Pakistan Flood Ignored by West and Muslim World

A cataclysmic flood has left much of the country underwater, and a combination of donor apathy and governmental ineptitude is making things worse. Tunku Varadarajan explains why Pakistan’s mess may soon be ours.

Local residents reach for food distributed from a truck in a village in Pakistan's Muzaffargarh district of Punjab province August 19, 2010. (Asim Tanveer / Reuters)

Cataclysms are commonly measured in depressing, or bewildering, superlatives: the most people dead, for example, or the greatest number missing; the number of acres of forest incinerated or crop-land destroyed, of people sickened or killed by an epidemic, or of villages wiped off the map. Pakistan’s unabated floods—in which more than a fifth of a sprawling country lies inundated—are eye-catching for another, disconcerting reason: It is, by all accounts, a disaster that has left people around the world—and in the West, in particular, home to the finest traditions of charitable giving to victims of external disasters—more unmoved than any comparable calamity in recent history. In other words, no other disaster in recent times has been quite so ignored by the Western charitable tradition.

The disastrous floods, one can be certain, will reap for the Islamist terrorists a fresh crop of recruits.

All of this leads me to offer a few socio-cultural and political observations on the floods in Pakistan, and their possible consequences.

1. An obvious reason why so little private money has flowed to Pakistan from the West, and from America in particular, is the absence of Christian charities working in Pakistan. In the event of a natural (or other) disaster abroad, American Christians are the most generous donors of aid: Witness the response, for example, to the earthquake in Haiti. “Americans who practice their faith”—and an overwhelming majority are Christian—“give and volunteer far more than Americans who practice less or not at all,” says Arthur Brooks, the author of Who Really Cares. These Christian Americans often take their cue from their churches; but if these institutions have little or no presence in Pakistan (as they don’t in most radical Islamic countries), a reliable and generous conduit for charitable donation is, quite simply, missing altogether.

Jonathan Miller: Pakistan’s Untold Disaster2. But what of the “ummah,” the Muslim brotherhood of nations, whose people have given virtually nothing to Pakistan in its time of despair? According to The New York Times, “although the disaster has fallen in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when charity is considered a duty, Muslim states have donated virtually nothing via the United Nations and relatively small sums on their own.” One is hardly surprised: Most Islamic charitable giving is ideo-theological, designed to consolidate the Muslim faith, particularly in its Wahhabi manifestation. If money is given to alleviate poverty or distress, it is most often given in the donors’ own neighborhood, and almost always with ideological strings attached.

3. By far the biggest giver of emergency succor to Pakistan is the U.S. One trusts that the Muslim world, as slow to give aid to its brethren in Pakistan as it is reliably unhesitating when it comes time to anathematize America, is paying heed to the immense American contribution. And yet, radical Islamist sections of the Pakistani media have been deranged enough to blame the floods on manipulations of weather patterns by the U.S.

4. India, too, has come in for its share of blame, so much so that New Delhi has been held responsible for causing the floods in Pakistan. As a result, newspaper editorials have called for Pakistan to reject offers of aid from India—offers, so far, of $5 million. “Pakistan Must Reject India Food Aid, Meant Only to Impress U.S.,” wrote The Nation. Here is a sample, from the paper’s editorial, of what passes for responsible opinion among Pakistan’s elite: “By showing that India can handle the region’s problems, the offer [of aid] also panders to international sentiment.” Huh?

5. The refusal by the Pakistani government, as of this writing, to accept any Indian aid reveals Islamabad’s utter contempt for its own people. Paranoid pride trumps an urgent need to help the country’s poor. Do you think the huddled, hungry masses in tented camps in Sind would turn down food if they were told that its origins were in India? (Supplementary question: Do you think Shah Mahmood Qureishi, Pakistan’s foreign minister—the man who is “pondering” India’s offer—has gone hungry for a nanosecond these last few days?

6. As many have written, we ignore Pakistan’s floods at our peril. Given the ramshackle, and venal, condition of the Pakistani state, the earliest aid to reach most flood victims came not from the government but from Islamic relief organizations. These, as Marisa Porges wrote on The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page, include Falah-e-Insaniyat, the “charitable arm” of the group (Lashkar-e-Taiba) that carried out the murderous assault on Mumbai in 2008. The disastrous floods, one can be certain, will reap for the Islamist terrorists a fresh crop of recruits, men who are grateful to the radical groups for help in their time of need (a time at which the Pakistani state was missing in action), and who will also emerge from the floods with nothing material or temporal to live for: perfect material for suicide-jihadis. New York is but a short hop, by plane, from Karachi. (India, as the residents of Mumbai know all too well, is only an hour or two away by speedboat.)

7. Given the seemingly pathetic performance by Pakistan’s civilian administration in bringing relief to its flood-stricken citizens, the army has taken on, anew, the mantle of National Savior. Once the floods abate, can we expect the men in uniform to show any deference at all to civilian politicians? Might we see, in fact, a post-deluge coup, in which the army makes formal its own role as top dog in Pakistan, consigning President Zardari, in particular, to oblivion?

All of these issues should focus our minds, if they’re not focused already, on the floods in Pakistan. We ignore them—and the plight of Pakistan’s people—at our immense peril.

UPDATE: After this piece was published, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Pakistani government had, after days of dithering, accepted India's aid.

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Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)