Is a Better World Possible? Muslims, Leadership and the Coronavirus Crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic may have exposed the unpreparedness and weaknesses of the established political order but it has also underlined the ongoing failures of leadership in the Muslim community, especially its inability to think big and strategically, argues Sadek Hamid.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.  

 -Arundhati Roy

The Covid-19 pandemic has become a world-changing event, which is likely  to leave its mark for generations to come. It has drawn  comparisons with the  influenza outbreak of 1918 where  500 million people were infected globally  and 50 million died. The two decades following the contagion were characterised by rising ethno-nationalism, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression in America and the rise in authoritarianism that eventually led to the Second World War.  While some similar socio-political conditions exist today, the world  is much more densely populated in a fragile international order with a deep planetary environmental crisis and a deep recession that seems inevitable.

Economic instability has impacted the most vulnerable, caused massive job losses, wrecked international industries and left tens of millions of people in precarious financial circumstances. Existing structural inequalities, poverty and unemployment rates will probably accelerate alongside the growth of populism, protectionism and political violence. Ironically, the trillions of dollars spent on countering security threats were not able to  prevent  the hundreds of thousands of deaths inflicted by a type of microscopic virus  that  scientists have warned about for decades. It has become the fastest spreading  disease in history and might mutate into more dangerous strains that remain within human populations for years to come.  These dynamics combined are accentuating new cultural and economic trends that could result in radical transformations that change our world in ways that cannot be imagined at this time.

Emboldening Authoritarianism

The crisis has allowed populist leaders in Brazil, Hungary, India, Brazil and the Philippines to seize more power. The global distraction has given the likes of Netanyahu cover to annex major parts of the West Bank, while in India, Modi’s government has used the crisis to further crack down on Muslim citizens, branding Covid-19 a “Muslim disease” intended as a “corona jihad” against Hindus. The Chinese state has continued its oppression of the Uyghurs interned in forced labour camps with a high risk of infection while Rohingya  Muslims fleeing their homelands in Myanmar face a similar plight trapped in the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh. The rise of anti-Muslim discourse has also been weaponised in  Europe and the United States, as Muslims are blamed for the spread of Covid-19 and countries such as the UK  smuggle in new legislation in the name of promoting public health to strengthen the surveillance abilities of the state.

These problematic attitudes were mirrored among Muslims communities in the West. In the UK prominent scholars and mosques were also reluctant to close places of worship on the basis of ill-informed edicts that insisted on mosques remaining open “until and unless the government places a total restriction on religious places.” It was countered by others who issued a forceful rebuttal that  questioned  the devotion to the buildings, given that  the whole earth is a considered as  mosque and  that historically no jurist ever advised people to place their lives in danger in order to join a communal prayer.  The fact that highly regarded Muslim religious scholars and umbrella bodies resisted public health guidance and only complied under state pressure does not engender confidence in their abilities to provide any kind of leadership for Muslim communities.

The ‘New (Post) Normal’: The World After Covid-19

Following  a pandemic, or any large-scale catastrophe, there  is a pervasive sense that the world is fundamentally unpredictable.  Most of us have been forced to adjust to the ‘new normal’ of living under lockdown, working from home and avoiding non-essential travel. While these restrictions will be eased the new normal may never see a full return to “business as usual” as people have been forced to reconsider their priorities. Many have lost loved ones or know individuals who have died as a result of the virus and will reprioritise what they value most in life.  A number of these epochal events  have been anticipated  by some thinkers who suggest that we are all  experiencing  Post Normal Times (PNT) –an  ‘in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense’  They argue that the emergence of  Covid-19 is an example of a PNT occurrence  and sign of future things to come. The changes might be more lasting the longer the crisis persists. Equally after a year or two,  most things  may return to as they were before.

Of course, nobody can know for sure what will unfold in the future; however, two broad visions have been articulated by those who study global macro and micro trends. Some of the main features of the  first,  envisage a return to the status quo for the continued benefit of a tiny minority, confident in their ability to ride out the coming climate cataclysm and has no interest in systemic reform.  This could lead to the grim prospect  of another long period of austerity, as governments try to rebuild their economies but unintentionally  might trigger a collapse of both state and welfare systems.  The hopeful characteristics of the second envisions a future that involves positive governmental interventions that protect life and well-being and abandons the endless pursuit of economic growth. It eschews fossil fuel dependency and avoids rapacious habitat destruction and species extinctions. Both these  dystopic and utopic ends of a spectrum may seem far-fetched at this moment but, then  no one at  the beginning of 2020 was expecting the surreal situation that we now  find ourselves.

