Entangled Religions 12.3 (2021) er.ceres.rub.de

(PREPRINT) Going Viral: Online Intersections of the Virus, Politics, and Religion during the COVID-19 Pandemic in India and Pakistan

Anonymous

Increased numbers of patients from ‘superspreading’ mass religious gatherings, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) stigmatised as used by persons who are “weak of faith”, refusals to seek treatment based on religious beliefs, and internal conflict between faith and biomedicine are just a few examples of how cultural and religious contexts have shaped discourse on the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the impact of religious interpretations of illness, and religious events and mass gatherings as contributing to the spread of Coronavirus, this article explores the intersections between religion and the current pandemic using two case study countries from South Asia—India and Pakistan. The authors analyse governmental and public responses to the outbreak though social media data from India and Pakistan collected from December 2019 to May 2020. This time period, importantly, covered early online discussions about the outbreak, a ‘superspreading’ Tablighi Jammaat mass religious event with transnational implications between these two nations, and the Holy Month of Ramadan (April–May 2020).

COVID-19, religion, social media, Islam, Pakistan, India, Twitter

Introduction: Setting the Stage, Theory, and Methodology

Setting the Stage

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Cultural and religious contexts have shaped the delivery of healthcare to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, and impacted health seeking behaviours. Biological disasters, as demonstrated by the current pandemic, interplay with pre-existing sociocultural divisions which magnify stigma and xenophobia against vulnerable populations, triggering communalism and mutual blame which endures beyond the outbreak itself (Ahuja et al. 2020). Furthermore, the intersection of these divisions escalates public agitation and fosters competition for limited health resources (Ahuja et al. 2020), creates conditions in which symptomatic individuals belonging to religious minorities often avoid being tested or seeking specialist healthcare (Mukherjee 2020), and can lead to mistreatment of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals (Mukherjee 2020). In this context, the current article explores the intersection of the virus, religion, and politics during initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic using Pakistan and India as case studies. It focuses on the period from December 2019 to May 2020—a time of early online discussions about the outbreak; the beginning of the outbreak in Pakistan when the first cases of COVID were confirmed (February 2020); Ijetma, a ‘superspreading’ Tablighi Jammaat mass religious event with transnational implications between these two nations (March 2020); and the Holy Month of Ramadan, celebrated in April–May 2020.

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In order to help interpret our findings, this article begins with a theoretical discussion of the interrelated concepts of 1) digital religion and political syncretism, and 2) the real-world significance of identity and ‘othering’ in online forums. The former conceptualisation situates online conversations regarding the pandemic within the wider (pre-pandemic) ‘digital’ religious revolution and highlights how this revolution has affected religious authority, identity and practice. In the context of an infectious pandemic, in which the rapid spread of (mis)information via widely used social media platforms proliferated, online expressions of religious identities (e.g. Hindu, Muslim) grew in intensity. That is, pre-existing religious tensions moved to online forums. As indicated by the second theoretical perspective, these online discussions had real world consequences in terms of ‘othering’ religious minorities. The latter were frequently ‘named and blamed’ for beginning the outbreak in their respective locations thereby often leading to xenophobic rather than biomedical interpretations of risk. Within this context of heightened religious tensions, the research questions we sought to address centred upon minority vs. majority religious interpretation of the causes and consequences of COVID-19.

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To answer these questions, our findings section provides an analysis of the main issues and topics discussed on social media in India and Pakistan. These include the following themes: 1) how religious groups either accepted or rejected public health recommendation to slow the spread of the virus, 2) the assignment of blame, often to religious minorities, for the pandemic outbreak, 3) ways in which interfaith tensions were overcome and religious barriers dismantled in face of the disease, and 4) the impact of religious leaders on the believers’ response to the pandemic. In conclusion, we note that gatherings, of any faith, are a natural location for an infectious disease to spread. Political and religious influencers, therefore, must be mindful of this reality as their messages—particularly messages which can travel far and fast via social media channels—have real-world impacts in terms of how their followers respond on an individual and communal levels to the pandemic crisis.

Theoretical Background 1: Digital Religion and Politics

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The digital revolution, in particular the development of the Internet, brought not only technological change, but also vast social and cultural shifts which extended to religious spheres resulting in the emergence of virtual religion (aka ‘cyber’ or ‘digital’ religion) (Obadia 2017). Consequently, as Christopher Helland (2015) shows, religions face new regimes and substantial transformations in morphology, and are transformed in line with the wider social world. Very rapidly, following the development of the World Wide Web (WWW), religious organisations and individuals alike started developing an online religious environment. This digitalisation and online experience of religion has affected religious authority, identity, and ritual practice. Individuals soon used the WWW to seek religious information, discuss religion, debate religious principles and practices, share religious concerns, pray, and partake in religious rituals.

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It is this digitalisation which allows religion in general, and religious conflicts in particular, to be studied and investigated through their online dimensions (Shelton, Zook, and Graham 2012). As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual reformation of ritual practices and religious communication has grown in intensity (Bhatia 2020). For example, an investigation analysing Tweets emerging from Arab countries regarding COVID-19 found that religion appeared among the top five subjects for discussion, with the other four topics pertaining to general outbreak information, signs and symptoms, conspiracies, and economic consequences (Essam and Abdo, Muhammad S. 2020).

