Countries in South and Southeast Asia find themselves in a dilemma as they respond to the threat from COVID-19, as bad as things already are. They have to walk a fine line between enforcing public health measures to curb the pandemic while not offending religious sensibilities, such as in the case of a conservative Muslim network whose name has made headlines across the region in recent weeks.
Getting Islamic religious authorities to go along with a government’s public health initiative generally wasn’t a problem. But a misjudgment by Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative Islamic reformist movement, has proven to be detrimental.
Many followers of the India-based missionary group tested positive for the coronavirus disease after attending massive religious revivalist gatherings in Malaysia, India and Pakistan, despite warnings from medical personnel and fellow Muslims to observe social distancing as a way to protect people from the coronavirus. Other followers who traveled to Sulawesi Island in Indonesia to attend another gathering, which eventually was cancelled, also caught the virus.
Tablighi members have said their fate lies in God’s hands. Meanwhile, authorities in his home country suspect the group’s Indian emir, Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, of not doing enough to curb the recent mass gathering at his mosque in New Delhi.
Nearly a third of the 4,400 confirmed cases of the virus in India, as of April 6, were linked to the gathering at the movement’s headquarters in the Nizamuddin section of the Indian capital, officials said.
The Delhi Police Crime Branch is probing Maulana Saad and others for violating government orders on gathering restrictions, India Today reported on April 15.
In Malaysia in late February and early March, about 16,000 people from across South and Southeast Asia converged in Kuala Lumpur to attend another Tablighi gathering.
Within weeks of the Malaysian event, it became obvious that the gathering was a breeding ground for COVID-19. As of the end of last week, Malaysian authorities had linked more than 1,946 cases to that event.
This cluster has expanded to five generations of cases from which 26,021 samples were taken. From Brunei alone, out of the 50 Tablighi Jamaat members who attended the event in Kuala Lumpur, 45 tested positive for the virus, according to one report.
Thai followers of Tablighi
In Thailand, about 340 Thai Tablighi Jamaat followers who had attended the Malaysian event or had traveled to Indonesia for the gathering that was cancelled tested positive for COVID-19 after returning home.
This cluster included 170 residents of the Thai Deep South. Most of the infected ones did not display any symptoms upon their return. But one by one, they showed up in hospitals during the weeks that followed.
On March 17, only four cases had been detected in Thailand’s southern border region, but that number jumped to more than 280 by mid-April.
Thai officials operating in the Muslim-majority and Malay-speaking far South face a bigger challenge in containing the virus because the border region is home to a separatist insurgency that has claimed more than 7,000 during the past 16 years.
But Barisan Revolusi Nasional (the National Revolutionary Front or BRN), the rebel group that controls virtually all of the combatants on the insurgent side, has cooperated and heeded the advice of local youth activists, like The Patani and PerMAS, by declaring a cessation to hostilities until the pandemic is brought under control.
The first wave of armed insurgency in this Malay-speaking region erupted in the early 1960s – 50 years after Thailand – then Siam – drew the border with British Malaya. Violence from the insurgency arose in response to Thailand’s policy of assimilation, which the Malays of Patani feel comes at the expense of their ethno-religious identity.
The vast majority of the more than 2 million residents of this historically contested region identify themselves as Malay – as opposed to Thai – and share the same mistrust of state agencies as the BRN separatists.
Tablighi Jamaat members in the Deep South constitute a small fraction, numbering in the tens of thousands. While they see themselves as Malays, they do not embrace the cultural and historical narrative of the Malays of Patani, at least not to the point of taking up arms against the state.
Thai Tablighis Don’t Back Insurgency
Tablighi Jamaat is a movement that prides itself on being apolitical.
Its work mainly consists of reviving the faith of “weaker” Muslims to ensure their passage to paradise. Until then, Muslims should practice their religion as it was practiced during the life of Prophet Muhammad. This means sleeping on a straw mat rather than a soft bed and brushing one’s teeth with a twig rather than a toothbrush.
However, certain aspects of the interpretation of Islam embraced by Tablighi Jamaat continue to pose problems for Muslims who otherwise might want to join the movement. These include the veneration for the movement’s founder and his family, the ritualization of certain select scriptures, and the 40-day preaching tour that all members are obliged to undertake annually regardless of the depth of one’s religious intellect.
In his book “Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways,” Olivier Roy, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris, placed Tablighi Jamaat in the reformist camp, or “born again” believers who rebuild their identities through their rediscovery of religion. Along the way, these reformists, like the Wahabi and Salafi, break away from their cultural roots.
Roy pointed out that this shift did not exclusively apply to Muslims. In Christianity, such a shift is also taking place – from Catholicism and classic Protestant denominations, such as Methodism and Anglicanism, towards a more fundamentalist and charismatic form of religiosities, such as evangelicalism and Pentecostalism.
Reformists tend to reject culture, philosophy, and even theology to favor a literal reading of sacred texts and an immediate understanding of truth through individual faith. And as these reformists strive for “religious purity” along the way, the space in-between of accommodation, disappears, Roy wrote.
The Thai state may have a good working relationship with Tablighi Jamaat, especially in the conflict-affected far South where the group’s members don’t support the separatist insurgency.
But translating public health messages to people at the grassroots level, on the other hand, is still a challenge. As a Buddhist state, Thailand tries to be extra careful in issuing public directives that pertain exclusively to Muslims, such as cleansing rituals for loved ones who have died, as well as refraining from mass prayer at community mosques.
A perceived interference could very well push the Tablighi Jamaat members in Thailand toward the Emir in India whose stance is nothing less than a challenge to the governments around the region that are desperately trying to fight this pandemic and keep their societies and nations intact.
Don Pathan is a senior program officer at The Asia Foundation – Thailand. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.