Scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who are deeply engaged in research in the Middle East have published an article describing how Islamic authorities in Arab states are responding to Covid-19. The article examines different courses of action adopted by governments across the Arab world to contain the outbreak, and the potential impact on state-society relations of mobilizing local Islamic institutions and leaders in this effort.
To contain the coronavirus, Arab governments are mobilizing official Islamic institutions. The most pressing goal is to shut down sites of potential contagion as Ramadan approaches.
As the new coronavirus and its economic and political consequences ripple cross the Arab world, Arab regimes are facing an extraordinary and possibly existential test. Their public health capacities may be strained but so too will their economic resources and coercive institutions. Moral suasion will grow increasingly important, even in the most repressive of states, to contain the outbreak and its economic and political fallout. In this effort, Arab governments are mobilizing official Islamic institutions—namely, ministries of Islamic affairs and awqaf (endowments)—as well as engaging local clerics and Islamists. The most pressing and critical goal is to limit the virus’s spread by shutting down sites of public contact and potential contagion including Islamic spaces, principally mosques but also religious schools, as well as events like pilgrimages and commemorations—especially as the holy month of Ramadan begins in April.
To ensure compliance with social distancing and other measures, many regimes are relying on national and especially local clerics who have gained citizens’ trust for their religious learning and social roles. In tandem, Islamic charities connected to regimes are proving vital in alleviating the outbreak’s dire economic impact. Enlisting Islamic authority in some countries may prove crucial in compensating for the public’s low trust in the regime’s information outlets and officials, which could have dire public health consequences. As studies of past pandemics have shown, when trust and regime legitimacy is low, the public is more likely to engage in “skeptical noncompliance.” Conversely, Islamic venues of communication may prove vital in convincing the public that an eventual end to the pandemic was because of the regime’s efforts, whether through its own actions or by facilitating international help. Relatedly, Islamic authorities may in some instances accrue greater popularity by aligning themselves with robust government responses.