The coronavirus and its impact on religion and the international system

In their 1952 book on the social history of tuberculosis, “The White Plague”, sociologists Rene and Jean Dubos described illnesses as dynamics that divided the epochs of human history.

The arrival of the COVID-19 coronavirus as a threat that has the potential to bring the international system to a halt has reminded us once again of the powerful impact diseases can have on civilisation.

First, we must approach the coronavirus’s effect on the international system. That system, which is often regarded as having developed from the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, is one that takes as its basis the division of the world among nation states with distinct borders.

As with the epidemics that preceded it, borders are no obstacle for the COVID-19 virus. Concepts like the nation or national borders, constructed as they are from cultural codes, are not always explanatory when it comes to biological dynamics that occur in nature.  

The critical question is whether or not the coronavirus will weaken the dynamics of globalisation. In an op-ed published in Foreign Policy, British economist Philippe Legrain called COVID-19 the death knell for globalisation.

His evidence for this came from the responses of nations around the world which have, among other measures, closed their borders to protect their citizens from the virus.

But some of those same nation states have also closed off parts of their countries within those national boundaries. This was the case in Italy, which cordoned off the north of the country before going into a full lockdown, and the Philippines, which closed its capital city, Manila.

I see this reading of the political situation as flawed: First it is necessary to define the nature of the threat in terms of international relations.

It is not that the human species is being targeted by another species – the virus. Nor is this a case of two groups of humans attempting to destroy one another for ideological or nationalistic reasons.

Thus, people are responding to the virus primarily not politically but biologically. To be clear, we are under attack by another species and our basic departure point is to try to stay alive.

Since we do not have a vaccine – the weapon we need to fight COVID-19 – we must run from it, as antelope flee a lion.

If you do not possess the power to destroy your enemy, you either run or hide.

So, it is important not to politicise this struggle. For example, one should not be like the Muslims who claim the virus has confirmed the truth of their religion, nor like the many socialists who say that governments’ distribution of free testing kits and similar initiatives has proven socialism to be true. These are all problematic takes.

To guard ourselves against this faulty type of approach, we should see ourselves not as citizens, liberals, socialists or Muslims standing against the virus, but simply as homo sapiens reacting to it.

There are different ways to read the political impact of the coronavirus. One could say that the virus has eroded globalisation. Yet from another perspective, modern states that have invested billions of dollars in arms have been unable to protect their citizens. The brightest idea that the most modern states in the year 2020 have come up with is to tell their citizens to remain at home.

In other words, COVID-19 is also eroding the reputation of the modern state.

The public discourse over the coronavirus may also vary according to region. In Turkey, India and Iran, for example, the relationship between religion and science is referenced during debate.

New York Magazine columnist Ed Kilgore has said the coronavirus is testing organised religion, and that as a result people could begin to view crowded religious rituals with suspicion once the pandemic is over. This could lead religious people toward a more individualistic faith. 

This debate could also lead to the concepts of religious worship and innovations being linked again. For example, it could lead to the production of single-use prayer rugs for situations where a person has run late for prayers and finds themselves rushing with wet feet after quickly performing ritual ablutions. 

A broader debate could form around the theoretical relationship between religion and science. In countries like Turkey and Iran, the arguments triggered by the arrival of the virus have rocked the popular image of religion, particularly among younger generations.

For example, the ideas of the popular cleric Abbas Tabrizian, who found fame preaching about faith-based treatments of illnesses, have become an object of mockery for young Iranians. 

We can see that traditional religious commentators are at a loss on how to define their mission and what they can contribute to topics like the coronavirus.

Some crafty men of faith have tried to sidestep the difficulty by taking the line that scientific advice is religious advice. But at heart, this amounts to the same slogans voiced by Christianity in the West when it threw in the towel in its conflicts with science.

Take Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, which finally announced on Monday that it was suspending congregational prayers in mosques. The decision saved Diyanet from the high degree of damage it could have suffered in the biggest challenge to its legitimacy of recent times.

Whichever religion they are from, events like the Pope’s self-isolation and the closure of Islam’s holiest site, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, will hold a much bigger place in young people’s memories.

I believe that there has been a great conceptual split between faith and religion in countries like Turkey and Iran. We are seeing the first signs of a generation that will keep their faith, but remain distant from organised and institutionalised religion.

But we should also not forget that we are still at the beginning of a major crisis. If this period drags on and the extraordinary measures like keeping people at home continue, it will be too much for any economic force to bear, and it will take the discussion to an entirely different level.