A medical staff administers the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine to a health personnel at the Hospital UiTM in Sungai Buloh.

A medical staff administers the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine to a health personnel at the Hospital UiTM in Sungai Buloh on 2 March 2021. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

Muslim Leaders and Preachers Fighting Vaccine Hesitancy: A Shot in the Arm

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As Malaysia battles a new wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Muslim leaders and preachers have been instrumental in fighting vaccine hesitancy among their followers.

On 25 January 2020, the first three cases of COVID-19 infections were detected in Malaysia. Two months later, the situation took a turn for the worst when a three-day mass religious gathering was held. Organised by the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary group, an estimated 16,000 people attended the gathering at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. As it turned out, the gathering became Malaysia’s largest COVID-19 cluster. Islam thus came to take centre stage in local discussions about the pandemic, with members of the group bravely claiming that God would protect them from the virus.

While the situation in Malaysia has rapidly evolved since, Islam has continued to be a defining feature of the country’s fight against the virus, albeit in unexpected ways. Seeing that claims about the impermissibility of the vaccine in the eyes of Islam have been circulating, religious authorities and preachers have been a shot in the arm for Malaysia. They are highly trusted by the people and have given themselves to convincing their co-religionists about the urgency of fighting the virus and getting vaccinated. While the country faces other difficulties in its vaccine roll-out, these religious figures have played a crucial and impactful role in countering vaccine hesitancy among Muslims in recent months.

Apart from a daily nationwide prayer initiative launched by TV Al-Hijrah, a channel under the purview of the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM), religious authorities and preachers have made concrete efforts to counter misinformation and conspiracy theories, which have together resulted in vaccine hesitancy. An example of such misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines is allegations that it contains traces of pigs, rendering it impermissible for Muslims. Other conspiracy theories include allegations that vaccines could make people sicker than if they were not to get inoculated and even lead to premature death and that it is part of an agenda to reduce the global population. Others claim that the virus is the work of the Illuminati or the “Yahudi” who are out to control the world. The latter term, which has traditionally been used to refer to Jewish people who practise Judaism, has evolved to become a derogatory euphemism in the local context.

Religious authorities have addressed such allegations. For example, on 23 December 2020, JAKIM declared that the vaccine is permissible and compulsory for those groups who have been identified by the authorities and that it is in line with Islam’s emphasis on protecting others from harm and preventing the spread of diseases. On 25 February 2021, they held a forum titled “Vaksin: Cegah Sebelum Kalah” (“Vaccine: Prevention Before Failure”), in which the panellists discussed the urgency of preventing the spread of the virus. The panellists included religious authorities such as Dr Zulkifli Al-Bakri, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs), Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, the Mufti of Perlis, and popular preachers such as Firdaus Wong and Izhar Ariff. The forum was received positively, as evident from the fact that netizens shared clips of the session on their social media pages, saying that the forum convinced their relatives to get vaccinated despite their initial hesitancy. Concrete efforts are also in place in individual states such as Terengganu, where the religious authorities have said that they will revoke the licence of preachers who spread vaccine misinformation.

While the situation in Malaysia has rapidly evolved since, Islam has continued to be a defining feature of the country’s fight against the virus, albeit in unexpected ways.

Religious preachers have also been playing their part on a smaller scale. For example, a video of a lecture has been making its rounds on social media months after its publication on YouTube. The lecture, which was delivered in December 2020, shows a preacher by the name of Shamsuri Ahmad pleading with his congregants to follow the safety precautions agreed upon by Muslim religious scholars around the world, and not only by those in Malaysia. He seeks to convince them that it is “not a question of the Illuminati, not a question of a Yahudi agenda.” Other preachers have sought to convince their social media followers by showing that they have received their vaccines, serving as an example to their followers that the vaccine is safe and essential for their health. Again, these are shared widely by netizens who say that such materials have helped counter their relatives’ vaccine hesitancy.

With daily cases hitting a record of 9,020 on 29 May 2021 and the recent imposition of a third Movement Control Order (MCO), Malaysia is struggling to handle the latest wave of the pandemic. While there was initial frustration with the authorities for being too slow to implement effective guidelines in religious spaces, they have stepped up their efforts to convince the masses of the urgency of the situation and have not sought to constrain the implementation of the guidelines on theological grounds.

Amidst the chaos, religious authorities and preachers are unrelenting in utilising their platforms to reach out to their followers. This includes using religious teachings, some of them based on science and law, to educate them about the virus and the vaccine. While Malaysia may continue to face difficulties with its vaccination drive, the positive response to the concrete efforts of religious authorities and preachers, and the obvious frustration with figures who have been violating safety guidelines in recent months, shows that more people are listening to them.

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