Allah and the Tsunami
by Stephen Schwartz
In the aftermath of the South Asian tsunami, much criticism, most of it extraordinarily shrill, was directed at the United States and other developed nations for alleged lack of generosity in donating to relief for the victims. A hitherto-obscure Norwegian functionary of the United Nations, Jan Egelund, who bears the resounding titles of UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Coordinator of Emergency Relief, made himself (in)famous within days of the disaster by commenting, "We were more generous when we were less rich, many of the rich countries... And it is beyond me, why are we so stingy."
Of course, UN officials have plenty of credibility when it comes to dealing with humanitarian crises. Thanks to the UN, some 250,000 Bosnians were killed and half a million driven from their homes in the middle of Europe, while UN "peacekeepers" stood idly by and "monitored" the situation. Bosnian Muslims still recall with hatred and contempt the actions of Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Yasushi Akashi, the colleagues and predecessors of Egelund in the business of UN humanitarianism. Boutros-Ghali and Akashi agreed on one thing: according to them, nobody could tell who was shelling Sarajevo from the mountaintops surrounding it. Thus, nobody - certainly not the Serbs - could be blamed, while Bosnian children were killed by snipers.
One could cite many more misfortunes visited on poor countries by the UN's "murderous angels," as they were once described for their activities in the formerly-Belgian Congo. In the 1930s, the predecessor of the UN, the League of Nations, was denounced for "murderous humanitarianism." As Bosnia-Hercegovina, in 1992-95, was allowed to bleed in the name of "non-intervention," so the Spanish Republic died, under the eyes of "non-interventionist" politicians, during that country's 1936-39 civil war.
Presidents Clinton and Bush have changed the rules on humanitarian crises, and the toleration of genocidal regimes. The former saved the people of Kosovo from expulsion and massacre, and the latter has effected the overthrow of the worst dictator in the Arab world, Saddam Hussein. In both cases, the UN was left out of the operation or tried to obstruct it. The liberation of Kosovo and Iraq naturally excited the dismay of Scandinavian and other professional do-gooders who would rather keep the business of humanitarianism in their own hands. In Kosovo, UN meddling has resulted in widespread unemployment and growing discontent; in Iraq, the UN has been exposed for its unethical dealings with Saddam under the so-called "oil for food program." Especially in the wake of the sex scandals plaguing the UN, the humanitarian "industry" increasingly resembles a humanitarian mafia.
President Bush responded forthrightly to Egelund's carping. From Crawford, Tex., during the Christmas holiday, he commented, "I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed... We're a very generous, kindhearted nation, and, you know, what you're beginning to see is a typical response from America."
However, there are countries that deserve criticism for their miserly attitude in contributing to tsunami relief, and they are located much closer, both geographically, culturally, and psychologically, to the scene of the devastation.
In the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where the ultraextreme sect of Wahhabism is the state religion, various sermons and other declamations were heard, alleging that Allah punished the Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and non-Wahhabi Muslims of the South Asian countries for their failure to accept Islam, above all in its Saudi form (as recorded and translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute).
In one such instance, Shaykh Salih Fawzan al-Fawzan, a high functionary of the Saudi regime, said on television, "These great tragedies and collective punishments that are wiping out villages, towns, cities, and even entire countries, are Allah's punishments of the people of these countries, even if they are Muslims." He continued, "Some of our forefathers said that if there is usury and fornication in a certain village, Allah permits its destruction. We know that at these resorts, which unfortunately exist in Islamic and other countries in South Asia, and especially at Christmas, fornication and sexual perversion of all kinds are rampant. The fact that it happened at this particular time is a sign from Allah. It happened at Christmas, when fornicators and corrupt people from all over the world come to commit fornication and sexual perversion. That's when this tragedy took place, striking them all and destroyed everything. It turned the land into wasteland, where only the cries of the ravens are heard. I say this is a great sign and punishment on which Muslims should reflect."
This extremist attitude by its official clerics is also seen in the Saudi government's attitude toward charitable donations for the tsunami victims. As noted by Paul Marshall in The Weekly Standard, "Riyadh originally offered $10 million for tsunami relief; then, after international criticism, upped its pledge to $30 million." Such a commitment obviously contrasts with the hundreds of millions donated by Germany and Australia, while constituting less than 10 percent of the initial target of $350 million from the U.S.
Saudi Arabia's failure to donate generously for the relief of stricken human beings clearly reflects the Wahhabi principle of hostility to all who stand apart from its practices. But reports from the Gulf states disclosed an even uglier reality: Saudi Arabia's heartlessness was felt most in those countries from which come almost a third of its population, namely guest workers from Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia, among other countries. A remarkable column appeared in the London Financial Times of January 8-9 by Tyler Brûlé, a Canadian writer whose "Fast Lane" feature usually deals with consumer goods and expensive travel.
Brûlé happened to spend Christmas in the Arabian peninsular state of Oman, a country with a long historical relation to India. There, he wrote with some outrage, "one of the most disturbing things about watching this story from the Middle East was the incredibly slow and stingy reaction of governments bordering the Gulf. Given that most of the people that keep the likes of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia functioning come from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia, it was astonishing that the various royal houses took so long to come up with so little."
Both Marshall in The Weekly Standard and Brûlé in the Financial Times noted that the Saudi regime had given a far inferior sum to tsunami relief than to terrorist operations against Israel.
Some commentators around the world have questioned whether one may believe in the goodness of the Creator when witnessing events like the tsunami. I believe God created the world and humanity. But I do not believe God administers the world daily, as a manager of our lives. God is good, and men are evil, especially when they deny relief to those to whom they owe much. God's earth is not perfect, and humans are not the center of God's attentions. The Bible ascribes the Great Flood and other disasters to punishment for sin, but the eruption of volcanoes, another variety of natural catastrophe, seems exempt from such explanation, at least in scripture. We pray to God for blessings and security, but there is no guarantee we will be rewarded.
Related Topics: Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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