Tucked away in the narrow alleys of the Nizamuddin slum in New Delhi is the world headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat, an influential Islamic missionary movement. Last month, thousands of volunteer preachers from across India converged on the site, known as Markaz, to eat, pray and discuss their work.
When they returned home, the Muslim missionaries were not just filled with greater zeal. Indian health officials have said that many are infected with a coronavirus, which they have spread to families and communities across India – from mountainous Kashmir to Andaman and Tamil Nadu.
Some 370 of the 2,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in India were linked to this March meeting in the slums.
This week, New Delhi police sealed the Markaz and transported hundreds of Tablighi Jamaat worshipers taking refuge in the group’s huge dormitories and local residents to hospitals and quarantine facilities. Authorities across India have been on the run to find other participants, some 1,800 of whom are now under quarantine.
But the discovery that a Muslim rally fueled the coronavirus crisis in India has sparked outrage from the country’s Hindu majority. Community tensions are on the rise again just weeks after the deadliest sectarian riots in decades have killed more than 50 people in the Indian capital.
“It is very scary and will add to the demonization of Muslims. It’s as if all Muslims are entirely responsible, “said Nazia Erum, author of The motherhood of a Muslim, a book on religious prejudice in the elite schools of Delhi.
With the Indian economy slowing in recent years, the ruling Bharatiya Janata party of Narendra Modi has adopted a more strident sectarian rhetoric, repeatedly describing the Muslim minority in India as an insidious internal threat.
The fallout from the Tablighi Jamaat rally, which took place despite an order from the local government prohibiting religious gatherings of more than 200 people, reinforced this story.
“It seems like the fodder that people are looking to continue to hold Muslims in one way or another, even for something like the coronavirus,” said Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a professor of political science at the University. Ashoka.
“BJP supporters are still thinking of consolidating their support base around the idea of the Muslim as the other threatening one.”
Religious groups across Asia have played an inordinate role in the spread of the coronavirus, with many spiritual leaders ignoring dictates to limit large-scale gatherings.
In South Korea, more than half of the country’s 10,000 cases come from mass rallies organized by a quasi-Christian sect in February. The subsequent Korean clusters were attributed to gatherings in small churches.
Two of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in Singapore are also linked to churches.
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In the state of Punjab in northern India, the death by coronavirus of a Sikh preacher, who had attended several major religious functions, led to the quarantine of thousands of people with whom he – and his 19 infected family members – had been in contact.
But it was the large-scale meetings of the Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni organization that preaches a simplified dogmatic version of Islam, that emerged as a super broadcaster in several countries.
Malaysian officials said nearly two-thirds of the cases in the country were linked to a four-day Tablighi Jamaat gathering of 16,000 people at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur in late February.
In Indonesia, thousands of people traveled to South Sulawesi Province for a mass meeting of the Tablighi Jamaat, which was canceled only at the last minute under pressure from local authorities.
The Tablighi Jamaat preachers, who attended a gathering of 150,000 people outside of Lahore last month, are believed to have contributed to the spread of the virus across Pakistan.
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But it is in India that the role played by Tablighi Jamaat is the most worrying. Right-wing television stations called the meeting “criminal” and the participants “suspect”. Hashtags such as #CoronaJihad and #TablighiVirus are trending on social media.
“These are dangerous people: these blocking cheaters – they have compromised us all,” said television presenter Arnab Goswami on one of the most-watched news channels in India. “We were winning when they did everything to defeat us. “
As India enters its second week of a three-week deadlock that causes particular hardship for the poor, analysts have warned that the BJP could stir up anti-Muslim sentiment to divert public anger from government failures in the crisis management.
“The big fight after the end of the Covid era is going to be who did what and how guilty they were,” said Professor Mahmudabad. “Rather than seeing the pandemic as a time to seek national unity, there is continuity in showing that Muslims are more guilty and more to blame. “
Additional report by Kang Buseong in Seoul