U.S. President Donald J. Trump and ultra-conservative Pakistani religious scholars may have more in common than either would want to admit: Irrespective of public health concerns, both believe that congregation is an essential pillar of prayer.
A true hotspot
Scores of religious leaders and groups in the United States have sensibly sought to protect their communities by advocating virtual — rather than physical — congregation during this pandemic. After all, the coronavirus has yet to be brought under control.
For evidence, just consider that, in Germany recently, a major local outbreak occurred at a house of Baptist worship, whose members disregarded the social distancing rules.
While moderate Muslims act wisely…
To their credit, religious authorities in much of the Muslim world have heeded government instructions and medical and public health advice. Unfortunately, Pakistan is the exception that proves the rule.
That advice ranged from the closure of mosques to bans on social gatherings that precluded traditional iftar meals breaking the Ramadan fast and celebrations of this week’s end of the holy month to Saudi Arabia’s suspension of the umrah, the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca and possibly the haj too.
… Trump plays religious politics
Leaving aside the question whether he even has the legal power to do so, Mr. Trump vowed to overrule U.S. state governors who refused to open houses of worship, noting that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) had issued guidelines that included physical distancing.
Officially, Mr. Trump’s recognition of prayer as essential is seen as strong evidence of his embrace of the concepts of religious freedom that are promoted by his administration.
In reality, his move was clearly designed to play to Mr. Trump’s Evangelist voter base. His pseudo-religious fervor is all the more peculiar considering that Donald Trump steadfastly refuses to indicate any specific Bible passage as his favorite. He stuck with saying it’s his absolutely favorite book.
Moreover, unlike most other Presidents, Mr. Trump is also very rarely attending regular church services since becoming President.
Disappointment for Trump
While he made his move in order to use it as a political wedge issue, Trump must have been surprised that his initiative received a mixed reception among American faith communities.
Yes, it appealed to those segments with an unqualified belief in God’s ability and will to protect. These believers tend to be steeped in notions of Christian manhood that have deep roots in American Evangelism.
Manhood and Christianity
Those curious “manhood” notions were first promoted in the 1970s by James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. He advocated ultra-conservative family values.
In addition, Dobson accused feminists of confusing and endangering the nation by denigrating masculine leadership. This always lingering pseudo-Christian mindset was boosted by the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Towers and the Pentagon in Washington.
But it greatly irritated other faith communities who do not see religion as standing apart from, or even above, the rest of society. Apparently, that is Mr. Trump’s view.
In recognizing prayer as an “essential” societal activity, he drew a line intended to give houses of worship an autonomy status at a time when the state, in a bid to fight the pandemic, very legitimately intruded into people’s lives with restrictions.
The Trump/Pakistan connection: Take 1
At the core, the U.S. president is fighting a battle similar to that of Pakistani Sunni and Shia Muslim leaders who resoundingly rejected a total closure of mosques but were willing to accept guidance on issues such as physical distancing.
These conservative leaders see mosques “as spaces where you cultivate and express a communal religious identity that is very central to…their vision of the Pakistani state,” according to a Pakistani Islamic scholar.
The clerics’ determination to retain control of religious spaces was reinforced by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s flip flops that resembled Mr. Trump’s zig zags.
Saudi Arabia far more enlightened
Mosques in major Pakistani cities were packed in recent days, despite religious leaders paying lip service to physical distancing. This reflects how deeply ultra-conservatism has woven itself into the fabric of Pakistani society.
More remarkable yet, the at best very fluid situation in Pakistan stands in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia’s pre-emptive response to the health crisis.
Unhelpful Pakistani courts
It certainly did not help that Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled against government lockdowns, suggesting that the coronavirus was not a pandemic.
Religious leaders have since backed away from their acceptance of physical distancing, demanding that the advice be abandoned.
The Trump/Pakistan connection: Take 2
Few doubt that Mr. Trump made his move with an eye on the U.S. presidential election in November. Remarkably, Mr. Trump has embarked on a road on which mainstream ultra-conservative Pakistani clerics are also travelling.
To be sure, the United States and Pakistan are vastly different countries. Pakistan has been hard hit by the pandemic, with 66,457 cases of infection to date and 1,395 deaths. Yet, that is a far cry from the United States’ 1,760,740 cases and 103,472 deaths.
Pakistan, nonetheless, saw its number of cases quadruple during the month of Ramadan and the rate of new infections jump by 30% in the last week when the holy month neared its end.
Yet, when it comes to employing religion to entrench power at the cost of striking a balance between faith and science, there is a stunning parallel:
Both Mr. Trump and Pakistani religious scholars share the kind of opportunism and worldview that serve their short-term interests irrespective of the cost to human life and potentially to already battered economies.
US President Trump and ultra-conservative Pakistani imams both believe that congregation is an essential pillar of prayer -- irrespective of Corona-related public health concerns.
Mr. Trump’s recognition of prayer as essential is a purely politically motivated move to play to his Evangelist voter base.
Both Mr. Trump and ultra-conservative Pakistani imams share a political opportunism and regressive worldview that serve their short-term interests.
James M. Dorsey
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist.
Tehmina Qureshi is a print and multimedia journalist specializing in socio-political issues. She works as an editorial writer for Pakistan’s largest English newspaper, Dawn.