DR FARID ESACK writes that the challenge for those who promote a scientific approach to the eradication of COVID-19 is to recognise and address the larger moral and ethical social horizons of those who do not respond scientifically.
WHILE Muslims often make very eager combatants in local religious battles, there are few things that we value as much as the idea of unity (note, only the idea of unity). Nothing pains us as much as disunity.
The battle around whether COVID-19 is a reality and ‘to mask or not to mask’ has now moved on to the debate around ‘to vaccinate or not to vaccinate’.
This debate has been raging with various levels of intensity in our community and families for a while. It is now reaching the level of the early years of the ‘to celebrate Eid with the sighting of the moon or with Makkah’.
The family tensions around when to celebrate Eid – however painful at that time – was a twice a year bit of drama. Its wounds could heal during the year until they got re-opened towards the end of the next Ramadaan. After more than thirty years of ‘two labarangs’, we have developed some form of herd immunity against anger at families who do not celebrate on the same day as we do. However, the loss of the joy of a common community day of celebration is still felt on every Eid day.
With mosque committees now taking decisions on making COVID-19 vaccination compulsory, I fear for the shortage of wisdom in our community in how to deal with the spill over of such a decision.
We – particularly the intellectual class – wrongly imagine that people are persuaded by arguments alone or that people who do not go along with our logic are bereft of any sensibility. At the same time, we can acknowledge that countless of our own daily decisions and beliefs have no roots in rationality.
About 15 years ago, I conducted a study among about 25 of Pakistan’s most senior-most religious leaders, trying to assess their knowledge of HIV and AIDS. The research consisted of both questionnaires and interviews.
When asked what they thought were the most significant causes of HIV in Pakistan (in order of significance) 20 correctly replied ‘sharing drug needles’. This is indeed the case in most Muslim societies.
When the same group of ulama was asked, much later in the interview, ‘What were the most important steps that needed to be taken to prevent HIV and AIDS?’ 23 responded by saying that something had to be done about pornography, sex outside marriage and nudity on TV. There was clearly no connection between their knowledge of the causes of HIV and the practical steps to end it.
The challenge for those who wanted to promote a scientific approach to the eradication of the disease – people like me – is to recognise and address the larger moral and ethical social horizons of those who do not respond scientifically to our concerns.
This is no small task, and it certainly cannot be accomplished in a single or even multiple arguments at the occasional family gathering; let alone on a sound-byte on Twitter or a Facebook post.
In the case of COVID-19, some may argue that it is not primarily a question of other people needing to vaccinate. Rather, it is about protecting ourselves from the virus that they may be carrying. However, if we are vaccinated then, according to our argument, we should be protected against seriously getting COVID-19 (although we may still transmit it to others). At the same time, there is a sense of frightening urgency about this as our hospitals get inundated with COVID-19 cases. The evidence is indisputable that more than 90 per cent of the cases that they are now dealing with are those who are not vaccinated.
My heart goes out to health staff, trained to be compassionate, who must deal with a serious ‘gatvol’ factor. I have no sympathy for the cheerleaders against vaccination. I, with some humility, offer the following words to the community.
We need to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to clobber people who disagree with us or do we want to transform people while doing everything we can to remain safe?’
Many people have fears about the COVID-19 vaccination. These fears have no scientific basis but are real.
We risk reducing our perception of and our relationship to others entirely to the new labels of ‘pro-vaxxer’, ‘non-vaxxer’, and ‘anti-vaxxer’. There is much more to all of us than our position on vaccinations. We remain people who bleed when we are pricked, laugh when we are happy, sad when we are hurting on the inside, loving and often annoying. In brief, we are complex.
Can we hold on to the sacredness of others and not box them entirely into a single label – regardless of how strongly we feel about our position?
In the Quran, Nabi Musa (AS) was instructed to go and challenge Fir’oun yet he was told by Allah to speak to Fir’oun gently. None of us – no matter where we stand in this vaccination debate – are better than Musa (AS) and none of us is worse than Fir’oun. Can we please go gently with each other?
One last thought: if anyone, probably a male, ends up being denied access to a mosque because he is not vaccinated, can we spare a thought for the many Muslim women who are routinely denied entry at most mosques in the country; alternatively, when they are found in one, are being stared at as if they are two-horned devils?
- Dr Farid Esack is a senior researcher at the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Johannesburg.
For Professor Aslam Fataar’s view on the topic, visit: https://muslimviews.co.za/2021/09/21/should-the-unvaccinated-be-denied-entry-to-mosques/