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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  • The Israelis immediately offered aid, and after initial confusion, Pakistan welcomed it. This is happening for the first time. So here is America, primarily a Christian country, Israel, primarily a Jewish country, and then comes a Muslim country, Turkey, which is a relatively poor country, offering $150 million. The Turkish prime minister not only went to Pakistan, but he went to the affected areas and he brought with him doctors and medical tents as if he were part of the relief effort himself, not just as a token, and that made a huge impact on Pakistanis.

    The Pakistanis nationwide are responding emotionally because of the nature of the disaster. Hundreds of Pakistanis are driving up from Karachi and Lahore, bringing aid and food and medical supplies. While that is creating some administrative problems in the area itself, it is also fostering a sense of nationalism and a sense of involvement with the people on the ground. In that context, any response internationally becomes an indicator of how people are responding to Pakistan with affection, with love, or with indifference.

    Have the Arab states--the Muslim states of the Middle East--also contributed?

    They have contributed, but there has been commentary [in the Pakistani press] pointing out that they have not been as generous as Pakistanis expected. The Turks get absolutely first marks because of their magnificent response, and the Americans get really high marks, which is a positive change, because America had been getting really bad press for its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, often interpreted as a war against Islam.

    How is the earthquake interpreted from a Muslim theological perspective? Is it seen as a sign from God?

    As an anthropologist, I find this question fascinating because it tells us so much about society. I watched Katrina and the interpretations of Katrina. Now, you know when Katrina struck, there were many religious figures-including, by the way, a chief rabbi from Israel-who said that this is God being unhappy with people. Some Muslims said the same thing.

    So now we have a situation where a Muslim area has been hit. And Muslim religious figures are saying that this is God's way of showing his anger; God is not happy at all with the fact that the government is so closely allied with the Americans and therefore fighting against Muslim causes and this is a sign that Muslims are moving away from their ideals and their own character and their own traditions and therefore, God is angry.

    There's another religious issue here, which is how societies rely on their own spiritual strength to respond to catastrophes of this scale. When I was looking at what was happening with Katrina, I noted, as an anthropologist, how easily a society implodes. It was like society really collapsing on itself and this was America, the superpower, the most advanced nation in the world. Now we have this happening in Pakistan and, on the administrative level, there is a similar collapse taking place.

    There are some terrible stories being reported about little girls or widows who have lost everything being kidnapped. The people of that part of Pakistan are very good-looking, very fair. People in the rest of the subcontinent consider the Kashmiris a good-looking race. If someone is kidnapped from there, they will obviously bring a good price. Stories like these tell us that human nature has a streak prepared to exploit any catastrophe.

    At the same time, how does the larger Muslim society respond? In Islam, the quality of sabr (patience) is very highly regarded, because God tells us in the Qur'an that it presupposes confidence in God.

    So if you're sitting on a mountaintop, your family is wiped out, if you're a modern young man, you're going to say, "Why me, what sort of God is this, why did God fail me?" If you are a man who believes in Islam very deeply and you have sabr, then you're going to say, "Ah, God is testing me. This is a terrible thing, it can never be made up or repaired but it is yet another test in this life that we have and because I have faith in God, I will be patient. And therefore this is a kind of cushion against the blows that we are all subjected to in our lives.

    Can Muslim values survive the quake?
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  • Much of the destruction from the quake happened in the disputed Kashmir region, controlled by Pakistan and claimed by India. It's been the source of violent conflict for many years. Are any Muslim religious scholars looking at signs of cooperation between India and Pakistan in the quake's aftermath as a positive affect of this disaster?

    Yes, this will come [from some clerics], but they're not that quick to connect the dots. If nothing else, for the first time, the Line of Control that separates India and Pakistan in Kashmir is now open; families [separated by the conflict] are rejoining. Despite the [Oct. 29] terror attack in Delhi [attributed to Kashmiri separatists], people are still talking about dialogue and a peace movement. It did not quite derail the process. Another spin-off may be that the [Pakistani Muslim] religious parties are back in the running. The most active people on the ground in the relief effort are the religious organizations, some of whom have been banned because they're supposed to be the terrorist organizations.

    Gen. Musharraf, the military dictator turned self-styled president, is the leader of the country and since 9/11, he has been seen a U.S. ally. What does all of this mean for him?

    This is an important question for Pakistan. Everyone's saying this is the worst natural disaster in history of Pakistan, but the biggest natural disaster in Pakistan's history was in 1970 when a cyclone hit what was east Pakistan and was said to have killed an estimated half a million people. It devastated the low-lying, densely populated territory, just swept people away. It convinced a lot of Bengalis, who were already restless with Islamabad, which they saw as ethnically different and ethnically dominating them, as indifferent to their suffering,and this stoked the nationalist movement against Islamabad and eventually became the movement that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

    Now, this is not the case in the earthquake in Kashmir. But there will be, without doubt, a political interpretation and political implications of this earthquake because of its scale. And therefore, the relief agencies must not succumb to compassion fatigue, but continue to be engaged precisely because of the political ramifications, apart from the humanitarian needs.