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There are two types of online religious participation which specify different kinds of interaction: ‘religion-online’ and ‘online-religion’ (Ameli 2009; Helland 2015). In religion-online, the message is transmitted from one-to-many—a top-down form of communication with little scope for feedback or interaction between those sending and those receiving it (Helland 2015). This kind of communication is typical for religious ceremonies, which occur offline (Al-Rawi 2016). In contrast, online-religion describes many-to-many communication, a more dynamic form of interaction as seen on social media sites such as Twitter and WhatsApp. The many-to-many interactions enabled by online-religion decentralise religion away from the traditional hierarchical structure of religious communities and religious communication (Helland 2015). This represents a powerful shift in authority from religious leaders to the general public and an immense social networking tool (Al-Rawi 2016). Together, ‘religion-online’ and ‘online-religion’ bear the potential to reinforce existing religious structures in addition to enabling novel forms of practice that can be observed online (Shelton, Zook, and Graham 2012).

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Due to the hybrid relationship between religion and politics, the use of social media for religion-online and online-religion provides a platform not only for religious but also political sentiments. For example, right-wing Hindu social media frequently contain aggressive hate-speech, misinformation, and political offence (Bhatia 2020). Individuals who create or share this content are known as ‘Internet Hindus’ who tend to be highly devoted to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindutva ideology (Hindu nationalism) propagating the narrative that India is a Hindu nation invaded by ‘outsiders’ (Mohan 2015). While it should be noted that the term ‘Internet Hindus’ represents a spectrum of individuals, some of whom simply support right-wing economic policy, it also includes Hindu supremacists and those who hold anti-Muslim views. ‘Internet Hindus’ tend to view liberals as “minority appeasers” or “Muslim appeasers” and strongly support military action against Pakistan to reclaim Kashmir1 (Mohan 2015).

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In the same vein, Muslims have frequently used the Internet for social and political activism involving religious causes (Al-Rawi 2016). Gary Bunt (2009, 227) states that “The Internet has become a dominant tool of Islamic religious expression and a significant place for observation of shifting trends and values associated with conceptual understandings of Islam.” He also proposes the term iMuslim in describing how Islamic societies have evolved onto Internet platforms and refers to this process as to the ‘rewiring of the House of Islam’ (2009). Based on similar observations, other authors speak of ‘Ummah on the Internet’, ‘virtual Ummah,’ or ‘online Ummah’ (Ummah meaning community in Arabic) (Al-Rawi 2016). This transfer of religious practice and sentiment onto online forums opens new possibilities for Internet-based research, such as the one presented here.

Theoretical Background 2: The Real-World Significance of Virtual Identity and ‘Othering’

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Pakistan and India have a long-standing history of hostility and conflict on account of various religious, cultural, political, military, and economic fallouts. In Pakistan, Muslims form the religious majority (around 80% of the society being Sunni and 15% Shia), while Hindus are a small minority (around 2%). Comparatively, Hindus are the religious majority in India (79.5%), while Muslims form a significant minority (14.4%), totalling some 200 million people (Hackett et al. 2015; Mukherjee 2020). Religious minorities in Pakistan and India face intolerance, discrimination, and violence that are ingrained in the political and judicial systems of both countries.2 In India, this is evidenced by the recent introduction of blatantly Islamophobic citizenship laws under the BJP government (Mukherjee 2020) or a recent decision by the Indian Supreme Court allowing Hindus to build a Rama temple over the sacred site of a sixteenth century Babri mosque, which was destroyed by a mob of Hindu nationalists in 1992 (Singh 2020). In Pakistan, a rise in violence against minority groups (Madelin et al. 2015), including the rise of anti-Shia sentiments (Mirza 2020) has been reported in recent years. Two examples of this deteriorating situation is the misuse of Blasphemy Laws against religious minorities by an Islamic nationalist government, and the sale of non-Muslim religious sites, mainly those belonging to the Hindu community, by the Evacuee Trust Property Board—a federal body appointed to upkeep and protect them (Khan 2017).

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The coronavirus pandemic contributed to a further deterioration of relations between Hindu and Muslims. In the situation of new crisis, religious differences had an irritating rather than soothing effect. This was so because religion, whether online or offline, is a powerful source of identity (McKenna and West 2007). As demonstrated by the social identity theory pioneer, Tajfel (1978), people who share a religious identity form strong in-group solidarity, with discriminatory behaviour often directed towards out-group members (McKenna and West 2007; Robinson 2004). Social networks, such as Twitter, are viable platforms for social identity and social behaviour as seen in the real world (e.g. nuanced and sophisticated ways in which language usage express a given social identity and promote social categorisation through linguistic variation) (Tamburrini et al. 2015). This identity influences how believers define the cause of events, particularly disasters, and whom they blame for these events. This mechanism feeds off of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality and the process of group differentiation, in which negative characteristics are inherently associated with the out-group in comparison to the positive values of the ethno-national in-group. This stigmatisation is observed within both India and Pakistan towards their religious minority populations. This process of ‘othering’ is often the driver of marginalisation, blame and stigma and can be more contagious than the COVID-19 virus itself (Banerjee, Kallivayalil, and Rao 2020).

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Within the Indian case study we present, Muslims are seen as posing a threat to the dominant ethno-national in-group, in this instance Hindus, in both a real sense (to physical or material wellbeing) and symbolically (to their culture and meaning systems) (Jaspal and Cinnirella 2010; Stephan and Stephan 2000). The same can be said to occur in the Pakistan case study we present where Shias and Hindus are the religious minorities. The identity process theory outlines that perceived identity threats can occur in response to media exposure and initiate coping strategies to alleviate perceived threats (Jaspal and Cinnirella 2010). These ‘coping’ strategies to perceived threats, may, for example, manifest as Islamophobic attitudes and behaviours and often occur irrespective of whether the perceptions are grounded in reality and have negative implications for intergroup relations (Jaspal and Cinnirella 2010; Breakwell 1986). Perceptions can be as polarising as Muslims being categorised as ‘Corona Jihad’ terrorists seeking to annihilate all Hindus as an ethno-national group. When this narrative of Muslims-as-terrorists is widely propagated, it is likely to converge with personally held representations (Jaspal and Cinnirella 2010).

