What Islamists Are Doing and Saying on COVID-19 Crisis
By Andrew Hanna
Islamic governments, parties, militias and religious leaders reacted in disparate ways to the eruption of the COVID-19 coronavirus across the Middle East and North Africa. ISIS instructed its followers not to travel to Europe, an epicenter of the disease. Conservative Sunni clerics cited conspiracy theories that blamed Shiites and atheists for triggering the worldwide pandemic. Some clerics in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Morocco even debated whether the outbreak was divine punishment against nonbelievers. Moderate Islamist parties collaborated with governments and offered followers practical advice on how to avoid contracting the virus.
The region hosts a wide spectrum of Islamic movements and parties or governments. At one end, they include moderate political groups such as Ennahda, a self-described Muslim democratic party and part of Tunisia’s coalitions governments since 2011. At the other end are extremist jihadi movements, such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State for Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In between are governments led by Islamist parties, as in Turkey, or that rule based on Sharia, as in Saudi Arabia. The following is a rundown of what Islamic governments, parties, militant groups, and prominent clerics have done or said.
On March 12, Turkey confirmed its first case of COVID-19 after almost three weeks of insisting it had no cases. On March 19, Erdogan charged that critics of the government response were “malicious,” as the health crisis intersected with political concern about growing challenges to his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“Some have tried to stir chaos, demoralize our people with false news and complained about not seeing any cases in our country,” he told reporters. “However, we, along with our people, have risen to this challenge wisely and determinedly as we always do in the face of attacks against our country. We have frustrated those malicious people, who rubbed their hands as they expected the virus to take our country captive and will continue to do so. Turkey’s greatest strength is its unity, solidarity and brotherhood.” Since December 2019, new parties founded by former top AKP officials have threatened to weaken Erdogan’s grip on Turkey’s politics. Erdogan also called on Turks to show solidarity, stay home and practice social distancing when in public.
On April 6, Turkey imposed stricter measures to limit the viral spread. The government made wearing face masks on public transportation mandatory and closed 31 cities to non-essential traffic. But it did not impose a mandatory quarantine as advised by medical professionals and opposition politicians. On April 19, Turkey’s number of confirmed cases – 82,329 – surpassed neighboring Iran’s. By early May, Turkey was among the top eight most infected countries in the world.
On March 2, Saudi Arabia confirmed its first Covid-19 case, a man who had traveled to Iran and Bahrain. It reported the first death on March 24. Reflecting regional tensions, the kingdom blamed predominantly Shiite Iran for infecting the Gulf and, on March 8, isolated its own Shiite population in the eastern Qatif Province. Most of the cases in Qatif came from people who had returned from pilgrimages in Iran, despite the longstanding Saudi ban on travel to Iran. The Saudi Foreign Ministry denounced Tehran for “allowing Saudi citizens entry to its territories without stamping their passports” and accused Iran of “direct responsibility in increasing COVID-19 infections.”
Riyadh also curtailed both domestic and international traffic to its own pilgrimage sites. On February 26, it took the unprecedented step of suspending the umrah, a shorter version of the Hajj pilgrimage. It also closed access to the Kaaba in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, the two holiest shrines in Sunni Islam. By March 4, all Saudi citizens and residents were banned from making the umrah. On April 2, Saudi Arabia imposed a 24-hour curfew on Mecca and Medina. It later extended the curfew to five additional cities, including the capital city of Riyadh. On March 31, Saudi Arabia urged Muslims to postpone plans to make the Hajj pilgrimage in 2020.
On April 23, Saudi Arabia eased the lockdown for the month of Ramadan; it allowed people to shop at supermarkets and malls from 9am to 5pm. But the government re-imposed the curfew for the Eid holiday after a surge of new infections.
On March 24, Libya’s Health Ministry confirmed the country’s first case, a 73-year-old man who returned from Saudi Arabia via Tunisia. The Islamist-dominated government faced a viral outbreak in the midst of a civil war and political instability that has fractured the country since 2011. On March 12, Tripoli imposed a curfew from 6pm to 6am on attendance at mosques and most public spaces. The government warned, “Those who don't abide by the curfew and lockdown will be subject to punishments.” On March 16, the government closed all land crossings and airports for three weeks and ordered all schools and universities closed for two weeks. On March 30, Libya extended its curfew hours from 2pm to 7am. On April 17, it imposed a 24-hour curfew for ten days. The government eased restrictions after the ten-day period ended.
The country’s ongoing civil war complicated the government’s efforts to combat the coronavirus. The World Health Organization warned that continued fighting would inhibit public health authorities from containing the virus. Arab and Western governments – had supported rival parties to the conflict – called for a truce. On March 19, the government in Tripoli agreed, but three days later it accused Gen Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have besieged the capital since April 2019, of breaking the truce. On March 23, both sides resumed fighting. On April 18, Tripoli launched a new offensive against Haftar’s forces in the western city of Tarhouna.
