Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Tsunami and the Will of Allah

I haven't had much to say about the tsunami, largely because I have a certain horror of stating the obvious. What can you say about a death toll in multiple thousands that climbs faster than it can be reported? I had thought of commenting, when the toll was only around 20,000, that natural disasters don't seem to have as devastating effects in free countries: Florida was recently hit by four successive hurricanes and the damage is measured in dollars, not bodies. (I don't believe the Florida death toll has risen above 100, but I cannot find a comprehensive report. Charley seems to have accounted for 19 deaths but that includes accidents after the fact due to damaged infrastructure.) But, while true, it seems a little callous to be making such points in the face of such enormous tragedy. A big part of the horror of natural disasters comes from the fact that there don't seem to be many moral lessons to be drawn.

However, this story from Ralph Peters of the New York Post caught my attention:

The key outcome of the disaster is going to appear in Indonesia, especially on the ravaged island of Sumatra, where Aceh province suffered the worst effects of the tsunami. [...]

Aceh lies in the far northwest of Indonesia's mini-empire of 17,000 islands. Islam penetrated there six centuries ago, arriving with traders from the Arabian peninsula. Early ties with Mecca gave the faith of the Prophet deeper roots and stricter tenets in Aceh than elsewhere in Indonesia, where Islam came later and Muslim beliefs are wonderfully muddled with folk religion, Buddhist strains and even hints of Hinduism.

As a result, Aceh has suffered under a long Islamic insurgency that means to establish an independent state closer in spirit to Riyadh than to Jakarta. Wandering through Indonesia, I was struck by the complexity and humanity of the many local variants of Islam -- and by the lack of interest in the Aceh-style intolerance the Saudis were anxious to spread throughout the country.
Since the majority of my prayers regarding Indonesia had previously been with regard to the oppression of the church by these very people, I feel somewhat mixed emotions on reading this. I suppose my feelings may be somewhat akin to those of relatives of survivors of 9/11. On the one hand you are devastated by the destruction, but still overwhelmingly relieved that your people made it through. It is not altogether a comfortable reaction to experience, but I would be dishonest if I tried to say anything else.

But Mr. Peters has some further insights:
At present, the United States is doing the right thing -- and the wise thing -- by hurrying aid to Aceh. The efforts are critical in purely human terms, and they also help polish our tarnished relations with Indonesia, the world's most-populous Muslim country. But we need to have realistic expectations. The Acehnese may remember our help fondly, but aid alone will not change the province's centuries-old prejudices.

Such change must come from within. We can play a constructive role on the margins, but the dynamic that matters is already at work within the local society. The question that matters is this: How will Indonesians interpret the disaster that has befallen Aceh?

Earthquakes, plagues and famines can either drag a population backward into superstition -- or thrust it forward into a new spirit of inventiveness and creativity. Disasters sharpen the popular intellect, loosen social structures and pose fundamental questions: Why did God do this? What is the meaning of our suffering? Is there a meaning?

Given Aceh's fundamentalist tradition, the response from local mullahs (whose authority is threatened) is apt to be the age-old claim that Allah punished Aceh because it had already become too liberal. The popular interpretation of events is unpredictable for now, but we could see Aceh becoming even more devout -- or opening up.


The crucial strategic results actually may appear elsewhere in Indonesia, where Saudi-funded agents have been struggling to destroy liberal Islam. On Java or Sulawesi, the lesson is that Aceh's oppressive religion didn't protect it; on the contrary, Allah struck those who were most prideful about their faith. The earthquake and tsunami may have drowned Saudi-funded extremism as surely as it did the Sumatran countryside.
I try not to have too superstitious a view of world events. While I believe that God orders all things, great and small, according to his providence, I don't like to assume that there is any particular message in a given occurrence. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that fundamentalist Islam does indeed tend to have such a superstitious outlook so it will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

One great advantage the forces of civilization have in this struggle is that the Saudis, while glad to fund hate-dripping extremists, are stingy when it comes to relieving human suffering. Just as they have kept the Palestinians on the verge of poverty for decades, they've been slow off the mark in assisting their fellow Muslims struck by the tsunami.

Even when the Saudis do make a half-hearted attempt at relief efforts, they fail miserably. The worst-run refugee camp I've ever entered was a Saudi-sponsored plague-pit in Azerbaijan. When the local Muslims resisted the harsh Wahabi codes of behavior, the Saudis abandoned them. All that remained were a few corrupt contracts, a broken computer and cholera.

Despite early U.N. trash-talk that U.S. aid is inadequate, we're the force on the scene. Only we have the ability to reach out and help with such alacrity and power. It's a shame we don't know how to fight the public-relations battle.

Meanwhile, Indonesia is going to be a fascinating country to watch. The tsunami's ultimate effects, beyond the dreadful human toll, are unpredictable. But the opportunities for a troubled region to stride ahead are far greater than the current devastation suggests. This tragedy may mark the start of a new, more-hopeful era.

It's not about the buildings, but the souls.

UPDATE: Arthur Chrenkoff notes that the Aceh separatists are already trying to make political use of the disaster:
In Indonesia, the hardest hit province of Aceh has also been the most troublesome for the central government for the past three decades, with its own dreams of independence. And post-tsunami the problems continue. As if chaos wasn't bad enough: "Separatists in Aceh, the Indonesian province ravaged by tsunamis a week ago, today accused the military of using the disaster to step up its campaign against rebels."
Doesn't seem like a good sign.

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