A World of Their Own: Illiberal Religious Communities Struggle To Comply With COVID-19 Public Health Regulations

38 Pages Posted: 29 Jun 2020 Last revised: 26 Apr 2021

See all articles by Shai Stern

Shai Stern

Bar-Ilan University - Faculty of Law

Date Written: June 28, 2020


The COVID-19 pandemic did not eliminate existing social tensions; rather, it at times intensified them. Thus it is unsurprising that the tension between the liberal state and illiberal religious communities likewise intensified, as those communities were late to comply with COVID-19 public health regulations issued by state authorities. This article suggests that alongside the behavioral and psychological explanations for individual non-compliance, illiberal religious communities’ late response to the COVID-19 threats stems out of these communities’ unique characteristics and deeply held norms. Five explanations were provided to support this argument: (1) the structural explanation that focuses on the hierarchical character of decision-making processes in such communities; (2) the communities’ social and spatial characteristics; (3) the constant struggle of illiberal religious communities to control and limit information available to their members; (4) the normative clash between social distancing and communal norms; and (5) the effects of the tension and distrust existing between the state and the communities. Each of these explanations aid in understanding why illiberal religious communities were late to respond to COVID-19 threats, and therefore suffered high rates of morbidity and mortality. This article argued that to some extent, they all result from the interventionist liberal-centric policies embraced by most western states for dealing with illiberal religious communities.

Since COVID-19 is not expected to be the last health related crisis, and as other environmental, economic, or security emergencies may still require social adherence to government regulations, liberal states should rethink their policies toward illiberal religious communities. The ability to harness those communities to comply with life-saving regulations may save lives not only within these communities, but also reduce threats to areas and neighborhoods adjacent to those communities. This article suggests that the isolation and fortification processes that illiberal religious communities engage in—the same processes that prevented these communities from responding quickly and effectively to COVID-19 threats—may be mitigated if states embrace pluralistic-centric policies regarding illiberal religious communities. As the article suggests, these policies are not only normatively superior to liberal-centric policies, but they may also increase trust between the parties. Working to establish trusting relationships in times of normalcy may provide both the government and the illiberal religious communities with instruments to properly address emergencies.

Keywords: COVID-19, Public Health, Regulation, Compliance, Ultraorthodox, Jewish, Muslim, pluralism, liberalism, internet, media

Suggested Citation

Stern, Shai, A World of Their Own: Illiberal Religious Communities Struggle To Comply With COVID-19 Public Health Regulations (June 28, 2020). Bar Ilan University Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 20-11, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3637335 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3637335

Shai Stern (Contact Author)

Bar-Ilan University - Faculty of Law ( email )

Faculty of Law
Ramat Gan, 52900

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