Research Questions and Methodology

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In this research, we aimed to address the following questions through the study of social media content in Pakistan and India from December 2019 to May 2020:

  1. 13

    What are religious minority and majority perceptions about the causes and consequences of COVID-19 and how are these perceptions likely to manifest in behaviours towards people of different religious backgrounds?

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    To what extent do populations of both countries think that COVID-19’s causes and consequences can be managed and understood in line with, rather than in competition with, religious beliefs? (e.g., To what extent do people think COVID-19 is a religious issue? To what extent do inter- and intra-faith divisions are seen as the causes and consequences of COVID-19?)

  3. 15

    To what extent have religious leaders followed public health advice and/or responded to COVID-19 emergency measures taken in their respective countries (physical distancing, pray-at-home, etc.)? To what extent do religious beliefs shape public health advice and policies?

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To respond to these questions, a Boolean query keyword search was performed using the media monitoring software TalkWalker3 and Meltwater.4 Specific search terms were selected based on the experience from previous media studies conducted by the Rapid Research Evaluation and Appraisal Lab (RREAL) and University of Oxford researchers (at the Oxford Vaccine Group) and combined with key terms provided by local country experts (see, Appendix 1) . The result was a detailed list of keywords, including synonyms adapted to each countries context.

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Our social media sample concentrated on Twitter, with additional content posted on Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube (all publicly available groups and accounts). Overall, between 1 December 2019 and 31 May 2020, there were a total of 381,000 matching posts in Pakistan and 2.75 million in India. In the former country, within these posts, ‘Muslims’ were mentioned a total of 38,089 times, ‘Hindus’, 8,869 times, ‘Allah’ 21,071 times, and the ‘Holy Month of Ramadan’, 14,211 times. The top 5 languages of Pakistani posts were English (346k), Urdu (19.9k), Indonesian (5.49k), Hindi (4.2k), and Arabic (969). In India, ‘Muslims’ were mentioned a total of 267k times, ‘Hindu’ 34.6k times, ‘Allah’ 54.1k times, and the ‘Holy Month of Ramadan’, 6k times. The top 5 languages of posts were English (2.45m), Hindi (230k), Indonesian (18.1k), and Punjabi (8.91k).

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We used semantic discourse and topic analysis to understand the most frequent and weighted keywords and viral hashtags to prioritise themes of discussion and clusters of topics. Data was given a positive, negative or neutral rating and analysed in line with the context of the outbreak situation in India and Pakistan at that time (e.g. epidemiological curve), and the corresponding response of governments and the general public to the operation of health systems (see Appendix 2). In addition, we conducted further searches in geographic areas with high case numbers, concentrating on posts referencing COVID-19 positive cases and public health measures.

Findings: Religious Behaviours, Assigning Blame, Overcoming Tensions, and the Role of Religious Leaders

Pakistan

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The first two cases of COVID-19 in Pakistan were reported on 26 February 2020 in Karachi—the individuals concerned having both recently returned from Iran5 (Abid et al. 2020). Every year, hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims from Pakistan visit Iran for pilgrimage. Coinciding with the start of the epidemic, the height of Pakistan-Iran religious travel occurred from 19 February to 22 March in line with anniversaries of the birth and death of prominent religious figures (Badshah and Ullah 2020).

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After the scale of the outbreak in Iran became public knowledge, thermal scanners were put in place at the Taftan border crossing between the two countries (Badshah and Ullah 2020). By this time, however, approximately 8,000 pilgrims or ‘Zaireen’6 had already returned to various cities in Pakistan (Badshah and Ullah 2020). Precautions in Pakistan were soon after upgraded to include a 10-day quarantine at an (ill-equipped) ad hoc facility established near the border crossing. The numbers of suspected/quarantined people soon exceeded 6,000, which the facility was not equipped to accommodate (Nafees and Khan 2020). It is this delayed and poor executed quarantine of returning pilgrims that is believed to be the main cause of the COVID-19 epidemic in Pakistan (Nafees and Khan 2020). By 24 March 2020, Pakistan had 990 cases and six documented COVID-19 related deaths, at least 60% of cases were that of pilgrims returning from Iran (Badshah and Ullah 2020; Nafees and Khan 2020). Newspapers and social media frequently discussed returning pilgrims as the cause of the spread of COVID-19 in Pakistan—with the Taftan border as the epicentre—resulting in mass stigmatisation of the Shia religious minority in the country (Nafees and Khan 2020). A national ‘lockdown’ was subsequently instituted after Sindh Provinces’ Pakistan People’s Party imposed a province-wide lockdown on 23 March 2020.