Challenges for Muslim Political leadership

Tackling Covid-19 requires wise and effective and leadership in a time dominated by uninspiring, mendacious politicians. The exception to this general tendency has been the handful of female leaders such as the Prime Minister of New Zealand, whose handling of the crisis has been described as a “masterclass” in political leadership.  Other countries with effective responses to the pandemic such as Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Germany and Taiwan are also led by women.   It is a struggle to find similar qualities in political leadership in Muslim countries. There is also a  deep-seated reluctance to acknowledge the equality of  women and allow them to become  leaders or share leadership with men in religious or political institutions because of misogynistic, patriarchal readings of  Islamic law.   This misplaced resistance ignores the role played by Muslim women during the life of the Prophet,  contributions made by countless historical female religious scholars, scientists, doctors, philanthropists and political leaders , contemporary heads of state  and the growing number who are  leading positive social change today.

At the heart of this predicament is a lack of commitment to core Islamic ethics.   Realpolitik trumps religious rhetoric.  Many Muslim countries are  led by incompetent,  repressive rulers  that have no regard for the rule of law or human rights. These governments are plagued by economic mismanagement, nepotism and a lack of accountability. These problems are compounded by the  competing geostrategic interests of  the major  foreign  powers  that support these states to  help stifle the will of the majority.  In the 21st Century,  the most damaging external intervention to have occurred was the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq  which set off  a chain of events that resulted in the failed Arab uprisings, regional instability, ruthless proxy wars and  ongoing refugee crises which has helped to  proliferate  violent religious extremism. Previously esteemed political leaders applauded  for their ability to advance their countries’ development, have disappointingly  taken an authoritarian turn, are reluctant to cede power and often become embroiled in controversy.  The leadership deficit and lack of good governance remains some of the greatest inhibitors to realising the potential of Muslim societies today and perpetuates the political crisis and conflicts that some societies are currently undergoing.

Challenges for Muslim Intelligentsia

Muslims have dealt with epidemics in the past, producing scholarly treatises on preserving public health and the juridical and ethical dimensions of contagious diseases. However, today we are facing an unprecedented and challenging dilemma. Aside from some notable exceptions, Muslims are largely absent in the debates outlined above. The current global crisis demands responses from religious scholars and philosophers beyond adapting religious observance to this new reality. Despite having a large number of world class scientists,  doctors and academics, we appear to  lack  macro thinkers, public intellectuals and polymaths who can provide visionary leadership and use their knowledge to develop unique insights or creative solutions for complex, multidimensional challenges. This absence of  thought in leaders can partly be attributed to what some commentators have described as the intellectual decline accelerated by colonialism, characterised by loss of identity, illiteracy, stultifying legalistic orthodoxy and failure of institutions, all of which led to a crisis in Islamic civilisation.

Respect for all types of knowledge was a dominant feature of classical Islamic culture. However, today many modern scholars  are prone to addressing contemporary challenges by referring to juristic precedents produced hundreds of years ago in vastly different social milieu.  The pandemic has highlighted a divide between those whose worldview clings to an imagined literalist past that denies the validity of knowledge outside scriptural sources and those that want to contextualise their religious heritage authentically  to apply it to the challenges of the modern world.   

In Muslim majority states, religious minded citizens often appear to be preoccupied with religious factionalism of one type or another and restrict themselves to questions of the shariah ordinances on blasphemy, apostasy and criminal law. Many religious activists among Western Muslim communities appear to be preoccupied by sterile debates about feminism, secularism, perpetuate sectarianism or are overwhelmed by trying to deal with Islamophobia and the securitisation of their presence.   Despite these difficult challenges  that are specific to our Muslimness, we cannot separate themselves from the challenges confronting the rest of the world. Until we are able to confidently shape a coherent synthesis between the sacred and secular, our responses will remain reactive and limited to fire fighting and we will be unable to contribute to the betterment of humankind. Muslims should  resist a widespread tendency to exceptionalise our problems and  instead see the bigger universal challenges,  help shape the debates about the most pressing issues challenging us as human beings  and  play our role in helping to solve global problems such as the environment crisis.

