The perils of political and religious extremism, writes Brahma Chellaney

The current global crisis has no parallel. The Chinese Communist Party, by initially covering up the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak, helped unleash the world’s worst pandemic in more than a century. The “world is paying a big price,” as United States President Donald Trump said, for what the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy did. The inestimable human and economic toll has shown how one country’s authoritarianism can ravage the world.

Accentuating the pandemic is another extremism — one grounded in religion. The role of two proselytising fundamentalist organisations 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 by importing the virus from Wuhan, where it organised a congregation. More than half of South Korea’s Covid-19 cases have been linked to this doomsday sect. Meanwhile, a transnational Islamist movement, Tablighi Jamaat, by holding large gatherings in Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia, helped export the pathogen to multiple countries, from Southeast Asia to West Asia. This Sunni missionary movement’s session in New Delhi spread the virus across India. 

Through its large events, Tablighi Jamaat — which reportedly has long served as a recruiting ground for terrorist groups — has emerged as the super-spreader. Its four-day gathering of 16,000 at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur at the end of February spread the disease to six Southeast Asian countries. Its March 11-12 congregation in Lahore attracted up to a quarter of a million participants, but ended up creating the largest viral vector in the Sunni world and spreading the coronavirus far and wide — from Kyrgyzstan to Gaza. 

The lesson is that religious fanaticism is often deadly. Indeed, the blind faith of religious zealots has been a significant trigger in spreading Covid-19, as Iran’s case underscores. Qom became the centre of Iran’s contagion because clerics, discounting the virus risks, invited the faithful to keep coming, and to lick the burial mound inside the Masumeh shrine, saying the holy city is “a place for healing” and thus safe from the contagion. Cases in countries stretching from Afghanistan and Iraq to Bahrain and Lebanon were later traced to Iran. 

Likewise, in Israel, ultra-orthodox Jews (who make up 12% of the population) have caused the coronavirus to spread rapidly by refusing to comply with the government’s containment measures. The government has now deployed security troops to police ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods in order to safeguard the wider population.

In India, authorities halted a planned March 25-April 2 mass Hindu pilgrimage in the sacred city of Ayodhya by proactively imposing a ban on assembly and blocking the entry of outsiders. However, the Tablighi Jamaat’s congregation in New Delhi has shown federal and state authorities in poor light. 

Indonesia banned a similar event on Sulawesi island but not before more than 8,500 Tablighis from 10 countries had already gathered. However, India inexplicably allowed the Tablighi Jamaat activists, including foreigners, to congregate in the Capital from March 13, a day after Delhi state declared an epidemic and shut all schools, colleges and movie theatres. Maharashtra, by contrast, cancelled permission for a parallel Tablighi Jamaat gathering in the state.

The New Delhi congregation stretched for 18 days until April 1, when 2,346 individuals were evacuated. Having allowed the gathering, authorities are now trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted, including seeking to identify and quarantine all attendees. At least 1,445 people linked to the event have tested positive for Covid-19, with multiple deaths reported.

It’s a sad state of affairs that India’s national security adviser had to personally go to the Tablighi leaders to get them to end their law-breaking gathering. The government has learned little from New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh episode. No country will allow protesters to blockade a highway even for one hour. But, here, the government put up with the months-long blockade in the hope of generating a backlash against those protesting the amended citizenship law. Instead, Shaheen Bagh prompted a similar road blockade in a northeastern Delhi suburb, triggering bloody communal rioting.

Tablighi Jamaat masks its millenarian philosophy and refusal to recognise national borders by claiming to be apolitical. Some intelligence agencies have linked it to the recruitment of terrorists by groups ranging from al-Qaeda and the Taliban to its two offshoots — Harakat ul-Mujahideen and Harakat ul-Jihad-i Islami. The Jamaat, officially, however, has strongly denied these allegations.

India has overlooked Tablighi Jamaat’s known ties with the Pakistan military. The Tablighi Jamaat invites its star recruits from different countries to its centre in Raiwind, Pakistan , and is understood to have allowed terrorist organisations to enlist students. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to a report in The New York Times in 2003, found that al-Qaeda used the Tablighi Jamaat for recruiting new terrorists.

Several 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 Lyman Harris, who sought to bomb New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge. 

From China’s authoritarianism giving 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 this 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.”


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