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The Pakistani government decided to break national lockdown allowing shops to open and congregational prayers to be held five times a day in mosques during the holy month of Ramadan (24 April to 23 May, 2020) amid the COVID-19 pandemic (Shah 2020). The government outlined a 20-point code of conduct for mosques to follow, which included wearing face masks, maintaining two-metre distance, removing prayer mats, disinfecting the floor, and ban on communal eating. However, the code was met with widespread resistance from the medical community and denounced by the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA). It was felt that these relaxations in precautionary measures—such as allowing group prayers in mosques—would increase COVID-19 cases within the country and put the healthcare system at risk (Shah 2020). A surge in COVID-19 cases was subsequently observed during and after Ramadan, with organisations such as the PMA demanding (re)lockdown and strict measures to protect public health (Shah 2020). The practice of social distancing was not rigorously observed during Ramadan and in the post-Ramadan period due to the lack of support from the clergy, many of whom opposed to restrictions imposed on the operation of mosques. As a result, Pakistan’s subsequent lockdown policies (whether nationally or provincially imposed) often did not apply to mosque congregations (Mubarak 2020). This, according to Mubarak (2020, 1), “defie[d] the logic of social distancing” and undermined “previous efforts to contain local transmission, leading to an indomitable public health risk.”

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The religious behaviours related to COVID-19 that were discussed on social media in Pakistan involved the adherence to COVID-19 health measures, especially during lockdown, and criticism of the government’s management of the pandemic.7 The highest peak of posts was as the majority of countries worldwide went into their first lockdown in March 2020. These behaviours were not always in conflict with public health recommendations for slowing the spread of disease. Individual prayers were accepted in certain circles alongside health guidelines such as social distancing and staying at home during lockdowns (i.e. ‘pray-at-home’ requests). Posts also asked for prayers to stop the spread of the pandemic and prayers for persons confirmed as having COVID-19. Posts with the furthest reach were made by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan as well as Usman Buzdar, the Chief Minister of Punjab (with tallies of deaths and infections).8 Many of these posts also made requests for social distancing, although there was also some indication that prayers substituted health measures (e.g. posts which indicated that demonstrations of faith, such as through group prayer, were needed to be granted protection from infection by God).

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More contentious posts were about visiting places of worship and engaging in different rituals during religious holidays. This topic was especially popular at the beginning of the Holy Month of Ramadan. Specific themes included the containment of Shia Muslim ‘pilgrims’ and ‘Zaireen’ (these two terms were often used in posts) returning earlier that year to Pakistan from Iran), the recovery of patients, and the decontamination of mosques. In the regions most affected by the disease—Punjab and Sindh—tweets referenced the number of COVID-19 positive cases, the need to practice social distancing, and the need to self-isolate when testing positive. A post by Buzdar explicitly highlights that most of the initial cases in Pakistan were coming from the Zaireen (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Tweet about COVID-19 case numbers in Punjab from the Chief Minister.

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Much of the blame for COVID-19 infections centred on incoming pilgrims and the lack of proper government management of their return (e.g., ill-equipped quarantine facilities established at the Taftan border), but also the role of the media in inflaming the situation by promoting anger against pilgrims. Assigning blame to ‘others’ and ‘foreigners’ for a rise in infections was a key feature of posts. In the largest cluster of discourse in March 2020, posts condemned “criminal negligence […] committed by the federal govt during the screening & handling of pilgrims coming from Iran.” A rise in infections and deaths throughout Pakistan, as well as the deaths of prominent doctors who were reportedly infected while caring for ill Zaireen pilgrims, was described as an ‘inevitable consequence’ of the government’s poor screening measures at the border. In March–May, a large cluster of posts in Pakistan (and extending to India) discussed the relation between pilgrimage and the spread of COVID-19, with opinions varying from accusations of pilgrims to condemnation of aggressive and irresponsible news reporting about them (see Figs. 2 and 3).

Figure 2: Discourse cluster of posts accusing different religious groups of spreading COVID-19.
Figure 3: Posts from users of different religions discussing spread of COVID-19.

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The actions of politicians in response to the pandemic received the most negative feedback on social media. For example, a series of a 1,000+ tweets from 10 to 12 April 2020 discussed the actions of political leaders, including President Arif Alvi of Pakistan who urged citizens to wear face masks and keep social distance, while not following these guidelines himself (see Fig. 4). On the other hand, these were politicians, rather than religious leaders, who were sharing the hashtag #PrayAtHome. This included five key members of the Pakistan People’s Party and Member National Assembly of Pakistan (four women and one man). Co-word analysis of the mention of Imams and the #PrayAtHome hashtag found only two mentions of Imam’s issuing directions for people to pray at home (“#PrayAtHome, Imam, Masjid, Coronavirus” and “Prayers, Imam, #COVID19, #PrayAtHome”).

Figure 4: President Arif Alvi criticised for communal praying, while others around him do not wear masks.

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The #PrayAtHome hashtag prompted much discussion about physical distancing and prayers in the text of social media posts. The peak periods when #PrayAtHome was used were towards the start of Ramadan between 20 April to 23 April, with an average daily mention of three posts per day until the end of Ramadan on 24 May 2020. Official tweets from the Prime Minister’s office asked people to follow safety measures while praying in mosques during Ramadan, saying that “Keeping yourself & your loved ones safe during #Corona is a social & a sacred responsibility” (see Fig. 5).

Figure 5: Tweet from Office of Prime Minister’s about following safety measures when praying in mosques during Ramadan.

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As far as religious leaders are concerned, they issued fatwas9 both to support and oppose public health measures. The cases of blessings and fatwas urging believers to adhere to the rules were often celebrated on social media. Religious leaders, including Imams, were mentioned frequently between Dec 2019 and May 2020 in relation to these actions. One example are comments to the actions of Imams in the Iraqi city of Karbala. Their blessings and instructions to stay at home were widely associated with the fact that in the wake of Ramadan the city was “free of the #CoronaVirus, as the last Covid-19 patient in quarantine was released, no cases were reported for the last several days.” This instance of the quarantine working in Iraq was widely associated with the blessings of one well-known Imam, and the fatwa of another Imam who had issued instructions to stay home. The most frequent topic of discussion on the use of fatwas within Pakistan (both within Pakistani clergy and the general population) was on congregational prayers: whether it was safe to go ahead with them, and whether or not fatwas should be issued on opening and closing of the mosques. The spread of COVID-19 via mosques and decisions by governmental and religious leaders not to close mosques was an ongoing concern.