This is particularly pressing given that deforestation, urbanisation, pollution, ecological destabilisation, zoonotic diseases and flooding are more likely to impact Muslim countries in the next two decades, which will have a subsequent effect on the spread of infectious diseases and the ability of these nations to feed themselves.  This has already been painfully seen in countries suffering from war such as  Yemen, the island state of the Maldives which is at risk of disappearing by the end of the century  along with the coast  of  southern  Bangladesh. All of these climate challenges have inter-related consequences on migration, population displacement which may escalate into political conflicts that could exacerbate the refugee flows of which Muslims comprise the world’s majority. These problems are in addition to the failure to develop  economic policies that address poverty, social inequality, gender justice and provision of basic needs  such as  housing, education,  employment, health care and food security.  In addition, most Muslim nations are a long way from being able to  influence the direction of scientific and technological debates on Artificial Intelligence, digital surveillance, Transhumanism or the likely development of Next Generation Sequencing, Big Data, AI and AI combined apps that can detect diseases.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global challenge that requires a truly global response at inter-governmental, regional, national and grass roots levels. Rising to this challenge will necessitate massive transformational change. Shared problems will have to be solved by developing  consensus. Muslims need to lead by example and pool our expertise –this implies the collaboration of religious and secular leadership and necessitates the cooperation of  experts in different disciplines to develop solutions. It also requires the development of  grassroots networks that provide ethical, creative, future oriented leadership that create non-sectarian, co-operative partnerships that promote social justice,  alongside those of  other faiths and none.  Encouragingly, this is happening and has increased during the Covid-19 crisis,  as emerging virtual and real world alliances are helping to form  social movements making positive change.

Thinking Global and Acting Locally

A sense of communal solidarity has emerged worldwide as people come together to support the most vulnerable in their societies. There is a real spirit of “we will get through this together” which has resulted in the increase of  mutual aid projects such as  volunteers buying groceries for the elderly and those confined to their homes. Muslims have been at the forefront of serving local communities and have displayed numerous acts of generosity and support.  In the UK,  Muslims businesses were  particularly active in this regard with restaurants helping to stocking up food banks, offering free food to the homeless, one centenarian raising £200k for charity and many NHS Key Workers carrying on their duties despite fasting more than 17 hours a day during Ramadan. It is  notable that the majority of these  responses come from ordinary  Muslims in local communities and not those who claim leadership or from larger representative bodies.

While all of these grassroots  led efforts and acts of solidarity are commendable, systemic state level changes still need to occur. The growth of social-political activism during the  Coronavirus crisis holds the potential for a bigger culture  shift that politicians cannot afford to ignore and can result in policy changes.  Recent examples of this include  the mass demonstrations in American cities against police brutality which influenced Los Angeles City Council to propose cutting $150 million from the LAPD and reinvesting those funds into communities of colour.  In   Minneapolis, the trigger point for these events, the city council has voted to  disband the Police Department  and instead develop a new public safety approach. The  “Black Lives Matter” slogan  has also become a multiracial sentiment which  has gone global and caused many governments to confront uncomfortable truths.  Other promising initiatives include a radical set of proposals put forward by academics in the Netherlands with their  ‘Five Proposals for a Post-Covid-19 Development Model’ makes the link between economic development, the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functions and  diseases like Covid-19. This recommendation was given added momentum by a similar call by the Degrowth Open Letter, signed by more than 1,100 experts from more than 60 countries, calling for Degrowth as a way to tackle the consequences of the Coronavirus.

We are now at a critical historical juncture. The  dominant response within Muslim communities has been  characterised by a micro focus on religious observance and inability to  view the Coronavirus crisis as a universal problem that requires us to transcend group interests. We  need to draw upon our faith as  inspiration to help create a better future out of the opportunities presented by this crisis  and contribute to improving the collective good.  Ecological degradation, over farming and destruction of wildlife  has played a role in the outbreak of various infectious diseases in recent history and cannot be ignored any longer. Muslims have  rich resources in our religious teachings that can inform our interactions with the environment  and create a more harmonious balance  between  humans and nature. The challenge to make the transition to sustainable societies requires states to commit to low-emission, climate resilient futures  as well as a shift in our  personal norms and practices. We also have many different models of effective,  ethical political and religious leadership – retrieving and contextualising this knowledge is a collective challenge and work in progress. When we decide to re-imagine and put these ideas into practice building a better world may indeed be possible.

Dr Sadek Hamid has written widely about Islam in Britain. He is the author of Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism, co-author of British Muslims: New Directions in Islamic Thought, Creativity and Activism and editor of Young British Muslims: Between Rhetoric & Realities.