Friday, January 14, 2005

BROTHERS IN ALMS

By PETER BERGEN
abul, Afghanistan

AROUND the Islamic world it is common currency that Muslims are perpetual victims of Western and Zionist conspiracies. The bill of particulars includes the handling of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Israel's inequitable treatment of the Palestinians, and the deaths of thousands of civilians in Iraq - as a result first of United Nations sanctions after the Persian Gulf war, and more recently of the American occupation. The most articulate spokesman of such views is, of course, Osama bin Laden.

Yet when Muslims are suffering, it is usually the West, and often the United States, that takes the lead in helping. For instance, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Washington mounted its largest covert aid program since Vietnam to help the Afghan resistance; when Somalis were starving in the early 1990's, President George H. W. Bush sent 25,000 American troops to help relief efforts; when Serbs were massacring Bosnian Muslims in the mid-1990's President Bill Clinton (belatedly) directed the United States Air Force to bomb Serbian positions, which led to the Dayton accords.

More recently, it was the United States that overthrew the tyrannical government of the Taliban, a regime recognized only by three Muslim countries: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. Other than Turkey, no Muslim nation has sent troops to Afghanistan to help stabilize the poorest country in the Islamic world (a few Muslim states, including Jordan, offered token deployments but were turned down).

Now the same pattern - action by Western countries and inertia from Muslim states - can be seen in the efforts to provide relief for those hardest hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami. While 100,000 of the victims are from Aceh, the most Islamic of Indonesia's provinces, Muslim countries are contributing a relative pittance. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia is contributing the most: a paltry $30 million, about the same as what Netherlands is giving and less than one-tenth of the United States contribution. And no Arab governments participated in the conference in Jakarta on Thursday where major donors and aid organizations conferred over reconstruction efforts.

This anemic effort on the part of the richest countries is emblematic of a wider political problem in the Islamic world. For all of the invocations by Muslim leaders of the ummah, or the global community of believers, they typically do little to help their fellow Muslims in times of crisis.

Arab leaders and their toothless talking shops like the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference are excellent at denouncing problems in Palestine and Iraq, but most stood silent as a million died in the war between Iraq and Iran during the 1980's. When President Hafez al-Assad of Syria massacred some 20,000 people after an Islamist uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, there were no expressions of outrage from the Islamic Conference. Egypt routinely tortures political prisoners, untroubled by fears that other Arab leaders will seriously condemn such actions.

Perhaps the generosity of Western countries will spur Islamic states to recognize that invocations of religious Muslim solidarity will do little to feed the millions of Muslims who remain acutely vulnerable to disease and starvation in the aftermath of this enormous natural catastrophe.

There have been a few positive signs in recent days. Spurred by criticism, Saudi state-run television organized a telethon this week that raised private pledges of more than $75 million, and the Islamic Development Bank has pledged $500 million.

Much remains to be done, however. The Persian Gulf countries that are reaping a bonanza from record oil prices should send a meaningful percentage of those windfall profits to their fellow Muslims devastated by the tsunami, rather than lining the pockets of their ruling families. After all, zakat, the giving of charity, is one of the five pillars of Islam.

Peter Bergen is a fellow of the New America Foundation and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.




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