In the wake of the South Asian tsunami, American pundits and politicians of all persuasions have begun to sound off about the possible impact American aid to the region could have on Muslim perceptions of the U.S. But what is the Muslim world itself saying? A survey of some of the most influential Arab newspapers reveals some surprising reactions.

Like their American counterparts, Arab newspapers are placing the disaster and ongoing aid efforts within a wider political context for their readers. In the process, they've highlighted comparisons and connections to U.S. Middle East policies. Understandably, they stress the fact that the affected region contains the largest concentration of Muslims in the world. And they've had strong editorial reactions to statements by U.S. officials, such as former U.S. president George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, linking relief aid to improved U.S.-Muslim relations.

Living in a region where every U.S. action is studied for its political significance, some Arab writers question Washington's motives. Samir Attallah suggests in his January 4 op-ed in Saudi Arabia's Asharq al-Awsat that the Bush administration's hesitant early response to the disaster stemmed from its post-Cold War mentality: "Since the end of the Soviet Union, America has considered justifications for aid have ended too." In contrast to the strategic importance Washington places on Iraq, the U.S. gives a much lower priority to the poverty-stricken islands of Indonesia, Attallah argues.

In her January 1 op-ed in Jordan's Addustour, Ayida al-Najjar wonders whether the tsunami left an opening for America to "wash its face and appear cleaner, more sincere, and beautiful" to the Islamic world. The U.S. may see its aid to the Indian Ocean nations as a remedy for the political ruptures its foreign policies have created in the Islamic world. Washington may view it as an antidote to actions such as those at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, which, al-Najjar argues, "increased this image of [U.S.] repulsiveness and covered up the humanity of the [average] good American person who has feelings and a heart and loves the world, when Bush permits him to do so."

Hasan Abu Nimah, like so many Arab critics of the U.S. war in Iraq, separates the U.S. government and its people. He comments in The Jordan Times on January 5, "The [U.S.] always claims to act in the best interest of the world. But when the tsunamis gave it the opportunity and urgent necessity to lead truly on behalf of the world, it failed miserably and responded only after a barrage of criticism at home and abroad. By contrast, the generous response of the American public showed that the people of the United States are truly compassionate and felt for others the way the world felt for them on Sept. 11, 2001..."

Although most Arab writers focused on global relief efforts rather than the U.S. response, like many Arab writers who did comment on U.S. aid, Amal Musa's January 6 op-ed in Saudi Arabia's Asharq al-Awsat noted the huge difference between the approximately $2 billion raised by the international community for the tsunami victims and the $80 billion spent by the U.S. in its war on Iraq this year, leading her to conclude that there are large "disparities in intentions and goals." Furthermore, she warned, nobody knows how much of the promised aid will be delivered. She claims that Iran has only received 17 percent of the aid it was promised after last year's devastating earthquake in Bam. Musa also stresses another theme common in Arab criticism of the West: technology-sharing and comparatively modest investments such as funding for the establishment of a regional tsunami warning system could have prevented the tsunami tragedy.

Echoing this argument, Ahmad Amrabi notes that the current debate about forgiving the debt of the devastated South Asian countries reveals the disequilibrium between first- and third-world nations. Writing in the United Arab Emirates' al-Bayan on January 5, he argues that if some of the billions of dollars poured into the "illegal" war in Iraq and the war on terror had been used for erasing debt and funding large-scale agricultural and industrial improvements in developing nations, the entire "world would be more secure and stable." Thinking and cooperating with the global community, not only when tragedy strikes but as permanent policy, would alleviate much of the suffering and violence so endemic in the third world today.

Reflecting on the irony of the U.S. working hand-in-hand with the U.N. and the international community, some writers wondered if the tsunami has had at least one positive aftereffect. Al-Najjar put it best in her Addustour op-ed: "[If] Bush learned anything from this powerful wild force...perhaps he has learned `cooperation' this time for the benefit of humanity..."

Tsunami as Metaphor

It is misleading, indeed self-centered, for newspapers in the U.S. to claim that Arab papers have barely covered "Western-led efforts" in Asia. Not only were private donations and the efforts of the Red Crescent Society immediate in the aftermath of the tsunami, but numerous Arab commentators and editorials see the efforts in Asia as a concerted, global campaign of "humanity" with no one nation taking precedence. The January 4 editorial in Oman's Uman al-Yawm is typical: The tsunami has taught the world many truths, and "The first of the truths is that the fate of our globe is one [shared] fate."