Natural disasters and epidemics bring out many people’s tendency to search for divine explanations and cures. The phenomenon creates ideal soil for extremist religious groups which leap upon the opportunity to exploit such crises for recruitment, mobilisation and disseminating their ideologies. The phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the Third World, and the Arab region above all, where fundamentalist groups proliferate and general educational levels are low. As the numbers of Covid-19 infections and victims rise in the Middle East and elsewhere, the region has seen a growth in both Sunni and Shia radical groups’ attempts to exploit the novel pandemic.
Many Islamist fundamentalist groups have attributed it to the wrath of God for straying from strictures, and issued calls for religious processions of penance and divine adoration (as have been seen in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan). Radical groups have also rejected the temporary closures of mosques, suspension of mass prayers and other such measures taken by Arab governments in order to prevent the spread of the virus. They even rejected the fatwas from major religious authorities sanctioning such measures, such as those issued by Al-Azhar and the International Federation of Muslim Scholars supporting the legality under Islamic law of suspending prayers and Friday sermons in mosques until the coronavirus epidemic is brought under control. Some extremist and fanatical preachers issued counter fatwas claiming that the suspension of prayers and sermons helped the spread of the virus, it being a manifestation of divine wrath for deviating from God’s Law that only struck non-believers. The counter fatwas have lured some believers into doing exactly the opposite of what government and health authorities advise.
Shia leaders in the religious centres of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq have challenged the appeal by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest Shia religious authority in Iraq, to abide by the ban on mass prayers in order to curb the spread of coronavirus. The Iraqi cleric Qassim Al-Tai urged the faithful to continue to visit Shia shrines and hold mass prayers and Friday sermons in mosques. When asked by one of his followers whether to avoid visiting Shia shrines, he said: “The virus does not afflict the faithful.” Muqtada Al-Sadr, the influential leader of the Sadrist movement, also defied the ban on Friday prayers. Thousands of his followers assembled for prayers in Kufa Mosque after the government in Baghdad announced the ban.
Similar responses came from radical Sunni leaders. In response to the Egyptian government’s decision to suspend mass prayers until the virus is brought under control, Wagdi Ghoneim, a Salafi preacher close to the Muslim Brotherhood, announced: “I ask people to worship collectively in the streets in front of the mosques.” Salafi sheikhs in Alexandria issued similar calls. Some also advocated religious processions, a call supported by some Muslim Brotherhood leaders abroad as part of their bid to exploit the crisis, attract new followers and pressure ruling regimes.
The current exploitation of the Covid-19 crisis by radical Islamist groups (both Shia and Sunni) follows a historical pattern that sometimes culminates in the rise of extremist groups. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, emerged from the womb of the 1920s global economic crisis that struck in the aftermath of the Spanish flu pandemic (1919-1921). The terrorist Islamic Jihad organisation took off in the aftermath of the Arab defeat in the 1967 War which the organisation’s ideologues also attributed to deviation from the faith. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was quick to take advantage of the 1992 earthquake, creating relief committees in the syndicates it controlled and that served as a major vehicle for recruitment. Indeed, that crisis marked the beginning of the resurgence of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which exploited it for mobilisation and electoral purposes.
Because of the impetus that extremist religious trends and groups stand to gain from exploiting major crises of this sort, the urgency of focussing on fighting the spread of Covid-19 should not blind authorities in the Arab region or elsewhere to the need to monitor developments in that end of the political spectrum. In light of historical precedents, there is a possibility that some Salafi groups’ exploitation of the coronavirus crisis could precipitate an organisational and ideological shift giving rise to the emergence of new and possibly fiercer jihadist organisations or militias after the crisis passes.
*The writer is an expert on terrorism at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
**A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly