On Oct. 8, 2005, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. In the following weeks, it was estimated that at least 73,000 people perished in Pakistan alone, and at least 3 million people left homeless now risk death from disease and the fierce Himalayan winter. Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan spoke with Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair and Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of International Services, American University, Washington, D.C., and former High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain, about what is at stake in the West's humanitarian response to the overwhelmingly Muslim victims of the devastating quake.

How are Western nations responding to the earthquake catastrophe in Pakistan?

The response of the West needs to be understood in the context first of what we are seeing as a series of natural disasters. We had the tsunami, then Katrina, Rita, Wilma--a kind of global epidemic of disasters. So while the West's response has been generous, at the same time it has been a bit distracted and not up to the standards that people in Pakistan expected, because of the scale of what happened in Pakistan.

Do you attribute the relative slowness or the lack of coordination to compassion fatigue? Or is it operational inability because resources have been overextended?

First, there is the scale of the disaster, which means it wasn't just restricted to one district or one region. It includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India in the northern areas. Second, the focus is Pakistan; the epicenter was in Azad Kashmir. There are entire towns near Muzaffarabad that have been virtually wiped out. Balakot, which is the big town before you enter Muzaffarabad, has just been wiped out. When I was a Pakistani government official, I was in charge of this region, which includes Balakot. A friend of mine who visited there a few days ago said it was like an atom bomb had been dropped.

Balakot is the town at the entrance to the fabled Kaghan Valley. It's very high up in the Himalayan Mountains. And what I saw when I was a commissioner was a migration because it got so cold in the winter that people just could not live there, so many of them would move down toward Mansehra. These are the people who have been hit-they were living in mud huts, very often cheaply built buildings, and they were hit on a scale that according to rough estimates has reached 80,000. These are official figures; unofficial figures may be much more. And then the winter set in.

This has been a disaster. But a bigger disaster awaits unless there is very swift administrative action that preempts the winter, because winter in that part of the world does not come in stages. It descends like a curtain. One day it's late summer, next day it's freezing cold [with] really biting winds.

Is the affected population overwhelmingly Muslim?

Yes, it's almost entirely Muslim and people are asking me, is it possible that in this earthquake, Osama bin Laden has been killed? That complicates the Western reaction [to the earthquake victims] because a lot of commentators felt maybe there were some Taliban, Al-Qaeda, or Osama bin Laden himself living in that region. That tempers the compassion.

You have said the Muslim world is closely watching the Western world's reaction. Can you explain?

Some of the most violent actions of young Muslim men are explained by the feeling that the Muslim world is under attack. So when a catastrophe like this happens, the Muslim world watches and says, "Alright, who are our friends?" The Americans emerge in a very positive light because they shifted Chinook helicopters [from Iraq and Afghanistan]. They have played a very important role in the earthquake-afflicted areas because they're mountainous and inaccessible. People have just been sitting on mountaintops after the disaster waiting for someone to come and give them relief or food or just some blankets so they that they can survive, or pick up the wounded.

Second, in actions that were highly symbolic for the Muslim world and therefore made a powerful impact, President Bush went to the Pakistan embassy to offer his condolences. Condoleezza Rice diverted her itinerary [on her recent trip to Asia] and went to Pakistan. So all this certainly conveys a more compassionate and a benign face to the Muslim world.

Whose compassion is flowing toward Pakistan?
Read more on page 2 >>

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