During a series of alarmist rants on his YouTube channel, Imam Omar Baloch simultaneously declared that the coronavirus may be a Zionist-American plot to throttle the growth of the Chinese economy, a punishment from Allah and the work of shadowy secret societies.
However, Baloch's most concerning online lecture occurred on March 22, when he suggested that the coronavirus presents a "very good opportunity" for Muslims to "purchase firearms" ahead of confrontations with their Trump-supporting neighbors.
"Muslims need to start having systems of security, systems of firearms," he began. "You have to really think about the safety of your Muslim community. ... If you live in the suburbs, the neighbor to your right and neighbor to your left, those that love Trump don't necessarily love you that much. This is a very good opportunity," the imam said, adding that these same "neighbors" will become desperate after six to seven months of "financial crisis."
An anti-vaxxer and doomsday-prepper, Baloch was born in Chicago and preached there for much of his adult life, only recently relocating to Abingdon, Md., to work at the Al Falah mosque. He studied at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and also attended Al-Azhar University in Egypt and the Jamia Thul Ahlul Hadith in Pakistan.
Despite his international education, Baloch proliferates outlandish and implausible theories based on medieval superstitions, reflecting a curious paranoia common among extremists of every persuasion.
To make the case that the coronavirus is a sadistic plot engineered by the West, Baloch sought to legitimize previous conspiracies as a matter of fact.
During a March 13 YouTube video titled "Corona Virus Man Made or God Sent?" Baloch explained that there are two types of conspiracies. According to the imam's stunted logic, the first kind is observably "clear," such as the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. "It doesn't fit the facts," said Baloch, arguing that the deadly plot was carried out to show that "Muslims are terrorists."
The imam refused to "give a dissertation" to prove his 9/11 conspiracy, which was premised on a single observation: "You can't have a plane hit a building, and then it just comes tumbling down as if there was a bomb attached to it," he reasoned.
Baloch shared his hypothesis regarding the pandemic. "The economy was about to fall, and then they needed some way to deal with the falling economy," he reasoned. "So, there was no better timing than to come up with this coronavirus and then blame it for everything that happens."
The imam continued, reading a Foreign Policy headline: "'Beijing Knows Who to Blame for the Virus: America.' Okay, but we know who's behind [it]," he said, referring to a Jewish conspiracy. "It's not innocent America. In a sense, you know, we know who really is behind it."
As an Islamic scholar, Baloch attempted to provide theological justification for his superstitions, offering "conspiracy theories from a Koranic perspective," and asking, "Does not Allah punish people with plagues?"
Baloch suggested that Jews released the virus, but "where it goes is in the hands of Allah."
Baloch pointed to the Divine nature of the coronavirus. "It's like from Allah: 'This will not affect kids.' And it's from Allah that it's affecting so many people that are very famous. Like Trump's daughter now has it. The Supreme Ayatollah—they have it," said Baloch, ostensibly referring to Ivanka Trump and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, neither of whom is afflicted with COVID-19.
Next, Baloch identified two corrupt and immoral tribes mentioned in Islamic eschatology and known as Yājūj and Mājūj (Gog and Magog). Contrary to scholarly consensus, he claimed that these tribes are "a specific variation of the Jews" who are "behind" the coronavirus.
However, Baloch was careful not to attribute too much power to infidels. "Once you release [coronavirus], where it goes is in the hands of Allah," he said. The imam argued that the pandemic could have been an experiment that went awry, as with the popular fiction novel Jurassic Park. "If you play with nature, you don't know what it will do," he insisted.
To the Maryland imam, the United States and Israel are inseparable, with the Zionist hidden hand perpetually manipulating American politics. Indeed, Baloch sees Jewish perpetrators behind every global plot. "Poor U.S. is used as a smokescreen by Yājūj and Mājūj," he said, using his erroneous euphemism for Jews. "Yājūj and Mājūj does 9/11 and puts America in the middle ... and over here it does coronavirus and puts America in the middle."
Baloch sees Jewish perpetrators behind every global plot.
Having established a Jewish connection—however, flimsy—to the virus, Baloch naturally imagined other accomplices. "You know why there's so many of these secret societies: the Bones, the Freemasons, the Illuminati? Because this is how Shaytan [Satan] keeps them all divided to keep them under control," he said.
Baloch is not the only Islamist to peddle conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. Most Islamists spin the bitter realities of failing Muslim states and their backward Middle Eastern communities into narratives of victimization that fuel resentment towards the West, Jews and Israel.
However, as long as anti-Semitic Islamist leaders such as Baloch continue to find Western scapegoats for Muslim failures, they will not be able to build healthy Islamic communities. By reviving seventh-century mythologies and projecting them on the present, they work against freedom of faith, human equality and treasured Western values. Such Islamist leaders are forces of regression and backwardness, and they only serve to hinder the integration of Muslims in the West.
Hesham Shehab is a fellow at the Counter-Islamist Grid, a project of the Middle East Forum.