Humanity has been struck by many pandemics over the last decades, and history shows that such pandemics have impacted, positively and negatively, human being on many levels: socially, politically, economically and, most notably, religiously. Research demonstrates that religious attitudes are changeable in times of pandemics. Some people may come closer to religion believing that it is the only path of salvation in these times, while others can go unreligious instead. But, before we address how people react to pandemics, we need first to shed light on the aspects of religious life before and after pandemics.
Religious Situation Before and After Covid-19
Quick look at religious life around the world before Covid-19 outbreak illustrates that people observed their rituals, performed prayers, attended congregations and went to places of worship freely without any limitations. We saw many religious people –Muslims, Christians and Jews- engaging in various activities, organizing events and conferences and using certain occasions to gather as many people as they can.
However, the pandemic led people around the world to a state of panic and horror due to its disastrous consequences on their lives to the extent that some people believe the world will not be as it was before the pandemic. After the World Health Organization (WHO) had announced covid-19 an international pandemic, countries began to take some actions to help put an end to it. They launched awareness campaigns; imposed national lockdown, social distancing, curfew and masks; closed places of worship and banned gatherings. These measures actively contributed to reducing the numbers of infected cases around the world and people started to act accordingly.
How Terrorist Organizations Used Covid-19?
Various extremist organizations used Covid-19 as a means to spread hatred and commit violence. Extremists have been consistently and actively taking advantage of hard times to spread panic and fear and reach out to larger portions of followers in order to maximize the benefits of their misguided strategies, ideas and ideologies. While people around the world started to stay at home to limit the spread of the virus, terrorist groups exploited the situation and increased the circulation of fake news, false information, conspiracy theories and online radical publications to get more and more followers.
Boko Haram, for instance, exploited the deteriorated situation in some African countries to commit violent acts and make political, social or religious changes in the areas under its control due to the poor efforts made in monitoring and capturing terrorists there as well as lack of border restrictions between countries . In addition, ISIS addressed its followers by describing the pandemic as “God’s soldier” that seeks to retaliate from the western countries, ignoring that the virus infects all people regardless of their color, race or religion. Moreover, the deviant group aspired to regain its control in Iraq and Syria to reclaim the allegedly Caliphate which it called upon Muslims around the world to join, using the global race to develop vaccines to create favorable conditions necessary to its reemergence as many reports have shown that the group has moved from local intimidation to more complex attacks in Iraq and Syria .
Western far-right and white supremacist groups, on the other hand, saw Covid-19 as a weapon to promote their ideologies and incite hatred against minorities in their countries. For example, they accused Muslims of importing and spreading the virus, with some far-right leaders blaming Muslims for the large numbers of infected people. On a video shared on his Telegram channel, the infamous far right activist Tommy Robinson claimed that a group of Muslims in Birmingham violated upon exiting a mosque the rules of social distancing and lockdown declared by UK authorities. Although the police proved the video was fake and that the mosque was closed at that time, it was viewed about 14.000 times .
Islam's Position on Pandemics
Islam followed a specific approach in the times of epidemics and diseases, instructing Muslims to seek Allah’s help, apply physicians' directives and guidelines, follow instructions issued by competent medical authorities to prevent the transmission of infection. Many Prophetic reports warned against epidemics and the Messenger (PBUH) himself advised to apply quarantine in such times, stressing “If you get wind of the outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; and if it breaks out in a land in which you are, do not leave it ”. In another Hadith, he even confirmed that the quarantine is not for human beings only, but also for animals, saying “A man with sick camels should not let them graze or drink alongside healthy ones”.
Although institutions promoting the moderate course of Islam do their best to provide common people with authentic religious information both on the ground and online, particularly during pandemic outbreaks, various campaigns have been launched by extremists via social media platforms to ignite conspiracy theories and incite violence against vulnerable societies all over the world, which places further burden on social media companies nowadays, since they have to identify and subsequently remove notorious content.
Al-Azhar realized that it has a great role to do in educating people and providing them with authentic information in the time of Covid-19. So, it along with its affiliated bodies launched many awareness campaigns, released articles and reports and conducted surveys to help people respond effectively and positively to the pandemic. For instance, Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism (AOCE) launched many campaigns, including “Be Aware” that urges people to unite in their efforts to counter extremist ideologies in times of crises and pandemics, in addition to the articles and reports produced in 12 different languages with the aim of immunizing people against the ideas and ideologies of such terrorist groups and organizations.