RELIGION IN THE NEWS
Winter 2006, Vol. 8, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2006

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Blogging on the Religion Beat

Libert, Equalit, Islam

Religion and the Supremes

Intelligent Design On Trial

Special Supplement
Secularism:
A Symposium

After Katrina

Winning Hearts and Minds in Kashmir

No Peace for the Church

Tokyo's Dr. Phil

Letters to the Editor

Contributors

Winning Hearts and Minds in Kashmir
by Colin M. Adams

Coming less than a year after the tsunami in Southeast Asia and in the immediate wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the 7.6 magnitude earthquake that rocked Kashmir on October 8 seemed like one natural disaster more than American eyes could handle. So with a toll of more than 73,000 dead, 128,000 injured, and three million homeless, the first question was: Would the relief effort be up to the task?

Early coverage of the disaster focused mainly on the apathy of many Westerners. Compared to the prior disasters, donations to the Kashmir earthquake were meager at best. "Catastrophe Goes Begging," ran the headline on Shannon Tan's October 21 story in the St. Petersburg Times. Three weeks later, Richard Reed's story in the Portland Oregonian echoed, "Donor fatigue jeopardizes quake victims."

By mid-November, only $140 million of the estimated $550 million needed for initial emergency relief had been donated, according to the Washington Times.

Writing in the Bergen County (N.J.) Record November 15, Mike Kelly contrasted the donation level to tsunami relief, which reached 99 percent of the estimated cost within a month of the disaster. Likewise, Kelly reported, aid had "quickly poured in" after Katrina struck. But the earthquake (in the words of Yousef Abdallah of Islamic Relief Services) was "a forgotten tragedy."

On November 17, The United Nation's emergency coordinator in Pakistan, Jan Vandemoortele, told Agence France Presse that some governments had maxed out on the earlier relief efforts and were not able to come up with the kinds of contributions they had earlier made. "Now we spend too much time on keeping the [cash] pipeline alive when we have so little time left to keep the people alive," Vandemoortele said. "This should not be our worry."

The exception to the portrait of lackluster donations was Muslims living in the West, co-religionists of the victims then observing the fast of Ramadan. "In some respects, the calamity came at the best time because Ramadan is the month when Muslims are called to be most generous and merciful," Safdar Chadda told Newsday's Zachary R. Dowdy, Jr. October 12.

"If this happened any other time except Ramadan," Seattle area Muslim leader Aziz Junejo told Seattle Times reporters Janet Tu and Tan Vinh, "we might be seeing some of that [charity] burnout."

Muslims gave to Islamic rather than to the standard relief agencies. Reporting in the New York Times October 14, Stephanie Strom wrote, "Islamic Relief, one of the largest Muslim charities in the United States, had raised almost $1 million online alone through Wednesday, or about 10 times the amount raised by Save the Children."

In fact, Islamic charities seemed a superior choice. As Strom pointed out, "Many of the Muslim nonprofit groups here have established operations in Pakistan and thus are logical candidates for charity. Islamic Relief, for instance, has more than 100 staff members in Pakistan, and Life [for Relief and Development] operates programs there ranging from water purification to rebuilding schools."

On November 14, the Bergen Record's Jaci Smith reported that supplies brought to Kashmir by Muslim charities like Islamic Relief and Operation USA would be disbursed to the people who need them "within hours of landing."

At a conference held in Islamabad on November 19, international donors pledged $200 million more than the $5.2 billion requested by Pakistan for relief and reconstruction - and the "donor fatigue" story line dissipated. What came to the fore in the U.S. media was a story line about the use of aid to earn the good will of Pakistanis.

"Winning hearts and minds," that resonant Cold War phrase, encapsulated the American relief effort. While U.S. military helicopters delivered food and supplies to destroyed villages and refugee camps, U.S. military personnel set up field hospitals to care for the victims of the earthquake. Relief supplies were tattooed with the stars and stripes so as to let everyone know who provided the tents and blankets to the refugees.

The Pakistanis took note. "It has changed our opinion about the United States," Muhammad Farid, a Pakistani doctor, told David Rohde in a New York Times story Otober 26. Anti-American Muslim clerics were wrong about the American relief workers, Farid said. "They have been accusing all these people of spreading immorality, but these are the people who came to save our lives."

On November 13, Pakistani newspaper editor Najam Sethi told Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer that the United States "has had a better profile in Pakistan in the last few weeks than in the last 15 years."

Not all refugees were convinced of the purity of American motives. In a November 28 article headlined "A battle for minds," Saad Habib, a 14-year-old student at an Islamic school or madrasa, told reporter Jim Landers that although "we appreciate the help," America was still "the enemy of Islam."

No less than during the Cold War, America was in a competitive hearts-and-minds situation. Then it was the Soviets pushing communism. Now, in the war on terror, it was Muslim militants pushing radical Islam. And in Kashmir, the militants were first on the scene offering aid to victims.

"Immediately after the earthquake, the best organized aid relief came from groups such as Pakistan's main radical Islamic party, Jamaat I-Islami, which previously backed the Taliban government of neighboring Afghanistan," London Daily Telegraph reporter Isambard Wilkinson wrote November 2. "Near the militarily sensitive Line of Control that divides Pakistani-controlled Kashmir from its Indian counterpart, several Islamist groups have been praised by normally hostile sectors of the Pakistani media for providing aid relief."

Wilkinson found that, even though many of their training bases in the area had been destroyed, militant groups were adopting children orphaned by the earthquake and giving them an "Islamic education" in special camps. "This is more than just a humanitarian mission," declared Mark Phillips in a CBS Evening News dispatch November 28. "It's a new front in the war on terror."

On December 28, Newsday's James Ruppert reported that Vice President Dick Cheney had pressured Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to bar militant Islamist groups from doing relief work in Kashmir, but that Musharraf was unwilling to comply. Any such effort, Rupport wrote, would risk a "popular backlash" in the quake zone.

"The administration," sniffed the San Francisco Chronicle in a January 2 editorial, "should maintain an embarrassed silence about the humanitarian work of suspect organizations in Pakistan's devastated region - especially because the militants are notably unsuccessful recruiting among the tolerant, moderately inclined people of Kashmir."

Meanwhile, media attention was turning to the hardship the refugees were facing from harsh winter weather conditions. In the December issue of Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi wrote, "What we failed to realize was that the quake left behind 3 million utterly impoverished people to live in tents - in tents if they're lucky, under the stars if they're not - in a region where heavy snowfall and severe winters are the norm."

Pointing out that relief efforts would be greatly slowed or even halted for the winter. Taibbi explained the Kashmir crisis as "a two-stage disaster whose second act will happen away from the camera."

On December 21, Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Paul Watson reported that hundreds of thousands of Pakistani refugees were at risk because of inadequate shelter. On January 10, South Asia was hit by the iciest weather in decades.

It was hard to win hearts and minds when bodies were frozen to death.

   

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