The pandemic has demonstrated the need for public leadership in order to encourage people to practice safe interactions, including social distancing and seeking vaccination. Many authoritarian states interpreted public leadership as the ability to control people’s behavior and, accordingly, claimed to be more successful than their democratic counterparts in managing the pandemic. While their performance has sometimes been effective, research has shown that it is largely due to public trust in government institutions rather than regime type. Across communities where government officials do not inspire trust, like in Iraq, religious leaders have had to assume the mantle of public leadership. Their role is particularly important as religious practices worldwide have been criticized for flouting Covid-19 restrictions by allowing people to congregate en masse.
Several religious communities in different countries challenged Covid restrictions during the pandemic. In Iraq, millions of adherents congregated in holy sites during the Ashura and Arba’een pilgrimages. Defying Covid-19 restrictions is not a practice unique to the Shi’a of Iraq or to religious groups in general, but rather one that many countries and communities had to contend with during various stages of the pandemic. In the earliest days of the pandemic, South Korea’s control over the situation was shattered by the spread at the Shincheonji church, which, according to the Washington Post, accounted for more than half of South Korea’s total cases at the time. In India, amidst their devastating second wave of the pandemic, the local government of Uttarakhand state allowed the Kumbh Mela festival, the world’s largest religious gathering, to proceed. In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox communities frequently flouted Covid-19 restrictions to hold mass gatherings and, according to the New York Times, accounted for 28% of infections despite being 12.6% of the population. And, in non-religious settings, football fans in both Italy and the UK, gathered to celebrate their team’s victories despite Covid-19 regulations.
By contrast, some states in the Middle East have been able to control religious gatherings more effectively. For example, Saudi Arabia severely reduced the number of individuals allowed to participate in the Hajj Pilgrimage in 2020. During the holy month of Ramadan, many countries in the region, including Jordan and Oman, imposed curfews which prohibited group prayers.
These trends are reflective of a larger narrative of authoritarian states being more efficient or better equipped to deal with unexpected crises, a narrative which is undoubtedly fanned by authoritarian states themselves. In reality, the ability to control religion during the pandemic is not necessarily a question of regime type, as much as it is a question of public trust in the state and willingness to adhere to restrictions.
This is where religious leaders come in. In settings where politicians inspire little public trust, like Iraq, religious leaders may be able to fill a vacuum. In Iraq and according to the Arab Barometer, trust in political institutions like parliament (13%), the judiciary (38%) and political parties (6%) is low. One manifestation of this, during the pandemic, was the unwillingness of Iraqis – even those in medical professions – to seek out vaccination, frequently citing their lack of faith in the government and being skeptical even when faced with images and videos of public officials getting vaccinated.
Then, there was an uptick in vaccination when the populist and mercurial cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr, was recorded being vaccinated. Although his followers do not constitute a majority of Iraqis, their participation nevertheless led to a shortage of vaccines in some provinces. Sadr, however, is not a universally liked cleric and is seen by many as being implicated in the state. In fact, public opinion of religious leaders has suffered greatly in Iraq due to the involvement of many clerics in politics. According to the Arab Barometer, trust in religious leaders was at 40% in 2019.
This figure, however, does not match up with public perception of the most elite religious figures, like Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani who is the highest-ranking Shi’a cleric in Iraq and the spiritual guide to millions of Shi’as around the world. Distrust in religious leaders is preserved for visibly politicized clerics, whose involvement in politics Iraqis reject. Sistani, by contrast, is someone the Iraqi public has continuously looked to for leadership. This public trust is demonstrated by the fact that even when the anti-government protests of 2019 were rejecting Islamist parties and calling for a civil and secular state, protestors nevertheless looked towards Grand Ayatollah Sistani for guidance and support during every Friday sermon. It was his efforts and those of his representatives in Kerbala which helped achieve the resignation of former Prime Minister Adil Abd Al-Mahdi, as well as ensure early elections.
Thus, religious leadership can take on many forms. In Iraq, it can be embodied by a populist like Muqtada Al-Sadr or by an established leader, like Grand Ayatollah Sistani, whose office during the pandemic released instructions to abide by public health regulations. Even when the elite cleric of neighboring Iran issued statements against Western vaccines, Sistani’s office continued to encourage seeking guidance from medical professionals. Moreover, the hierarchical structure of the Shi’a religious establishment better enables it to assume a leadership position during crises, as it has built-in mechanisms for communication and dissemination of information, as well as a base of followers. Although these built-in structures and popular legitimacy were utilized by Sistani’s office to recommend that people adhere to the guidelines set out by health professionals, they were unable to overcome people’s skepticism of the government and of public health institutions.
The Iraqi case has also demonstrated that religious leaders have a particular role to play as religious congregations tend to be some of the biggest challenges to maintaining safety precautions during a pandemic. While the performance of religious figures in Iraq filled a vacuum in leadership, there is only so much religious leaders can do when there is a lack of trust between the people and the state. They can direct people to follow health authorities but they cannot risk their own credibility by obliging anyone to obey government instructions. Ultimately the issue is not about authoritarianism or democracy, theocracy or secularism but rather trust in governance.