Charlotte Littlewood, Founding Director of, and coordinator of women’s projects in Palestine for, Become The Voice, PhD candidate specialising in Islamist extremism in the UK, and a former government counter-extremism coordinator
As we move into month five of the global COVID-19 outbreak one thing we have learned is the importance of social distancing. Despite the massive disruption to the economy, the need to maintain the healthcare system in order to save lives has brought countries to a near standstill. According to Dr Alistair Littlewood of Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, social distancing is the only way to effectively curb the spread of the virus, otherwise it will exponentially rise.
Whilst the global pandemic effects nations worldwide and each state struggles to find a way to control their outbreak, theocracies are beginning to show a particular trend of struggle against the virus — one of relying on religion over science and on conspiracy theory over fact. This poses a threat not only to public health but also to global security as conspiracy theories and hate give fresh narratives to radical ideologies.
Public trust in medical science and factually-based news outlets are paramount to tackling the spread of COVID-19, but unfortunately in Iran there is a surplus of conflicting information and propaganda surrounding the virus. A quick Twitter search using the words ‘Iran’ and ‘Corona’ produces a multitude of conflicting information from swathes of anti-Shia conspiracy theories, anti-West propaganda and anti-regime activists blaming Ayatollahs for the spread of the virus.
Iran has downplayed the virus and actively encouraged social mixing. Initially, this was because the Ayatollahs wanted the February 21 legislative elections to go ahead as scheduled. Voter turnout was seen as pivotal in demonstrating regime loyalty and electoral legitimacy at a time when the US re-imposed sanctions against Iran. Authorities vowed to punish anyone ‘spreading rumors about a serious pandemic’ and claimed the US had exaggerated the threat of COVID-19 in order to suppress voter turnout.
The Iranian regime’s dismissal of the COVID-19 threat in order to drive higher turnout rates was likely the main catalyst for the outbreak. Incidentally, voter turnout ended up being the lowest since the 1979 revolution and officials predictably blamed the low turnout on the virus.
Coupled with a health crisis, Iran also faces a sweeping economic crisis due to sliding oil prices and increased economic sanctions. The country is in such bad shape that it — for the first time since the early 1960s — requested a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Pro-regime internet users have taken to social media to blame the sanctions for the government’s inability to purchase and obtain vital medical supplies. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted that sanctions have “impaired Iran’s ability to fight the virus, literally killing Iranians.” However, this hardly absolves Iran’s leaders from responsibility for the spread of the virus. Because of its reckless decision to encourage social mixing rather than impose quarantine measures, it is one of the world’s most affected countries.
Iran’s religious leaders also played an important part in the spreading of the virus. They encouraged mass attendance at Friday prayers which was surely a major catalyst for the spread of COVID-19. Even as the government began issuing social distancing directives, religious leaders publicly rejected them. Videos of people visiting religious shrines were purposely posted on social media in order to convince people that there was no threat and encourage them to keep visiting. In the city of Qom, videos of worshippers licking the gold-plated lattice windows that surround a holy tomb were shared on social media. The worshippers outrageously claimed that the sacred site helped cure infections.
In sharp contrast to Iran’s religious establishment, the Catholic Church in Italy reacted responsibly and quickly to the virus, heeding the government’s directives on social distancing. The Pope even moved his weekly mass online which proved paramount to controlling the spread of COVID-19.
Iran’s response to the virus has eroded public trust which is a precious commodity in tackling the pandemic. The country now finds itself scrambling to manage the outbreak and care for its sick. Graeme Wood, a journalist, wrote in The Atlantic: “When the final history of the coronavirus epidemic of 2020 is written, it may go something like this: The disease started in China, but it became finally and irrevocably uncontained in Iran.”
In Turkey — another religiously devout country — an interviewee on Turkish Yol TV made the dangerous claim that since Muslims wash their hands, feet and mouths five times a day, it is impossible for them to contract the virus. He also said that people returning from religious pilgrimage could not carry the virus because they were coming from the home of the Prophet.
While many Islamic countries have cancelled mosque prayers, most took the decision too late. Iran suspended prayers on February 27, Kuwait on March 13 but Turkey waited all the way until March 16. Within one week of the decision Turkey had surpassed all other countries in the rate of increased cases.
In fact, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the nation, he chose to speak like a cleric rather than a president. He said: “It is up to us to behave in accordance with the hadiths, to take precautions and leave judgment to Allah. I believe that we will make it through this period with patience and prayers.”
Similar to Iran, Turkish media has also been rife with anti-Western conspiracy theories. Some pundits have claimed that the West created the virus to control global markets. Retired colonel, Coşkun Başbuğ, claimed that COVID-19 is a virus grown in a lab as a biological weapon, invented by imperialist powers order to weaken China.
Ali Rıza Demirci, a theologist who appeared on the TV news channel Habertürk, has used the crisis to attack ‘sinners’ claiming that the cause of the virus is homosexuality, adultery and anal sex in marriage. He made these statements during prime time hours, right after the Health Minister’s press conference.
Secular States’ Response
Religious groups within secular states have found it more difficult to flout the rules. Gatherings of more than 50 are currently banned in the American state of Louisiana. There is a petition out for the arrest of Pastor Tony Spell after he held congregation for over 1,000 people. At that meeting on March 17th, the pastor said: “This is an extreme test brought on us by the spirit of the Antichrist and the mystery of lawlessness … What good is the church in an hour of peril if the church craters and caves in to the fears and the spirits of torment in our society?”
The Threat of Radicalization
The milieu of misinformation and blame pinning acts to serve the theocratic state but as citizens around the world are increasingly finding themselves on mandatory lockdown, with more time to access the web, they have more of an opportunity to engage with conspiratorial thinking. Moreover as people feel increasingly under attack by the virus, they will naturally withdraw into their own groups, exacerbating the ‘us vs. them’ tribal narrative that drives radicalization. Thus what maybe a state propaganda tool to drive up state loyalty also acts as a potential radicalizer.
Joshua Geltzer, a terrorism expert from the US who previously worked in the National Security Division, said that social distancing could increase radicalization. He said: “The idea that (online disinformation) can lead to particularly deranged interpretations of events and generate an extreme response, even violent action – the threat gets magnified given the social isolation that we are understandably adopting.”
Nikita Malik, director of the Centre on Radicalization and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society in London, said: “A scan of YouTube reveals a spike in doomsday, crusader, and jihadist videos featuring “Mahdi,” a messianic deliverer anticipated to appear before the Day of Judgment and rid the world of evil. For Islamist extremists, this rhetoric is coupled with long lectures featuring speakers discussing how COVID-19 is a punishment from Allah.”
Far-right groups are also proving that conspiracy theories are not just a tool of the state but are also using them to manipulate the crisis to their advantage. The FBI has warned that extreme right-wing groups in the US have told their members to deliberately spread the virus to police officers and Jews.
States dominated by religious authorities have done a poor job in combatting the threat of COVID-19 by placing too much trust in religious figures, turning a blind eye to medical science and encouraging social mixing. These countries must find a way to get their religious leaders on board in tackling the spread of the virus. These leaders need to encourage people to seek out facts rather than spread conspiracy theories which will not only prolong the epidemic but also trigger a global rise in extremism.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.