of the world. With the frequency of pandemic outbreaks increasing, the urgency to implement such measures highlights itself like never before.
Name : Rohit Jagtap
Education : Master of Arts in Political Science, Bachelor of Engineering in Information Technology.