    In Pakistan, people are very quickly going to start judging President Musharraf in terms of how he's performing with the relief. This earthquake came at the moment when he was getting a lot of bad press for his performance as leader. I believe he should personally supervise this relief effort, because he's also commander-in-chief, he has the resources of the Pakistan army, resources the civil structure does not have. And unless you can combine the two, there will be greater disaster on the ground because very soon winter will set in, there will be no mobility, no transport, no coordination between the agencies. My recommendation is that he should simply make camp in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir.

    And has he followed any of these suggestions?

    No, he didn't. If he had done that, the people there would have felt a great moral booster. They would have seen him in their midst. He would have been able to coordinate between the army and the civil organization and the foreign agencies, and the people would have found him a very sympathetic figure. But he did not, and now the commentary that I'm reading is quite critical, saying he doesn't care for the people. There's a lot of static building up now against him, and this will grow.

    If the earthquake disaster has contributed to political instability in Pakistan, what does that mean for America and would it bring an Islamist regime to power?

    Musharraf has been fielding the argument: If I go, you will have mad Islamic fanatics take over; therefore, support me. It is a common theme that most Muslim leaders of a dictatorial bent take in Washington, and Washington, alas, falls hook, line, and sinker for it.

    But the structure of the Pakistan army is such that if a coup happens, there will be another general who could take over. All this should be discussed right now, because I would say, unless there is far greater coordination on the ground in the next few weeks, you will be hearing more cases of tragedies and this will increase the anger. I've heard stories that Pakistani army people have already been shouted at and heckled even in Islamabad.

    Were you directly responsible for the region that is heavily devastated by this earthquake?

    Yes. I found the people simple, rural, warm, very hospitable--really wonderful people who at that time had not really been affected by the materialism and consumerism that we face now in the 21st century.

    How would you characterize the kind of Islam that is practiced there?

    The Islam there was tinged with a great deal of hospitality and compassion. When I think of what happened in Balakot, where an entire school collapsed, killing a couple of hundred children, I feel very emotional. I can't even talk about it. That was my first posting and the first posting for a young assistant commissioner is like a first love, so you have a lot of feeling for it. In fact, my first book was called "Mansehra," and it was dedicated to the people of Mansehra "who will always evoke affection in me whenever I think of them, wherever I am."

    If you were to have our readers take away a single message from this conversation, what would it be?

    I want your readers to be thinking about one word-compassion. This is not a time to be thinking of Pakistanis as jihadists or people who backed [Pakistani scientist] A. Q. Kahn [who sold nuclear materials to other governments], or who are ruled by a dictator called Musharraf. They should just remember that these are ordinary human beings. Many of them have lost everything, they're just sitting there in the middle of nowhere and have no hope. This is like a death sentence. So at this moment, they need compassion.

    And the world ignores this at its peril, because this is a very sensitive part of the world. And if you create this kind of angry reaction against Musharraf or Americans, that will then spread into Afghanistan, into Indian Kashmir, into Pakistani Kashmir, and into Pakistan itself.

    Apart from the politics, I would go back to the human response that we need, because we're living in a globalized world where we are all interconnected. Yesterday was Katrina, today is Pakistan, tomorrow it may be-God forbid-in a country nearer to us, and we need to be responding as human beings to care for each other.

    Is this notion of compassion a central virtue or value within Islam?

    The notion of compassion is the nearest you get in Islam to godliness. Zakat, or charity, which comes from Judaism, is one of the five pillars of Islam. A Muslim has to be charitable. He's obliged to be charitable and in cases like this, he must reach out to the point where he must say, "My home is open to the suffering, I'll give everything to the suffering." [.] In Islam, we have codified it, which means every Muslim has to give.

    Zakat is something around which every Muslim organization gave aid-so if there was something in Bosnia or Palestine or Kashmir, there was a tragedy, people are killed, people have died, you'll get Islamic organizations sending money, relief, blankets, whatever, everywhere, from all over the world. Particularly from America, because American Muslims are a bit better off than Muslims elsewhere. Then came 9/11, and the argument began here that Islamic charities are covers for terrorist activities. So many were closed.

    The result was that people froze up, and in a crisis like this, Muslims are suddenly ambiguous and they think, "Look, if I give money, the FBI will come and check up with me." So even in this essential feature of Islam, there has been a disruption after 9/11 and Muslims attribute it to one nation alone, the United States. Therefore, a lot of people in the Muslim organizations will be saying, `Look, we could have got you much more, but they are banned in America. People are under suspicion."

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