On March 2, Tunisia confirmed its first case of coronavirus, a Tunisian man who had traveled to Italy. On March 17, the government imposed a 12-hour curfew from 6am to 6pm, closed its borders, suspended flights and shuttered mosques, restaurants and cafes. Ennahda, an Islamist party that has held positions in government since 2011, collaborated in the government campaign to contain the coronavirus. Rachid al Ghannouchi, the Ennahda leader and Speaker of the National Assembly, expressed “total solidarity with all state institutions” and appealed for Tunisians to donate to mitigate the economic repercussions of the pandemic. Ennahda, however, opposed a draft law that would allow the prime minister to legislate by decree during the crisis.
Ennahda also used its social media to bolster the government’s efforts to combat the coronavirus. It regularly retweeted posts from a government-run account (@covid19Tunisia) that provided daily updates on the number of infected and instructions to citizens such as “wash your hands with soap and rinse for 20 seconds” or “leave at least two meters between you and the sick.” On May 10, Tunisia recorded zero new cases for the first time since March.
On March 21, Palestinian health officials in Gaza announced the first cases of COVID-19 in two individuals who had attended a conference in Pakistan. The crisis led Hamas, the Islamist party that rules Gaza, to shift its primary focus from tensions with Israel to survival of its people. On March 22, it redeployed its armed wing, the al Quds Brigade to sanitize the streets to avert an outbreak in one of the world’s most densely populated areas. It also banned all public gatherings and Friday prayers.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called for a “complete end to the Israeli siege” on the Gaza Strip to allow international assistance, including medical equipment. He appealed to Qatar and Turkey to provide humanitarian assistance during the epidemic. On April 2, Haniyeh said that Hamas was willing to make “partial concessions” on prisoner exchanges for a humanitarian release of “elderly prisoners and patients” held by Israel. But on May 5, Hamas said “no significant progress” had been made in prisoner swap talks.
Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt)
In mid-February, dozens of foreigners on a Nile Cruise tested positive for COVID-19. On March 5, Egypt confirmed the first case of an Egyptian with coronavirus. The Minister of Religious Affairs soon blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for “spreading the coronavirus among innocent people,” a claim ridiculed by Egyptians online. The Brotherhood had no official statement but some Muslim Brotherhood supporters claimed that the virus was divine punishment against the military regime.
The government’s scapegoating of the Brotherhood, which was forced underground after it was banned in 2013, followed weeks of government misinformation. In mid-February, Egypt’s health minister falsely claimed Egyptians could not contract the virus. Pro-regime talk shows reported that the virus was a biological weapon designed to cripple China’s economy. On March 13, police arrested three people for allegedly spreading false information about the virus on Facebook. Authorities stripped press credentials from a Guardian reporter who wrote about Canadian research estimates that Egypt had thousands more cases than had been officially reported.
On April 22, the Brotherhood launched a new initiative called “One People” to help Egyptians deal with the economic repercussions of COVID-19. “We launched the campaign and we will introduce practical measures with the aim of overcoming all obstacles and challenges,” said Ahmed Thabet, the campaign spokesperson.
On February 21, Lebanon confirmed the first case of the coronavirus in a 45-year-old woman who had traveled to Iran. Hezbollah initially reacted faster and more extensively than Lebanese state institutions. It deployed nearly 25,000 health care professionals and more than 100 emergency vehicles to handle COVID-19 patients. Hezbollah reserved beds for coronavirus patients at its Beirut hospital where it once treated wounded fighters. Members of the group’s civil defense forces sanitized streets in the country’s Shiite-populated south and delivered food to the poor. Hezbollah fighters even traveled to Iran to distribute food supplies and disinfect streets in the holy city of Qom.
But the health crisis also deepened Lebanese political tensions and led to questions about Hezbollah’s longstanding ties with Iran. Hezbollah’s political opponents blamed the group’s physical contacts with Iranian officials for the initial spread of COVID-19 to Lebanon. On March 11, Hezbollah quarantined at least four senior leaders after a meeting in Beirut with Iranian military officials who later tested positive for the virus. Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah began self-quarantine as a precautionary measure. In a televised speech on March 13, Nasrallah said the crisis was “not for settling scores or bickering” among Lebanon’s religious sects. On April 10, he likened the fight against the coronavirus to the group’s 2006 war with Israel..