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Those religious leaders who opposed pandemic-related restrictions, often advised prayers and the recitation of religious texts in place of Coronavirus safety measures. Their advice and actions were vividly discussed on social media. For instance, on 11 April 2020, users shared 200 tweets discussing the possibility of COVID-19 being spread by a Sunni Muslim leader via his mosque in Islamabad. A Pakistani cleric and khateeb (sermon giver) in the central mosque of Islamabad gave a telephone interview claiming that shutting down mosques was not necessary to stop the spread of infection. A few hours later, he was filmed embracing several mosque goers at the end of a sermon. According to Twitter users, this act showed just how easy it is to spread COVID-19 via lack of physical distancing (see Fig. 6).

Figure 6: Pakistan religious leaders and mosques blamed for spread of COVID-19.

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Posts between March and May 2020 reported prominent Shia clerics and Imams telling people that they did not need to wear face masks and would not be affected by COVID-19 if they instead recited 100 Quranic verses and said a special prayer that “would do away with all diseases.” The posts focused on COVID-19 being “Allah’s punishment,” the chanting of the Holy Quran in mosques being key to stopping the spread of the virus, and on face masks being no match for fervent prayer (see Fig. 6).

Figure 7: Top keywords from Pakistani religious leaders regarding how best to protect from COVID-19.

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Towards the end of the Ramadan 2020, another event led to spike of mentions of Imams and politicians in relation to the pandemic. This was a largely negative response to a post shared by a high-ranking member of the Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS). He showed pictures of himself being visited by an Imam and other administrators, on which they neither wore masks nor kept social distance. The incident was widely condemned as an example of irresponsible behaviour. Also included in these posts were requests to shame the Imam and officials as potential contributors to the spread of COVID-19. As one of the posts pointed out, “Corona doesn’t differentiate b/w Sunni and Shia and those who are violating the SoPs [sic] of social distancing are equally condemnable whether [sic] Sunni or Shia.”

India

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The first case of COVID-19 in India was reported on 30 January 2020 (Chanda 2020; Pal and Yadav 2020; Prasad, Kumar, and Tripathi 2020). Only two cases were reported in February, with community-based transmission developing over March, and a surge in cases in April 2020 (Pal and Yadav 2020). The index patient was a returning student from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the pandemic at that time (Pal and Yadav 2020). By 30 April 2020, India had 33,610 confirmed cases and 1,075 deaths across 32 states/union territories. The worst affected areas, initially, were Maharashtra, Tail Nadu, Delhi and Gujarat (Pal and Yadav 2020).

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Within India, despite the index case arising in an Indian medical student who had recently returned from Wuhan, China, much of the blame for ‘surge’ in numbers was placed on the ‘Tablighi.’ Tablighi Jamaat is a Sunni Islamic missionary movement – often reported as the ‘largest Muslim missionary movement in the world’—which encourages fellow Muslims to return to Islamic practice prominent during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. Ijtema is an annual celebration by Tablighi Jammaat which occurs between February and March and is observed in both Pakistan and India (Badshah and Ullah 2020). The Tablighi Jamaat congregation in March 2020 in India was held at the Alami Markaz Banglewali Mosque, the birthplace of Tablighi Jammat, in the Nizamuddin area of New Delhi (Singh 2020; Karotia and Kumar 2020). By 30 March 2020, the area where Tablighi Jamaat attendees gathered in the city was sealed off by federal police (Singh 2020). Approximately 300 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the event with 1,700 foreign participants required to quarantine in New Delhi. A further 25,000 persons were traced and quarantined in various locations throughout India (Singh 2020; Badshah and Ullah 2020). The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare declared a 30% surge in COVID-19 cases as a result of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation (Ahuja et al. 2020), and several news outlets referred to the congregation as “India’s first super-spreader event” (Slater, Masih, and Irfan 2020).

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The Tablighi Jamaat event resulted in widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in India (Lancet Editorial 2020; Mukherjee 2020). BJP leaders referred to the religious conference as “an Islamic insurrection” and “Corona terrorism,” with a party member of parliament calling for Muslims to be subject to sedation laws (Singh 2020). One Tablighi Jamaat leader was subsequently charged with manslaughter for his role in the spread of COVID-19 (BBC 2020). Intensifying Islamophobia, aggressive social media campaigns against the ‘Corona Jihad’ and fake videos of intentional COVID-19 transmission, depicted Muslims as deliberately weaponising COVID-19 to harm Hindus (Mukherjee 2020).

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In contrast, scholars and some news outlets frequently deemed COVID-19 restrictions as unfair, with social distancing rules not being applied to Hindus in the way in which they were imposed on Muslims (Mukherjee 2020; Singh 2020). Multiple examples of superspreading Hindu gatherings during this same period include: 1) the operation of Jaggi Vasudeva’s (Sadguru) ashram10, 2) the operation of the Venkateshwara temple in Tirumala which allowed over 60,000 visitors beginning from March 2020, and 3) Holi, a popular Hindu festival, which was celebrated on 10 March 2020 and featured in-person meetings with the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare wishing the participants a “Happy Holi” (Singh 2020). The contrast in how the Tablighi gathering versus Hindu religious mass gatherings were treated in India led to critics such as Singh (2020, 304) concluding that: “A Muslim gathering is seen to be a conspiracy by Muslims and Pakistan to infect Hindus with the virus, but the Hindu gatherings are seen as healing events.” With Islamophobia already at an all-time high, Badshah and Ullah (2020, 106) have stated that “most Indians…blame the infection on these [Muslim] devotees.”

