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The Politics of Disaster Relief

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 27, 2007

    Muslim countries and Islamic relief organisations along with the rest of the world have shown unprecedented solidarity with the people of Bangladesh after the devastating impact of cyclone Sidr in mid-November. Ironically, many of these Islamic charitable organizations have been involved in fuelling fundamentalism in Bangladesh. The extremist forces, and not surprisingly, are once again trying to capitalize on the miseries of the people and the inadequacies of the state machinery. Scientific evidences point to the fact that frequent floods and cyclones in Bangladesh are due to disturbances in hydrological cycle caused by global warming. Citing global warming and climate change as the reason for mid-November cyclone, the chief advisor of Bangladesh, Fakharuddin Ahmed sought $700 million as assistance from the international community.

    Oil-rich Saudi Arabia tops the list of Muslim countries in providing relief, with a grant of US$100 million, in addition to 300 metric tonnes of food and relief supplies. In the aftermath of cyclone the Kingdom had expressed its willingness to build an "air-bridge" of relief with Bangladesh. Saudi Arabia was able to respond quickly because a Saudi relief team had already been working in the country after two rounds of heavy monsoon flooding in September and October.

    Apart from the Saudi donation, the Saudi Red Crescent committed to donate nearly $30 million directly to the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society. The OPEC (Oil Producing and Exporting Countries) Fund for International Development (OFID) also made a commitment to donate $500,000 to the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society. Significant donations have also been made by Kuwait, Libya, Iran, Qatar, Pakistan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Jeddah-based Organisation of the Islamic Conference called on governments and civil bodies in its 57 member states to dispatch urgent assistance to the country.

    Muslim aid organisations have been active in helping the cyclone victims. According to Yasser Al-Tahawi, director of the Islamic Relief (IR) Volunteers' Department in the Middle East, the organization has launched a campaign to raise $6 million for Bangladesh. The UK-based Muslim Aid (MA) has also spearheaded a similar fund-raising campaign aimed at providing immediate food aid, medicine and clean water. Both these charities have launched online donations' facilities on their websites.

    The Islamists, however, protested the US naval presence for cyclone relief. Several hundred activists of the radical Islamic group Hizb ut Tahrir staged demonstration in Dhaka on November 24 before the arrival of two ships of the US Navy – the USS Essex and USS Kearsarge – for distributing relief supplies. Each of these ships was carrying 20 helicopters and 3,500 marines on board with emergency relief supplies, medical and emergency evacuation teams. The protesters carried a banner reading 'Prevent American ships from entering the Bay of Bengal in the name of distributing relief' and chanted slogans 'Go back to America' and 'US has no place in Bangladesh'.

    The Hizb ut Tahrir leader Kazi Morshedul Haque told the rally that every Bangladeshi had come forward to help cyclone victims along with the army, navy and air force, 'so it is a shame on us, Muslims, that we are allowing the US on our land'. The protest was held at Baitul Muqarram, one of the country's largest mosques and a major Dhaka landmark where religious gatherings take place. While the administration in Bangladesh understands the importance of wider international community participation the Islamist groups consistently target and oppose the US relief operation. They think that the absence of foreign powers from the cyclone affected areas would give them a great opportunity to increase their hold over the Bangladeshi population.

    The frequent cyclonic disasters in Bangladesh are worrying. It is feared that the population in the disaster zone will start moving northward and westward. The problem of illegal immigration is already a serious one for immediate neighbours like India, but ultimately it will also affect the world at large. The European and other western countries are facing the problem of parallel societies which have refused to integrate. The West fears that in the coming days this uneasiness is only likely to increase as migration from areas like South Asia, Middle-East and North Africa increases. Probably with this objective the EU has recently imposed a ban on low-skilled workforce, which many fear would be extended to high-skilled ones later. The challenge posed by climate change to national, regional and world security needs to be tackled on a priority basis. Indifference of the international community can only make the situation worse and allow the extremists to increase their hold over the affected population.