2016-07-27
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."

Immediately after the tsunami, Arab newspapers ran stories on the tragedy and covered the efforts of organizations, especially the Red Crescent, to raise money and ship aid to the victims. Embassies of those nations affected by the tsunami, such as Thailand and India, expressed their thanks for direct donations to their embassies in countries such as Saudi Arabia. Newspapers run front-page fund-raising appeals and contact numbers for charities.

Arabs have long historical and economic ties with the peoples of the affected nations of Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand-as well as being geographically close by. Thus, for many Arab citizens and officials it is only logical to rally to the aid of the victims. (Within the first few days of January, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait raised their aid packages to $30 million and $10 million respectively, while the Saudi branch of the Red Crescent recently dispatched around $1 million and medicine, food, and tents. The United Arab Emirates has followed suit with $20 million, and Qatar announced a $10 million pledge.)

However, this is not to say that all Arabs are satisfied with the level of their governments' commitment. Despite the numerous articles expressing sympathy and horror, there are also those encouraging more proactive responses. For example, a series of editorials in Egypt's al-Ahram called for more direct involvement by Arab citizens. A January 4 editorial argues that leaving the aid effort in the hands of the governments alone would be irresponsible for Arabs, who have long asked for the aid of the world community to help them in their political struggles. They should therefore play their part in global affairs and recognize "the give and take and ethical reciprocal action between the peoples of the world." Many articles published in early January in Kuwait's al-Qabas strenuously encourage the government and people to do more. One January 6 op-ed by Khudayr al-Anzi even reminded Kuwaitis that the world had come to the aid of their nation in 1990-91 when Saddam Hussein invaded the country, and urged them to return the favor.


Perhaps the most interesting op-ed was published on January 2 in the Saudi Asharq al-Awsat by Muna al-Tahawi, who pairs her call for a "jihad against the tsunami" with a bitter attack on both Osama bin Laden and those who support his ideology. Al-Tahawi points to the hypocrisy of Bin Laden and radical Islamist ideologues, who repeatedly exhort Muslims to come to the aid of their brethren in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet "where is their proclamation about the necessity of aiding Muslims who fell victim to the earthquake-tsunami?" Shredding all of Bin Laden's pretensions of being motivated by Islam, al-Tahawi asks why he has forgotten the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia. Whether or not Bin Laden eventually makes a statement on Indonesia, al-Tahawi reminds readers about the many bloody attacks linked to al-Qaeda or its ideology throughout these Asian nations. Ultimately, she argues, Bin Laden and his ilk offer no constructive alternative to the status quo; like the tsunami, they should be viewed as forces of destruction. Her op-ed is a ringing call to reject the legitimacy of Bin Laden's Islamic credentials, as well as to mobilize more Muslims to aid the tsunami victims.

Tapping into some of the wild rumors that are circulating around the Internet, in English and Arabic, Mahmud al-Busayfi wondered in Libya's al-Jamahiria on January 4 whether the tsunami was "a reactionary result of the terrible American bombing in Afghanistan and Iraq?" He even hints that a nuclear test blast may have been the cause. And a small group of commentators in the Arab world find an echo of Noah's flood in the tsunami. While that view is more likely to be found on Islamist websites than in the Arab press, Usama Jasir's January 6 op-ed in Qatar's al-Raya is an example of this attitude: "the flood covered the people because of the appearance of [their] corruption and iniquity; perhaps the people will return to God and be more resolute in their belief in God..."

Ali Saad al-Musa reacted to the divine retribution theories in his January 3 op-ed in the Saudi al-Watan by countering that the tsunami's victims were not corrupt people, but honest, hard-working villagers, many of whom suffered from poverty and hunger. With an average monthly income of two dollars, al-Musa laments, the dignity of their life came from their constant "jihad against this [type of] life, struggling from [their] births until death." In Jordan's Addustour on January 1, Batir Muhammad Ali Wardam scoffed at doomsayers like Jasir. Referring to a picture often cited by the "wrath of God" advocates, which shows an intact mosque in Teunom, Indonesia, surrounded by a completely flattened village, Wardam reminds readers that there is a scientific explanation: the mosque was the village's only stone structure. While admitting that a strong belief in God's authority means seeing that natural events have some kind of divine source, he argues that it would be foolish for any commentators to presume to know God's reasoning. He caustically concludes, "we [should] perceive that we are really in need of an earthquake-tsunami in the Arab world, but at the level of the mind..."

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