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Within social media posts on the COVID-19 pandemic in India, the main themes included the lockdown restrictions, the impact of the crisis on the poor, the sick and the doctors, the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, the policies and actions of the police and authorities, concerns over family safety, the pursuit by scientists for treatments and cures, as well as self-isolation to prevent disease spread. As far as religion is concerned, the ‘Tablighi Jamaat Event’ was the most discussed topic online during the early months of the pandemic. Also, Delhi—the location where the event took place—was the place most often referred to in social media posts. The highest peak of posts occurred on 31 March 2020 and the hashtag #TablighiJamaat appeared 165k times within our search. The tweet with the highest engagement was by Sambit Patra, the National Spokesperson of the ruling nationalist BJP, who is also a doctor. He quoted an @ABPNews article: “#CoronaVirusUpdate : 6 From #Telangana Who Attended #Nizamuddin Congregation, Die Of #COVID -19” (see Fig. 8).

Figure 8: Tweet about attendance of Nizamuddin Congregation (i.e. Tablighi Jamaat Event) in Delhi.

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Our additional search in parts of the country with the highest number of cases (e.g., Maharashtra)11 shows tweets referring to the COVID-19 positive cases associated with frequenting mosques, and the presence of foreigners as a reason for disease outbreaks (see Fig. 9).

Figure 9: Tweet about an outbreak in a mosque in a high-burden area in Maharashtra.

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In response, some Muslim users of social media blamed Hindu temples for spreading the virus and pointed to double standards by which the Hindu majority and Muslim minority are treated in India:

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QT: All of March & April Modi govt harassed Indian Muslims for what Tablighi Jamaat had done. Now we have a Hindu temple…… ; No Plan To Shut, Says Tirupati Temple As Priests, Staff Test Covid

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“RT @xxx:”India to allow Hindu pilgrims to Kashmir despite coronavirus risk Analysts say resumption of annual Hindu pilgrimage shows government’s ‘double standard’ as other gatherings prohibited."”

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Furthermore, there was a push back to the assignment of blame. While the #coronajihad hashtag might appear to assign blame, it was mainly used to argue that despite negative portrayals Muslims were behaving well during the pandemic. Posted frequently (13.4k times), the posts with the highest engagement used the hashtag in a sarcastic manner to debunk the portrayal of Muslims by the media and affirm how Muslims have been educating others about the lockdown, the seriousness of COVID-19, and praying at home. Figs. 10 and 11 shows how posts with the #coronajihad hashtag actually surpassed those of the #tablighijamatvirus hashtag (with peaks of both posts occurring simultaneously).

Figure 10: Activity comparisons of #coronajihad and #tablighijamatvirus hashtags.
Figure 11: Sentiment comparisons of #coronajihad and #tablighijamatvirus hashtags.

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It should be noted that not all content was regarding negative stories about Muslims as spreading infection—several posts aimed at countering the hate such Islamophobic comments inspired. For example, one popular post reported the story of a Hindu burial during the COVID-19 lockdown in Jaipur. According to the post, the relatives of the deceased could not organise the cremation. Instead, his Muslim neighbours stepped in to assist with the burial. This post received 1.19 million forms of engagement (likes/retweets) and a reach of 5.9 million readers:

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QT: It’s called Humanity; The best story I read in last few days: A Hindu died during #COVID19 lockdown in Jaipur his relatives were not in a position to organise his cremation so his Muslim neighbours shouldered his pier to cremation ground.

43

In India, posts referring to Muslim religious leaders (Imams) and religious instructions (fatwas) were primarily in relation to supporting Coronavirus health measures and following government orders. Most of these posts appeared to object to the supposed need for a fatwa when India has a democratically elected government. Imams were mentioned a high number of times (22.8k) between December 2019 and May 2020. There were two spikes of mentions concerning instructions to follow Coronavirus health measures. The first was caused by an appeal by a prominent Iman to all the Muslims in India to strictly follow the government’s guidelines on Coronavirus and offer namaz only at their homes (27 March 2020). The second was related to another Imam requesting all Muslims to stay at home and pray (22 April 2020).

Concluding Discussion

44

The ways in which COVID-19 first manifested (Pakistan) and became linked to superspreading events (India), are intimately tied to religious gatherings of ‘minority’ religious populations: Shia Muslims in Pakistan and Muslims in India. Such occurrences were tied to the timing of the epidemic in both countries when xenophobic thinking often prevailed over the reality of widespread community-based transmission (affecting persons of any faith). As our analysis of social media demonstrates, extant inter- and intra-faith tensions within these two countries created online spaces where religious minorities could be ‘named and blamed’ for beginning outbreaks in their respective locales. Simultaneously, the same online spaces allowed other users to ‘push back’ against nationalistic and xenophobic interpretations of the causes and consequences of COVID-19. However, it must be noted that the overall sentiment of online conversations related to our research questions was mainly ‘negative’—40% negative and 13% positive content in Pakistan, and 44% negative and 8% positive in India. Beyond the implications for human rights of publicly naming and blaming religious groups online, such practices in the context of a pandemic pose an additional danger—a decreased sense of personal risk and therefore limited adoption of protective measures when the (perceived) source of infection is identified as ‘other.’

