Emile Habibi, a Palestinian writer from Haïfa who stayed on in Israel after 1948, had coined a great word to describe the state of mind of those individuals who experience ambiguity on a daily basis: peptimist. It is a mixture of hope and weariness, somewhere at a juncture between optimism and pessimism. This is a most fitting word to use these days in light of the consequences the epidemic is having on religions.
We too, also peptimists, will remember that the most important Christian, Jewish and Muslim feasts – Easter, Passover and Ramadan – were, for the most part, celebrated in accordance with the lockdown instructions issued by the authorities of the three religions. In Mecca, the image of a deserted Kaaba will indelibly mark people’s memories for a long time to come. That lead Algerian writer Kamel Daoud to raise his hopes and in the columns of the weekly Le Point, he wrote “Islam has come up against a strain far more brutal than itself!” The prohibition of public gatherings, which led to all Islamic practices being limited to the private realm for the first time ever, could well be the first step towards secularisation. The individual, now confined in the private realm of a genuine faith or of a relaxed indifference, could finally rid themselves of the community’s scrutiny.
Fanaticism, however, is putting up resistance. In the Parisian suburbs of Mureaux and Blanc Mesnil, imams claim that Allah is exacting revenge for moral turpitude and fornication by inflicting “calamities the likes of which we have never experienced before”, notes academic Bernard Rougier who edited an excellent book entitled “Les territories conquis de l’islamisme” (Presses universitaires de France). Is COVID-19, a divine messenger? That’s the Salafist take on it, one that is enthusiastically espoused by the charming Hani Ramadan, brother of Tariq and a staunch supporter, as we will recall, of stoning. In posts related to the subject of Ramadan, a very popular hashtag coronasoldatdallah celebrates the fact that soldiers on board the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle have contracted the virus. These honey-coated words fell from the lips of an imam in Gaza. Islamism has caught the scent of a golden opportunity: it would be impossible to let the chance provided by the virus slip away without enlisting it in the armies of the true believers. The setting is fiendishly favourable, particularly in this France of little faith, which has, to date, only grudgingly tolerated the veil, and is now engaged in an all-out hunt for sanitary masks. “Everyone now wants to cover themself; the Sunna is the way of truth!”, brag the faithful on social media.
You could also consider the issue from the opposite angle: it is the ecstasy of the crowds that fuelled the virus. Case in point: Pakistan. More than a hundred thousand members of Tabligh, the movement erroneously qualified as religious when in reality, it often serves as the entry-point to Jihad, congregated near Lahore between the 10th and 12th March. While the whole world was going into lockdown, members of Tabligh came from 70 different countries and spent two whole days together, on their knees, as if in a bid to outdo each other in piety and in close proximity to one another. Then they dispersed, as did COVID, duly fuelled by the gathering. That was how Pakistan came to be infected. The virus spread far and wide, all the way to Gaza, which explains the Palestinian imam’s gratitude. Faced with the spread of the epidemic, in a country where even at the best of times, the healthcare system is crippled, do you think they closed down the mosques? Needless to say, the government in Islamabad was unable to do so on account of the powerful ultra-religious lobbies. Medical doctors, at the end of their tether, expressed their anger, to no avail.
On the other side of the Muslim world, in Morocco, the opposite happened. The High Council of Ulema, in a fatwa, to use the appropriate word, upheld that “the protection of human life takes priority over religious practice.” It recommends that individuals practice their religion in isolation. There was great need for these recommendations in the Kingdom because, a month ago, hundreds of zealots had rushed out onto the streets of Tangiers and Fez, praying to God to deliver them from evil. In Israel, the ultra-orthodox Jews from Mea Shearim and Bnei Brak – neighbourhoods of Jerusalem – and the priggish suburb of Tel-Aviv, did not act much differently from their Muslim ‘brothers’, I mean ‘cousins’. It is precisely in these virtually autonomous neighbourhoods, ruled by anachronistic rabbis, that the coronavirus has spread at lightning speed. Promiscuity, together with the refusal to close down the synagogues, have practically led to a civil war-like atmosphere. It took massive police intervention and the sealing off of all the ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods to contain the catastrophe. Something for the Minister of Health to do, well, not exactly, because Yaakov Litzman, the minister in question, is a Hasid of the Guer sect, one of the strictest in the obscurantist world. Not only did he protect his fellow brethren, he also attended prayer gatherings, contracted the virus and went on to infect many members of the Israeli government. The most recent news concerning him confirms that he is in good health but has resigned from his post. Corona, the secret agent of Jehovah or Allah, strikes again.
*Journalist and essayist, editor in chief at weekly magazine Marianne, specialist in Islamism and Middle-East affairs.