The other contagion: Political and religious fanaticism

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

unnamedJust as fascism led to World War II, communism has engendered the greatest global health catastrophe of our time. The Chinese Communist Party, by initially covering up the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, helped unleash the world’s worst pandemic in more than a century. Today’s paralyzing pandemic, in terms of the extent of economic and social disruptions, has no parallel in modern history.

This underscores that China’s political system is a mortal threat to the world, even though its greatest impact is borne by Chinese nationals, who have to withstand its Orwellian surveillance and untold repression, including “re-education” of Muslims in the gulag. The pandemic’s inestimable human and economic toll has shown how one country’s authoritarianism can ravage the entire world.

Accentuating the pandemic is another extremism — one grounded in religion. The role of two proselytizing fundamentalist organizations in spreading the deadly coronavirus has exemplified how religious extremism threatens public health and national security.

South Korea’s secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus sparked a major crisis in the country by importing the virus from Wuhan, where it organized a congregation. More than half of South Korea’s COVID-19 cases have been linked to this doomsday sect.

Meanwhile, a transnational Islamist movement, the Tablighi Jamaat (“Proselytizing Society”), by holding large gatherings in Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia, helped export the pathogen to multiple countries extending from Southeast Asia to West Africa. This Sunni missionary movement also held a session in New Delhi that helped spread the virus across India.

Through its large events, the Tablighi Jamaat — which has long served as a recruiting ground for terrorist groups — has emerged as the super-spreader of COVID-19. This organization masks its millenarian philosophy and refusal to recognize national borders by claiming to be apolitical. But its ultimate goal — triumph in global jihad — underscores its very political mission.

A number of Westerners convicted of terrorism were associated with the Tablighi Jamaat. They include “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla and “Brooklyn Bridge bomber” Lyman Harris. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation found after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that al-Qaida used the Tablighi Jamaat for recruiting new terrorists.

The Tablighi Jamaat’s February 27-March 1 gathering of 16,000 activists at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur spread the disease in six Southeast Asian countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Its March 11-12 congregation in Lahore, Pakistan, attracted up to a quarter million participants but ended up creating the largest viral vector in the Sunni world. It spread the coronavirus far and wide — from Kyrgyzstan to Gaza.

Indonesia banned a similar Tablighi Jamaat event on Sulawesi island but not before nearly 8,800 activists from 10 countries had gathered. But India inexplicably allowed Tablighi Jamaat missionaries, including many foreigners, to congregate in its capital city from March 13, a day after the state of Delhi (which includes New Delhi) declared COVID-19 an epidemic and prohibited large events, besides shutting all schools, colleges and movie theaters.

Permitting this congregation, which authorities did not disperse until April 1, proved costly: Nearly one-third of India’s total number of COVID-19 cases have been linked to that gathering. Those who contracted the disease at the gathering spread the infection to families and other contacts across India after returning home.

The Tablighi Jamaat went ahead with its planned congregations in different countries despite the pandemic because, as one of its clerics put it, calling off any event would have amounted to “repudiating Allah’s directive.” However, with these gatherings becoming rapid multipliers of the coronavirus, the organization will be remembered for the deaths and suffering it caused in many communities.

The lesson is that religious fanaticism, like political despotism, is often deadly. Indeed, the blind faith of religious zealots has been a significant trigger in spreading the coronavirus, as Iran’s case underscores.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 disease in Iran, one of the world’s worst-affected countries, began in the sacred city of Qom, which is visited by some 20 million pilgrims every year and where the 1979 Islamic revolution started. The ayatollahs who run the seminaries in Qom discounted the coronavirus risks by saying prayer would keep the disease away.

Indeed, Mohammad Saeedi, the head of Qom’s famous Fatima Masumeh shrine, released a video message calling on pilgrims to keep coming. “We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases,” said Saeedi, who is also the Qom representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The 80-year-old Khamenei himself said in early March that the coronavirus “is not that big a deal,” adding that “prayer can solve many problems.”

COVID-19 cases in Shiite communities in countries stretching from Afghanistan and Iraq to Bahrain and Lebanon have been traced to Iran.

Likewise, in Israel, ultraorthodox Jews caused the coronavirus to spread rapidly by flouting the government’s stay-at-home measures. Although they account for 12% of Israel’s total population, they make as much as 60% of the country’s COVID-19 cases in major hospitals. To help protect the wider population, security troops have now started policing ultraorthodox Jewish neighborhoods, imposing large fines on those violating containment measures.

However, no religious group has played a greater role in spreading the coronavirus across national frontiers than the Tablighi Jamaat, known for its wandering bands of preachers. The Tablighi Jamaat shuns the modern world and urges its followers to replicate the life of Muhammad and work toward creating a rule of Islam on Earth.

From China’s authoritarianism gifting the world a horrendous pandemic to the role of religious zealots in accelerating the spread of the disease, the global costs of political and religious extremism have been laid bare. Extremism is antithetical to the social and economic well-being of societies.

The virulent contagions of political and religious fanaticism have become more pronounced during the current pandemic, underscoring that the only way to contain the threat from extremists is to discredit their insidious ideologies. As the Algerian writer Mouloud Benzadi has put it, “Kill extremists and more extremists will appear. Kill extremist ideology and extremism will disappear.”

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© The Japan Times, 2020.