45

This is not at all a new phenomenon for infectious disease scholars. Evidence from previous outbreaks of infectious diseases reveal a clear trend in rejection of public health recommendations to control transmission when: a disease is novel and therefore limited scientific knowledge is available, outbreaks rapidly spread to a new geographic areas, and disease symptoms first appear in marginalised populations who are often excluded from mainstream social, economic, or political affairs (e.g. Tablighi Jammat and Zaireen COVID-19 cases in India and Pakistan in early 2020). Each of these examples reveal a distinctive ‘othering’ of the populations who were first named, blamed, and shamed for their perceived complicity in beginning respective disease outbreaks within their localities. In case of COVID-19, the convergence of each of these three scenarios within online platforms, creates rapid and potentially dangerous intersections between the virus, politics and religion.

46

Social media sources have an obvious amplifying effect on rapidly stoking fears regarding infectious disease outbreaks. That is, the ‘viral’ spread of negative social media can create spaces for an immediate rejection of public health protective measures and, as any infectious disease expert will attest, a delayed response makes (difficult to control) community-based transmission much more likely. Governmental and public health officials cannot afford to ignore the power and potential of social media for responding to disease outbreaks—a tool which can be used to rapidly spread misinformation and violence-inspiring rhetoric against religious minorities, can equally be used to counter these messages through ‘influencers’ which inspire trust, have large followings and dedicate themselves to health (for all) as a human right.

47

Infectious diseases, particularly ones that spread so virulently through human-to-human contact as COVID-19, care nothing about the religious beliefs of those they infect. Religious gatherings of any faith are a natural location for easily transmissible infectious diseases to spread. Leaders, especially those within nations with religiously contentious histories, must be mindful of this reality. As referenced by the theoretical framework which began this chapter, the digitalisation of religion paired with the rapid spread of (mis)information via social media platforms, created spaces for ‘othering’ religions minorities online. Our research findings clearly demonstrate this ‘othering’ had real-world consequences, in the context of an infectious epidemic, most especially in terms of how religious groups and their leaders accepted or rejected public health recommendations to slow the spread of disease.

Appendix 1

TalkWalker Boolean Search Terms

Pilgrims + Covid-19 + Pakistan

(coronavi* OR covid*) AND (pilgrims) AND (sourcecountry:pk) AND lang:en AND (sourcetype:SOCIALMEDIA_TWITTER OR sourcetype:MESSAGEBOARD OR sourcetype:BLOG OR sourcetype:SOCIALMEDIA_FACEBOOK)

Covid19 + Pilgrims + Pakistan

(coronavi* OR covid*) AND (pilgrims) AND (sourcecountry:pk) AND lang:en AND (sourcetype:SOCIALMEDIA_TWITTER OR sourcetype:MESSAGEBOARD OR sourcetype:SOCIALMEDIA_INSTAGRAM OR sourcetype:SOCIALMEDIA_FACEBOOK)

Antibody tests + India + Pakistan

(coronavi* OR covid*) AND (antibod* OR antibodytest*) AND demographic:occupation-health_worker (sourcecountry:in OR sourcecountry:pk) AND lang:en

Meltwater Boolean Search Terms (Pakistan)

(“coronavirus” OR “#coronavirus” OR “corona” OR “COVID-19” OR “COVID 19” OR “COVID19” OR “#COVID19” OR “COVID_19” OR “COVID” OR “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” OR “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” OR “2019-nCoV” OR “SARS-CoV-2” OR “2019nCoV”) AND (“Chagai” OR “Chagai border” OR “Chagai*” OR “Chin* agenda” OR “Chin* mission” OR “American agenda” OR “American mission” OR “Jewish agenda” OR “Jewish mission” OR “Israel agenda” OR “Israel mission” OR “West* agenda” OR “West* mission” OR “Congregation” OR “Corona Jihad” OR “bio jihad” OR “CoronaJihad*” OR “biojihad*” OR “Corona suspect” OR “Discrimination” OR “Farz*” OR “God’s punishment” OR “Allah’s punishment” OR “Haj*” OR “Halal” OR “non-halal” OR “Hate” OR “Hindu” OR “non-Hindu” OR “Imam” OR “Jamait” OR “jamaat” OR " jama’ah" OR “Jihad” OR “CoronaJihad*” OR “Islamophobia” OR “Kaaba” OR “KSA” OR “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” OR “Madrasa” OR “madrassa” OR “Malik” OR “Masjid*” OR “Masjid Imam” OR “Mecca” OR “Makkah” OR “Molana” OR “Mosque” OR “Muslim” OR “non-Muslim” OR “Nimaz” OR “NoMeatNoCorona*” OR “NoMeat-NoCorona*” OR “PPE” OR “Pilgrims” OR “Iranian pilgrims” OR “Pray at home” OR “PrayAtHome” OR “Prayers” OR “Prejudice” OR “Qom” OR “Quran” OR " Qu’ran" OR “Koran” OR “Ramadan” OR “Ramazan” OR “Holy Month” OR “Shia” OR “Sunni” OR “Sinner” OR “Stigma*” OR “Surah Rahman” OR “Tableeghi” OR “Tablighi*” OR “Tablighi Jamaat” OR “Taftan*” OR “Taftan quarantine center” OR “Taftan quarantine facility” OR “Taraweeh” OR “Tarawih” OR “Tension” OR “religious tension*” OR “Umrah” OR “Violence” OR “Weak” OR “weak faith” OR “Zairen” OR “Ziaren” OR “Zaireen” OR “Zaairreen” OR “Ziaraat” OR “Ziarat” OR “Ziyarat”)

