No sooner had the tsunami struck more than ten countries in southern Asia than the numbers games began. First it was the giant news media who rushed to report the latest death toll – the bigger the death toll reported, the fresher the news was. Another numbers game is the aid promised by governments to help the victims. The bigger the pledge, the more attention is given; in such situations the money is seldom actually paid over later.
The tsunami’s effects are worst on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the nearest to the epicentre of the quake, virtually annihilating the capital, Banda Aceh, and its coasts from the map. The devastation is so unimaginable that it takes aerial photographs comparing the affected areas’ before and after images for people to comprehend its impact.
One unfortunate reality of the tsunami, at least for Muslims in the region, is that most of the dead and most of the bereaved survivors are Muslim, in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and most of the other coastal areas. Another is almost all of them, now homeless, are poor. While some Muslims are quick to point out, in their usual armchair manner, that the tsunami is anadhaab (test, punishment) from God to the Muslims, the reality on the ground and the result – thousands of homeless poor and tens of thousands of orphaned children – makes such a theory irrelevant. The opposite argument can also be made: that it is a blessing for the US and Australia, who have been trying to enter Muslim lands in the region!
A more unfortunate aspect that reflects the Muslim world’s sorry state has come to surface. While Christian and other non-Muslim organisations rushed to the frontline barely 24 hours after the tsunami struck, the Arab rulers, whose most visible characteristic is their wealth, were content watch. Some of the ‘donations’ that these leaders and governments have pledged do not even amount to the tips they give at casinos in the West and during holiday trips in southern France. One might have expected that the realization that most of the victims are Muslim (although this should not necessarily be a condition for giving aid) would encourage governments and rulers (who are now subsidising billions of dollars’ worth of oil for the West) to come forward and lead the aid efforts. Instead, the lack of a philanthropic culture in the contemporary Muslim world was shown up by countries in Europe, as well as China, Japan and theUS, whose people have played a leading role in fundraising for the relief operations.
Australia is the largest donor so far, promising Aus $1 billion (US$764 m), followed by Germany ($668 m), Japan ($500 m) and the US ($350 m). The US had been criticised for stinginess by a UN official, but the same accusation of stinginess against the oil-rich Gulf states failed to provoke a similar response.
Compare this with the oil-rich states, whose daily maintenance of royalties’ lifestyles may exceed what has been pledged by everybody else. Saudi Arabia’s paltry sum of $30m, Kuwait($10m), UAE ($20m) and Qatar ($25 m) total $85 million, a fraction of their daily oil revenues of $500 million. Kuwait posted a US$10 billion budget surplus and only recently distributed US$700 million to its citizens after an increase in the price of oil. Outside the Arab world, the ruler of Brunei was silent, probably reeling from his son’s wedding extravaganza earlier last year, which was an obscene parade of wealth such as has never been seen before in the region.
Although some Muslims are quick to point out – correctly – that the West deserves no praise for its ‘generosity’ because it is only ‘paying back’ to the region what it has plundered during centuries of colonisation and exploitation of various resources, the same argument can also be levelled against Arab regimes who are holding their pockets closed. Their pocket-money-sized contributions do not match with the millions of dollars plundered from the Ummah, either in the form of millions of cheap labourers from the Indian subcontinent or the millions of Muslims from India and Indonesia who have been parting with their lives’ savings in order to pay the Saudi family’s visa charges to perform Hajj.
Of course, this does not mean that all Muslims are silent and uncaring. Ordinary people from the Arabian peninsula and other Gulf states have come forward with open hands, and some have come personally to Aceh to hand out millions of dollars’ worth of donations. Aid organisations in Britain and the US have been active despite their limited resources when compared to charity ‘giants’ such as Oxfam. Muslim Aid, for example, immediately contributed £1 million and distributed relief through its partners in Australia and Malaysia, with help from the Malaysian navy. Muslim charities’ works have attracted little publicity in the world’s media, although we should not complain of this, as such help is a religious duty. Unaccompanied by embedded journalists and television crews, Muslim governments and NGOs have dispatched their help in the form of volunteer doctors and nurses, as well as foodstuffs and medicines.
In Malaysia, political rivals UMNO and PAS have closed ranks to help the Acehnese, while ABIM and other organisations have sent teams to provide relief in Thailand. In Indonesia, the traditional enmity between Java and Aceh has been forgotten (despite the not unexpected lack of human feeling from the corrupt Indonesian military in Aceh); banners were hung acrossJakarta’s roads that read “Let’s Care for Aceh”. Some of the first groups to arrive in Aceh were the so-called ‘radical Islamic groups’, such as the Islamic Defenders Front, which appeared in Java and other parts of Indonesia in the post-pancasila era. Without these groups’ active and committed participation in relief efforts, the Muslims of Aceh would be completely at the mercy of Christian missionaries.
But the distribution of aid in Aceh was hampered by the Indonesian military’s iron grip on the region, with corrupt military officials dictating how and to whom the aid should be distributed. “We are concerned that the big amount of money pumped in to rebuild the region might not be successful if the aid is ‘controlled’ by the military... they have prioritised themselves over the Aceh people,” said a Malaysia-based independent tsunami aid-group set up for relief in Aceh, on January 6.
What is clear, however, is that the age-old animosity between Javanese and Acehnese may have been bridged somewhat by the concern shown for the victims. Whether or not such gestures will change the political landscape remains to be seen.
One of the few Muslim countries (perhaps the only one) to offer significant quantities of aid to the affected countries is Malaysia, although it itself bore some of the worst effects of the tsunami. Its prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is the current OIC chairman, was disappointed by the response of Muslim governments, urging them in vain to help. Malaysia’s main Malay-language dailies ran commentaries deriding this lack of concern from Muslim countries: “Rich Islamic countries have done little to offer help, particularly to Aceh. Members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference should be offering assistance to every victim, regardless of their religion,” wrote Berita Harian. But some of the strongest comments were made by an editorial in the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi: “We Arabs have failed in war as we have in peace. We have also failed all democratic and human rights tests - and here we are now adding fresh failure to our human rights record by not responding effectively to the tsunami victims.”
More than seventy years ago, Amir Shakib Arslan lamented in his book Our Decline and Its Causes the general niggardliness of Muslims, giving the example of the Palestine Fund, to which 400 million Muslims gave less than what around twenty million Jews gave for Israel. Clearly, the Arab regimes’ miserliness shows how much some Muslims have deteriorated since then. The tsunami may just be the beginning of a wave of changes if Muslims decide to take the opportunity to clean up their priorities and lack of compassion and imagination.