27th May 2020   •   video
How will British Muslims have to adjust to the Coronavirus? We speak to the Muslim Council of Britain

How are British Muslim institutions dealing with the Coronavirus? And how are mosques changing practices in response? Are they planning to open up anytime soon? And what were they planning ahead of Eid?

These are some of the questions I wanted to ask Zainab Gulamali, Public Affairs Manager at the Muslim Council of Britain, the biggest umbrella body of British Muslim mosques and institiutions.

She told me that most British Muslims were taking the threat from COVID-19 really seriously and staying at home during Ramadan and Eid. But as the move comes towards opening up, she said the MCB was helping mosques to plan for reopening in a safe way. What could that look like? She explains in the interview.

She says it's unlikely mosques and Muslim institutions would be allowing the over 65s to come in anytime soon due to the added risk. She also talked about how mosques were planning to change their practices and adjust to this new reality.

She also says that mosques were seeing far more burials than before and while the process was initially very chaotic - it had since become easier in recent weeks for some relatives to attend.

The interview was conducted last week before Eid, and the quotes below have been edited for brevity. The full interview is above.

* * * * * *

What are the mosques saying to the MCB?

“When the pandemic broke out, we realised there was some unique characteristics within Muslim communities that put us at higher risk. Most of us are ethnic minorities and have higher rates of heart disease and diabetes, which puts us at higher risk. Lots of us live in intergenerational households, which makes social isolation and social distancing more difficult.”

“And so, before the lockdown was called, The MCB took the unprecedented step of consulting with mosques and calling for the suspension of all congregational activities within mosques. We had over 300 mosques, close their doors, suspend all congregational activities to help keep communities safe.”

"Now that the Prime Minister has started to loosen the restrictions, and has announced that places of worship could open in July at the earliest, it's time for us to start thinking about how they can reopen in a safe way, and what measures they need to put in place to make sure that mosques can reopen, but communities are still kept safe."

"So over the last couple of weeks, we've been consulting mosques and madrassas, Muslim institutions and ordinary community members from every part of the UK from every cultural background, and from every sect to understand what they think about mosques how they feel, and what they are planning on doing and what restrictions they're putting planning on putting in place.”

"And so from the mosques that we've spoken to, we understand that there's a desire to impose a number of restrictions, for example, not letting people who are over 65 in or requiring people to wear face masks when they come into the mosque or bring their own prayer, mat and Quran or keep a distance in prayers, but there's a lot of planning that needs to take place.“

"And we also need some more clarity from the government about what they expect and what they deem to be a safe way to reopen place of worship."

What about reopening mosques?

“We're working really closely with the British Islamic Medical Association, which is a professional body of Muslim medics and healthcare workers to explain to mosques, how they can take necessary precautions, how they can remain safe, and what measures they can put in place to keep their community safe."

"So we're consulting mosques, we're discussing with medical experts, and we will be producing guidance for mosques, and to show them how they can reopen in a safe way that will be in accordance with public health advice and medical advice. But it all depends on the government's guidelines and the government's timeline and when they wish to reopen the places of worship.”

How are the mosques coping with burials?

“We have seen a huge number of excess deaths in Muslim communities. You speak to some cemeteries and they tell you that they used to bury five people a week, and they've gone to burying 50 people a week.”

And of course, in Islam, there's the tradition of burying someone as soon as possible. And at the start of the pandemic, there was some difficulty around being able to do this because everyone was trying to adapt to this huge surge in deaths. And now it seems that whilst a huge number of deaths and funerals are taking place, things are able to run a bit more smoothly.”

“And when the funerals do take place, they have to be social socially distanced funerals. Some cemeteries and some local councils will say no more than six or ten people or you know, immediate family only and only those who aren't self isolating. “

On mosques changing their practices

“We've seen incredible work being done by mosques to take their services digitally to still reach out to their communities. We've seen a bunch of Muslim mental health organisations come together to set up a consortium to be able to deliver the widest range of services to everyone who is in need."

"This pandemic has just really shown the power of a community and the power of working together. And now we look back at all of the sadness that that has been, but we can also see all of the blessings, all of the lovely work that's been done and all of the community spirit that I think has really helped everyone to keep going."
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Sadia Humayun is a freelance journalist and writer
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