Meltwater Boolean Search Terms (India)

(“coronavirus” OR “#coronavirus” OR “corona” OR “COVID-19” OR “COVID 19” OR “COVID19” OR “#COVID19” OR “COVID_19” OR “COVID” OR “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” OR “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” OR “2019-nCoV” OR “SARS-CoV-2” OR “2019nCoV”) AND (“Meher” OR " Dargah" OR " Maiyat" OR “Sunnat” OR “Qurbani” OR “Chin* agenda” OR “Chin* mission” OR “American agenda” OR “American mission” OR “Jewish agenda” OR “Jewish mission” OR “Israel agenda” OR “Israel mission” OR “West* agenda” OR “West* mission” OR “Congregation” OR " Farz" OR “God’s punishment” OR “Allah’s punishment” OR “Haj*” OR “Corona suspect” OR “Discrimination” OR “Farz*” OR “God’s punishment” OR “Allah’s punishment” OR “Haj*” OR “Halal” OR “non-halal” OR " Imam" OR “Hindu majority” OR “non-Hindu” OR “Imam” OR “Jamait” OR “jamaat” OR " jama’ah" OR “Jihad” OR “CoronaJihad*” OR “Islamophobia” OR “Kaaba” OR “KSA” OR “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” OR “Madrasa” OR “madrassa” OR “Malik” OR “Masjid*” OR “Masjid Imam” OR “Mecca” OR “Makkah” OR “Molana” OR “Mosque” OR “Muslim” OR “non-Muslim” OR “Muslim minority” OR “Nimaz” OR “Namaz” OR “NoMeatNoCorona*” OR “NoMeat-NoCorona*” OR “PPE” OR “Pilgrims” OR “Iranian pilgrims” OR “Pray at home” OR “PrayAtHome” OR “Prayers” OR “Prejudice” OR “Qom” OR “Quran” OR " Qu’ran" OR “Koran” OR “Ramadan” OR “Ramazan” OR “Holy Month” OR “Shia” OR “Sunni” OR “Sinner” OR “Stigma*” OR “Surah Rahman” OR “Tableeghi” OR “Tablighi*” OR “Tablighi Jamaat” OR “Taftan*” OR “Taraweeh” OR “Tarawih” OR “Tension” OR “religious tension*” OR “Umrah” OR “Violence” OR “Weak” OR “weak faith” OR “Zairen” OR “Ziaren” OR “Zaireen” OR “Zaairreen” OR “Ziaraat” OR “Ziarat” OR “Ziyarat” OR “Fatwa” OR “Indian’s Muslims” OR “India’s Minority” OR “Islam” OR “Jahez” OR “jahez-e-fatimi”)

Appendix 2

Sentiment analysis definitions

We studied social media post that shared religious and political experiences of COVID-19 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Positive (P)

  • Post communicating overall trust, affirmation or satisfaction with political or religious guidelines, experience or support in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Post shares good experiences of political or religious context (e.g. satisfaction with government or political guidelines regarding infection control, access to healthcare, symptom management, access to Personal Protective Equipment).

Negative (N)

  • Post contains discouraging/negative attitude/arguments against political or religious guidelines, experience or support in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Post shares bad experiences of political or religious context (e.g. dissatisfaction with government or political guidelines regarding increased deaths, infection control, challenges to advance planning, symptom management, access to Personal Protective Equipment).

Neutral (NT)

  • Post contains no elements of uncertainty, positive or negative content.

  • Post includes factual statements/recommendations, but no other sentiment.

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  1. This is a frequent topic of contemporary social media commentary since India’s signing of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act in 2019, and subsequent escalation in violence between Indian and Pakistani troops along the ‘Line of Control.’↩︎

  2. India and Pakistan are classified as Countries of Particular Concern’ index by the United Nations Commission on International Religious Freedom: USCIRF Website. 2020. Last Accessed July 2, 2021. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRF%202020%20Annual%20Report_Final_42920.pdf.↩︎

  3. TalkWalker website. Last accessed July 2, 2021. https://www.talkwalker.com/industry-research/software.↩︎

  4. Meltwater website. Last accessed July 2, 2021. https://www.meltwater.com/en.↩︎

  5. The first COVID-19 related death was reported in Iran on 19 February 2020.↩︎

  6. Zaireen is a term used to reference specific pilgrims who returned to Pakistan after visiting a Ziaraat (an Islamic pilgrimage site) in Iran. In Pakistan, there are tourism industries dedicated to taking ‘Zaireen’ for ‘Ziaraat’ in Iran, Iraq and Syria in particular. Iran has the largest population of Shia Muslims in the world.↩︎

  7. The peak of posts on this subject coincided with the time when most countries worldwide went into their first lockdown in March 2020.↩︎

  8. Of note, Punjab is the most populous province of Pakistan containing more than half the country’s total population and has (at the time of writing) the second highest tally of confirmed cases in the country—second only to Sindh Province which contains the mega-city of Karachi.↩︎

  9. Within Islam, a fatwa is a formal ruling or interpretation of Islamic law given by a qualified legal scholar.↩︎

  10. Jaggi Vasudeva is an Indian yogi and founder of the international Yoga centre, Isha Foundation. He is close to the ruling BJP party and is in receipt of the second highest civilian honour (Padma Vibhushan) of India.↩︎

  11. At the time of data collection, Maharashtra accounted for nearly one-third of the total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in India, as well as about 40% of all deaths (Hindustan Times 2020; Zee News 2020).↩︎