Experts say that concerns about religious permissibility, speed of development as well as conspiracy theories need to be contextualised and taken seriously.
Hundreds of hospitals in the US began their mass vaccination campaign last week after the Pfizer/BioNTech shot was greenlighted by authorities. The UK also started its rollout of the same shot earlier this month, and Turkey and other countries are due to begin administering other vaccines in the coming weeks. With the coronavirus death toll reaching over 1.6 million, many hospitals filled to capacity with overworked healthcare professionals, the development and approval of several vaccines has been met with relief, especially by those on the frontlines.
At the same time, a growing number of adults have expressed reservations about the vaccines due to fears surrounding its long-term health effects and the speed with which it was developed. Others have turned to conspiracy theories about the vaccine, and some media outlets have highlighted additional concerns from some Muslim and Jewish communities about the religious permissibility of the new vaccines.
What are the anti-Covid-19 vaccine positions?
Anti-vaccine voices are not new. However, the speed with which the new vaccines were developed, along with a rise in public mistrust of governments have come together to generate new arguments against the coronavirus vaccines.
An Ipso Mori poll published in November revealed a decrease in intent to take the Covid-19 vaccine among adults globally, and found that the majority of these were due to fears about the side effects and speed of clinical trials (34 and 33 percent, respectively); doubts about the efficacy of the vaccine (10 percent); and anti-vaccine positions (10 percent).
So, what are the experts saying about these concerns?
Dr. Mohammed Ghaly, a specialist of biomedical sciences and Islamic ethics at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, identified three main anti-vaccine arguments in his research: those that are theological in nature, scientific, and conspiracy-oriented.
The theological, or fatalist stance posits that God is the healer and giver of disease, so vaccinations are not necessary. Historically, this was the primary motivation for vaccine rejection in Europe, and is a “very marginal voice in the Islamic tradition, not a mainstream position,” Ghaly told TRT World.
Others are scientific, or pseudo-scientific arguments about vaccines in general, and about Covid-19 in particular, including posts on social media, WhatsApp, and online forums, that spread messages that the vaccine will permanently alter human DNA. Closely related are conspiracy theories about the vaccines, regarding western pharmaceutical companies and experiments on minority populations, or fears about using the vaccine to insert microchips to control and track the populace.
Anti-vaxxers and politics of communication
In countries like the UK, some politicians have singled out Muslims and other minority groups as “not playing by the rules” when it comes to the pandemic.
“This, of course, is not true. [There are] lots of problems, but one of them is not that they don't play by the rules,” Dr. Salman Waqar, a British doctor and General Secretary of the British Islamic Medical Association (BIMA), told TRT World.
The bigger issue, he says, is about engaging communities in an inclusive fashion.
“The most important thing is credibility and building trust, and it can’t be done overnight. You've got communities that, for many years, have not heard from the health authorities, and all of a sudden people are knocking on their doors... so these communities may be...apprehensive and don't know why you are so interested in [them] all of a sudden.”
Most Muslims and other minorities in the UK are not anti-vaccination, according to Waqar, who is also an academic at Oxford University. “The vast majority of people who are vaccine hesitant have got genuine questions that they haven't had answered.”
“Some of these questions are surreal--about microchips and 5G, which weren't in anti-vax narratives before--but some of the other stuff around there being animal products and aborted fetus cells in the Pfizer vaccine, which are not true [can be explained].
“The best people to respond to this are not the religious scholars, it's the scientists,” agreed Ghaly. “In order to get the public on your side, you need to take their concerns seriously, even if they look very naive or superficial from your perspective.”
Covid-19 vaccines and religious permissibility
One of the questions raised by some Muslims is about the halal status of the Covid-19 vaccines. Halal is an Arabic word meaning lawful and refers to permissibility under Islamic law.
“The broad framework for approaching vaccines from the Islamic perspective is approaching it from the concept of medical treatment,” said Ghaly. “In principle, treating disease is permissible in Islam, at minimum, if not recommended, if not obligatory. Vaccines are preventative medicine, so it is one of the subtypes of treatments which Islam encourages.
Muslim scholars and medical professionals have discussed the permissibility of using vaccines with certain prohibited materials for years.
“The Islamic Organization of Medical Sciences (IOMS) in Kuwait, an important organisation in the field of bioethics, used the concept of istihala or transformation, in which you have some material which is originally prohibited, become permissible after chemical transformation. Muslim jurists have addressed questions like this before-- like the vaccination for swine flu, for which there was a huge discussion.”
Both official and non-official Islamic bodies and Muslim medical associations in several countries have ruled that the Covid-19 vaccines are permissible.
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), for instance, “advised and encouraged” Muslims to be vaccinated as “a basic necessity to protect lives.”
BIMA has also recommended the Pfizer vaccine for eligible individuals.