The Islamic State (Iraq and Syria)
On February 24, Iraqi officials in Najaf confirmed the first case of the coronavirus in an person who had traveled to Iran. The Islamic State, a Sunni jihadi movement, blamed Shiites for the first cases of coronavirus in Iraq and called the outbreak a “sign” that Shiites should “abandon polytheism.” As the virus spread to Europe, the Islamic State adjusted its message and called the disease a “painful torment” for all “Crusader nations” in the West, according to statements in its al Naba newsletter. The group urged followers not to travel to Europe to commit terrorist attacks during the epidemic to avoid contracting the virus. Instead, the group urged its followers in Iraq and Syria to free ISIS prisoners being held in camps.
The Islamic State stepped up its attacks in Iraq during the pandemic. On April 28, Baghdad blamed the group for a suicide bombing that killed three security officials. On May 2, Islamic State militants killed 10 Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) fighters near the city of Samarra with gunfire and a roadside bomb. The PMF is an umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias formed in 2014 to fight ISIS.
Hayat Tahrir al Sham (Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria)
On March 23, Syria reported its first coronavirus case in a 20-year-old woman who arrived from abroad. Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the most powerful Sunni jihadi group in Syria, instructed its followers not to let the virus distract them from their fight against Shiites and other non-believers. On March 24, Abu Mariya al Qahtani, a HTS commander, called the virus a “temporary epidemic” that paled in comparison to Shiites who “have corrupted the religion of the people and their earthly life.”
On March 28, HTS said in its Iba’ newsletter that the virus had been sent by God to kill disbelievers who “shed the blood of Muslims all over the world.” It also told followers “not to be preoccupied with tracking the news and reports” of the virus. HTS took limited steps to prepare for a potential outbreak. It closed down schools and mosques and transported suspected coronavirus patients to Turkey. Al Qahtani advised followers to “keep distant from gatherings and avoid hand-shaking” and to “stay in your place” as the epidemic spread.
On April 11, Iba’ featured an interview with Idlib’s health minister; he explained how the virus is transmitted and offered advice on how to prevent its spread. The same week, HTS closed markets and public spaces.
Al Qaeda Central
On February 24, Afghanistan confirmed its first case of the coronavirus, while Pakistan detected its first two cases on February 26. The senior leadership of al Qaeda, which is based in South Asia, blamed the West for triggering the viral outbreak. On March 31, the group’s senior leadership said in its English language media that the virus was a “punishment” from God “for the injustice and oppression committed against Muslims” by Western governments. Al Qaeda mocked the United States for its failure to provide enough ventilators to patients in need and urged Muslims living in the West to “revolt against oppression and oppression.”
The group’s senior leadership also called Islam a “hygiene-oriented” religion. It cited Quranic verses that referenced the importance of cleanliness, covering one’s face when coughing and self-quarantining during a viral epidemic. Al Qaeda’s magazine for women, Ibnat al Islam, offered its readers “immunity booster” recipes for green tea.
International Union of Muslim Scholars (Qatar): On March 3, Yusuf al Qaradawi, chairman of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, issued a fatwa permitting Muslims to pray in their homes rather than attend Friday services at mosques. By March 14, IUMS issued an explicit call to suspend all congregational prayers.
Al Azhar (Egypt): On January 25, Sunni cleric Ahmed Issa al Maasrawi of Egypt’s Al Azhar University tweeted that the viral outbreak came “after China isolated more than 5 million Uighur Muslims.” But the country's top religious authority took the virus more seriously after Egypt confirmed its first case. On March 15, the university’s Council of Senior Scholars said public authorities could cancel Friday prayers if necessary.
Iraq: Iraq had confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on February 24. Four days later, Shiite scholar Hadi Al Modarresi said in a video that “Allah sent the disease” to punish China. On March 10, Moadarresi confirmed in a tweet that he tested positive for the virus.
Jordan: On March 2, Jordan confirmed its first case of the coronavirus in a person who had traveled to Italy. On March 8, Sunni scholar Ahmad al Shahrouri said that Jews were “more dangerous” than the coronavirus. Speaking on Yarmouk TV, a Brotherhood-affiliated channel, he said that Muslims could be “saved from these deadly diseases” through pursuit of jihad.
Morocco: On March 2, Morocco confirmed its first case of the coronavirus in a Moroccan man who had been living in Italy. On March 15, Hassan al Kettani, a prominent Salafist preacher, challenged the kingdom’s plan to close mosques. He posted a fatwa on Facebook that said the Prophet Mohammed “never authorized the closure of mosques or suspension of group prayer.” Omar Al Haddoushi, another leading Moroccan Salafist, echoed al Kettani and called the disease a “soldier of God” that conquered “great nations,” such as China, who “do not believe in God.”
Andrew Hanna is a research assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace, which partners with the Woodrow Wilson Center on The Islamists.
"The Islamists" is a book and website on the origins, evolution, and positions of Islamist movements in the Middle East. The movements are redefining the order and borders in the world’s most volatile region. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals. Read more