Nepal's Muslims face stigma after COVID-19 tests

Members of the minority bear ostracisation after contact tracing shows spread in the community

Ashraf Shah looked forlorn as he knelt in prayer inside the deserted Kashmiri Masjid in the centre of Kathmandu this week. The mosque would have been crowded and noisy during the holy month of Ramadan. But today, the only sound was the azaan prayer recited five times a day, which echoed through the empty chamber.

Since Nepal’s strict nationwide lockdown went into effect on 24 March, and is likely to be extended beyond 7 May, the country has tested 75 people with COVID-19. Since some of them are from the Muslim community, the religious minority has been singled out for contact tracing especially in Nepalganj, Birganj, Rautahat and Udaypur where the cases were detected.

Ashraf is lost for words. “What a world are we living in now,” he says, looking skyward.

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An employee stationed at the Kashmiri Masjid during his namaaz. All photos: MONIKA DEUPALA

Ramadan has always meant a time of joyous celebration with friends and family, the coming together in the evenings to break fast. This year, there is anxiety and fear among Nepal’s Muslims because of fears that they will be blamed for the virus. Since many Nepalis watch Hindi tv channels, some of the stigmatisation is due to the Indian media scapegoating Muslims for the spread of the virus there.

“Muslims in Nepal are a minority and have peacefully coexisted without any conflict for centuries, but now I dread the future, and the rise of xenophobia and intolerance spreading from across the border,” says Abdul Shamim, head of Nepal Jame Masjid.

In early April, 13 men from the Tablighi Jamaat living in a mosque in Udayapur tested positive for coronavirus, and 11 of them were Indian nationals who had come for religious instruction. The district has been virtually sealed off since then, and there has been contact tracing of people who they had been in close proximity with them.

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Najbul Nilam Khan, a rights activist in Udayapur, is worried. Although a majority of those who tested positive were Indians, locals have virtually ostracised the Muslim community there, she says.

“They try to avoid conversation and just look the other way when they see us passing by on the road, neighbours avoid any sort of conversation with us even from distance. Sometimes eyes speak louder than words,” she told us on the phone.

While world has been hit hard by the global pandemic, in India and Nepal it is mainly the Muslims in particular who find themselves bearing the stigma – largely because of the social media and tv networks stereotyping them. During such a crisis, Ramadan would have been a time for solidarity and bringing the community together, but even that is not possible because of the lockdown.

“We work hard and save money for the last 11 months long so that we can lay out the best meals for ourselves for Ramadan,” says Shamim, who blames coverage of the ‘Corona bomb’ on Indian TV for the stigma. The leaked Indian security memo naming Nepali national Jalim Mukhia for being involved in a conspiracy to infiltrate coronavirus-infected individuals to spread the pandemic in India was widely broadcast on Indian tv channels.

The stereotyping has spread faster than the virus itself to Kathmandu Valley. Last month, social media posts cited 13 Indonesians who were to travel to Saptari for a religious assembly being moved from a mosque in Imadol to Godavari for quarantine. When locals found out, they came out to oppose it.

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“There are facts and there are rumours. Spreading misinformation stigmatises entire communities, making the world even more miserable than it is already,” Shamim says.

After the Udayapur and Birganj outbreaks, police and other health officials searched the premises of the Kashmiri Masjid in Kathmandu, and nine mosque employees had Rapid Diagnostic Tests. They were all negative. But the fear among Muslims heightened this week after nine among 60 at a mosque in Nepalganj testing PCR positive.

Says Abdul Shamim, head of Nepal Jame Masjid: “After these cases, whenever there is news of confirmed cases going up, people are always asking were they Muslims? Were they caught in a mosque? The media highlights Muslim positives, they never says a Hindu or a Christian tested positive.”

Smaller, quieter meals

Ramadan is not the same for 64-year-old Mohammed Israil this year, who has been volunteering as a head chef during the month-long festival in the Kashmiri Masjid since 1982, preparing meals for more than 300 people every day during Ramadan.

This time Israil is confined to his home in Thamel with his family. Like others from his community, Israil says he is abiding by the government’s strict lockdown rules which he says is also a religious act which will make Allah happy.

“I love cooking meals for people, I think it’s a blessing to feed those who need food more than us,” says Israil, who recalls preparing rumali roti, chana, keema samosa, aalu keema, pakoda, fruits and firni, a dish made of sweet rice.

For the first time in four decades, Israil is at home this month, confined to a small kitchen cooking with tiny utensils on much smaller pans, in comparison to those at the mosque. He says: “I am accustomed to cooking in a big kitchen with big utensils, these look like miniatures.”

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