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World: Are Muslim Nations Doing Enough For Tsunami Relief Efforts?

Some have accused Muslim nations of not pledging enough aid Accusations by a Kuwaiti newspaper that rich Muslim countries are doing too little to aid tsunami victims has provoked a debate throughout the Gulf region and beyond about whether Muslims are being stingy in the face of suffering -- compared to non-Muslim Europeans and Americans who are rushing to donate for relief efforts. Is the charge justified? Indonesia -- the country worst-affected by the disaster -- is also the world's largest Muslim nation.

Prague, 4 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Kuwaiti newspaper "Al Qabas" sparked a fire storm last week when it said the country deserves its reputation for stinginess, in light of the small amount of aid contributed to victims of the tsunami disaster in South Asia.

The newspaper noted that more than half of Kuwait's labor force is made up of workers from India, Sri Lanka, and other countries affected by the catastrophe. They are largely responsible for the country's economic success but, the newspaper argued, few Kuwaitis seem to care.

Immediately after the editorial appeared, the government upped its aid contribution to the tsunami relief effort from 2 million dollars to $10 million. But the commentary touched a raw nerve. Are rich Muslims being stingy?

In fact, it is hard to find anyone who agrees with this premise -- both inside and outside the Muslim community, in the region and abroad.

Muslim charities in Britain, for example, have been especially active in launching aid appeals for tsunami victims.

Inoyat Banglawala, press secretary of the Muslim Council of the United Kingdom, says many governments and private charities were initially slow to respond with aid pledges. But when the full scale of the tragedy became apparent, most increased their support.

"Our largest Muslim charity, Muslim Aid, initially gave an allocation of 100,000 pounds [$189,401]. That was on Monday, 24 hours after the Sunday earthquake and tsunami. But this weekend, they upped the figure to 1 million pounds -- so it's a tenfold increase," Banglawala said. "Similarly, we saw the same kind of response from the United States. Initially, they only pledged $35 million dollars, and the United States, of course, is the world's largest economy. But after public pressure, after criticism from other governments and other countries, they upped it to $350 million -- a tenfold increase. So I think many countries initially pledged a certain amount, but following a realization of the terrible scale of this tragedy and pressure from their own publics, they have increased those initial amounts very substantially."

Banglawala also notes that European countries and the United States are better skilled at communicating with the media and their own citizens, which gives them a higher profile internationally -- but does not necessarily mean they are providing more aid than others.

He notes that the Gulf states, for example, have a strong track record of providing development and humanitarian aid to poorer countries in Asia and Africa.

"One of the main criticisms of many Gulf countries is their lack of communication. These are not democratic countries, and in democratic countries, we are more used to governments being accountable to the public and answering questions. And those countries do not have the same traditions, so it's always a bit more difficult getting information out of them. So at the moment, no, it is not easy to try to get details of the amounts they have pledged," Banglawala said.
"Muslim Aid, initially gave an allocation of 100,000 pounds [$189,401]. That was on Monday, 24 hours after the Sunday earthquake and tsunami. But this weekend, they upped the figure to 1 million pounds."

The latest official statistics show that, so far, Saudi Arabia has pledged $10 million, the small Gulf state of Qatar has promised to donate $25 million, the United Arab Emirates is offering $2 million and Bahrain another $2 million.

In contrast, Norway is contributing more than $180 million, Britain $96 million, Sweden $80 million, and Denmark $55 million to tsunami relief.

Banglawala says the Muslim dimension should not be overly stressed. He points to examples of interfaith solidarity from the disaster zone and says the tsunami tragedy points to the common humanity of all affected -- regardless of religion.

"This disaster transcends religious differences, and we saw in Sri Lanka, for example, mosques opening their doors to allow people who were made homeless from the Hindu faith, the Buddhist faith, the Christian faith, to take refuge inside mosques. So I think this disaster has brought people together and shown them that their commonality, their shared humanity, transcends those kinds of traditional, religious differences," Banglawala said.

Prem Chandran, editor of the Dubai-based "Khaleej Times," told RFE/RL that people in the Gulf states are now as aware as anyone else in the world of the tsunami tragedy. Media coverage has been extensive, and the outpouring of support from the public and private sector continues to grow.

"Even our own organization itself is raising some funds from among the staff to be sent over to the affected areas. And similarly, we have been getting news of various organizations here -- at their own level -- collecting funds, sending them over to the affected areas -- Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India. That's the situation now," Chandran said.

Chandran said many people in the Gulf have reason to feel a personal connection to the disaster.

"Even in my organization, the person sitting in the next room -- he has lost about 40 or 50 relatives in Sri Lanka. So, there are instances of people from India and Sri Lanka and even Indonesia, who are working here. They tell us that they have lost their near and dear ones. And there are several cases of this -- students studying in one of the schools here. Today, we have a report saying that a student studying in one of the schools here -- she went over to Sri Lanka and died over there on vacation. So there are quite a few similar cases in this region itself," Chandran said.

Marie-Francoise Borel, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva, which groups together the world's national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, also tells RFE/RL that the global response -- from both Muslim and non-Muslim donors -- has been unprecedented and speedy.

The challenge will now be how to distribute the aid most effectively.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek service contributed to this report.)