Negotiating new religious norms during the COVID-19 pandemic

Emma Mohamad & Arina Anis Azlan - Centre for Research in Media and Communication, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Email: &

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Social and cultural norms are often overlooked when communicating in a health crisis. Although advisories such as avoiding crowded places and maintaining social distance seem direct and easy to understand, getting people to incorporate them as part of their daily lives may not be that simple.

In Malaysia particularly, the Movement Control Order (MCO) has helped the country to manage new transmission by putting a halt to many social and cultural gatherings. This may be a necessary step as it was observed that a large cluster of COVID-19 infections were traced back to a religious gathering involving an estimated 15,000 Muslims. It was reported that 50 percent of recorded cases in Malaysia came from that particular cluster [1], including fifth generation infections of teachers and students at religious schools [2]. Malaysia is a country with a large Muslim majority. Religious activities such as daily congregational prayers, weekly Friday prayers, sermons, weddings, funerals and various other social-religious events are embedded into the culture of Malaysian Muslims. In a pandemic situation, these communal gatherings become our biggest challenge.

There is rising concern for the regulation of these gatherings after the MCO is lifted. Malaysia’s Director General of Health has publicly advised that mass gatherings be discouraged for 6 to 12 months after the MCO [3] but this could prove to be a challenge. It will have significant impact on various religious and cultural norms central to the practice of Islam in Malaysia. Malaysian Muslims will need to adjust to a new normal, at least until an effective vaccine or cure is found.

The fasting month of Ramadan is fast approaching, followed by Eid and the Hajj season. In Malaysia, the fasting month brings with it night markets, big and small, held daily all around the country. After the daily breaking of fast, Muslims congregate at mosques to perform the Tarawih prayer - a prayer performed every night, only in the month of Ramadan. During Eid, families gather and visit friends and relatives both far and near. In the Hajj season, thousands of Muslim pilgrims from Malaysia join others in Mecca to perform the great pilgrimage. The socio-religious activities associated with these events involve mass congregations of Muslims and non-Muslims all around Malaysia. Given the heightened risk of COVID-19 infection that these activities carry, it will be interesting to observe how the Malaysian authorities will negotiate its priorities and the societal reactions that will ensue.

While we highlight the challenges faced by Malaysia, Islam is not the only religion with regular worship gatherings. In the United States, France and South Korea, several clusters of COVID-19 cases were traced back to religious congregations and despite public health advisories, many feel that they have the right to practice their faith. As such we are seeing numerous governments exempting religious services from stay at home orders [4,5]. It is probably not an overstatement to claim that similar challenges are felt by different religious communities globally. Negotiating new norms does not just involve changing health habits, but whole-heartedly accepting new ways to worship and embracing new practices that do not put public health at risk.







Emma Mohamad

Associate Professor, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia