Tucked into the narrow lanes of New Delhi’s Nizamuddin slum is the global 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 the Markaz, to eat, pray and discuss their work.
When they returned home, the Muslim missionaries were not merely filled with greater zeal. Indian health officials said many were infected with coronavirus, which they spread to families and communities across India — from mountainous Kashmir to the Andaman Islands to Tamil Nadu.
Some 370 of India’s 2,000 confirmed coronavirus cases have been linked to that March meeting in the slums.
This week, New Delhi police sealed the Markaz and ferried hundreds of Tablighi Jamaat loyalists sheltering in the group’s huge dormitories and residents of the neighbourhood to hospitals and quarantine facilities. Across India, authorities have raced to trace other participants, some 1,800 of whom are now in quarantine.
But the discovery that a Muslim gathering has fuelled India’s coronavirus crisis has sparked outrage among the country’s Hindu majority. Communal tensions are once again on the rise just weeks after the deadliest sectarian riots in decades claimed more than 50 lives in the Indian capital.
“It feels very scary and will add to the demonisation of Muslims. It is as if the entire responsibility of this will be put on every Muslim,” said Nazia Erum, author of Mothering a Muslim, a book about religious prejudice at elite Delhi schools.
As India’s economy has slowed in recent years, Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has adopted more strident sectarian rhetoric, repeatedly depicting India’s Muslim minority as an insidious internal threat.
The fallout from the Tablighi Jamaat gathering, which was held despite a local government order banning religious gatherings of more than 200 people, has reinforced that narrative.
“It does seem like the fodder that people were seeking to continue making Muslims somehow accountable, even for something like the coronavirus,” said Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a political science professor at Ashoka University.
“BJP supporters are still thinking of consolidating their support base around the idea of the Muslim as the threatening other.”
Across Asia, religious groups have played an outsized role in spreading coronavirus with many spiritual leaders ignoring diktats to curb large-scale gatherings.
In South Korea, more than half the country’s 10,000 cases stem from mass gatherings held by a quasi-Christian sect in February. Subsequent Korean clusters have been traced to gatherings at smaller churches.
Two of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in Singapore are also linked to churches.
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In India’s northern state of Punjab, the coronavirus death of a Sikh preacher, who had attended several large religious functions, has led to the quarantining of thousands of people with whom he — and his 19 infected family members — had been in contact.
But it is the large-scale meetings of the Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni organisation that preaches a simplified, dogmatic version of Islam, that have emerged as a super-spreader in several countries.
Malaysian officials said nearly two-thirds of the country’s cases were linked to a four-day Tablighi Jamaat gathering of 16,000 people at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur at the end of February.
In Indonesia, thousands of people travelled to South Sulawesi province for a mass Tablighi Jamaat meeting, which was only called off at the last minute after pressure from local authorities.
Tablighi Jamaat preachers, who had attended a gathering of 150,000 people outside Lahore last month, are believed to have helped spread of the virus across Pakistan.
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But it is in India that the role played by Tablighi Jamaat is causing the most concern. Rightwing television channels have called the meeting “criminal” and the participants “suspects”. Hashtags such as #CoronaJihad and #TablighiVirus have trended on social media.
“These are dangerous people: these lockdown cheats — they have compromised us all,” television anchor Arnab Goswami fulminated on one of India’s most watched news channels. “We were just winning when they did everything to defeat us.”
As India heads into its second week of a three-week lockdown that is causing particular hardship to the poor, analysts warned the BJP could stoke anti-Muslim sentiment to deflect public anger from the government’s failings in managing the crisis.
“The big fight after the end of the era of Covid is going to be around who did what and how culpable they were,” said Prof Mahmudabad. “Rather than seeing the pandemic as a moment to be used to seek national unity, there is a continuity of showing Muslims as more culpable and more to blame.”
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong in Seoul