The Magazine

Saudis and Tsunamis

From the January 17, 2005 issue: Not everyone worked together to help the earthquake victims.

Jan 17, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 17 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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DESPITE A FEW PLAYS FOR political advantage, here and abroad, the world's response to the Indian Ocean tsunami has been heartening. With few exceptions, the vast majority of people, countries, and religions are working together to alleviate human suffering. The big exception is radical Islamists, led by Saudi Arabia.

By January 6, Americans had pledged over $350 million in private donations, more than matching the sum committed by the U.S. government. The same compassion is shown elsewhere. In Vancouver, Canada, Buddhists are selling their temple to donate money to the aid effort. In Thailand, locals have given injured foreigners preference in access to hospital beds and surgery. The Foreign Ministry says, "We feel a special compassion for the people we consider our guests." In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tiger guerrilla movement is working with government officials to provide relief.

The Russian town of Beslan, where Chechens massacred hundreds of children last year, has pledged a million rubles from the relief funds it received. Afghans have donated blood and are sending doctors with long experience of dealing with disasters. East Timor, still recovering from decades of brutal Indonesian military occupation, is donating $50,000 to Indonesia. Prime Minister Alkatiri says the gift is "our way of saying we are here as your friends when you are in need."

In India's Cuddalore area, most dead and injured are Hindu and Christian, and they are being aided by Muslim neighbors. Local leader Mohammed Younus emphasizes, "To the possible extent, we have been making sure that the Hindu bodies are burnt, and Christians are buried. They should not feel offended in death. . . . We will continue to raise money to feed them for as long as they need. They are welcome to be with us as long as they want."

It would be pleasant to end on this note, emphasizing that, as usual, most of the world's religious bodies are engaged in cooperative humanitarian work and, in so doing, are not, as some say, "putting aside" their religious differences, but instead are visibly demonstrating their beliefs. However, one religious movement shatters this general harmony--radical Islam, especially the Saudis.

The prominent Islamist website Jihad Unspun maintains the tsunami struck Thailand for supporting "the Christian crusaders in the war on terror," Sri Lanka for giving "its full backing to the Christian Crusaders inside the White House," India for its "Shirk (polytheism)," and Indonesia because "the Kufr (non-Islamic) government of the apostate Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono" is fighting against the "mujahideen" in Aceh who want to establish an "Islamic Sultanate where the Sharee'ah (Islamic laws) prevail." The website does not explain why Aceh, the most Islamist of any Indonesian province, suffered the worst damage.

The Middle East Media Research Institute--which posts excerpts from Arabic TV, with translations, at memritv.org--has provided a sampling of Saudi sermons on the same theme. Ibrahim Al-Bashar emphasizes that the countries that were struck "refrain from adopting Allah's law, which is a form of heresy." Sheikh Fawzan Al-Fawzan asserts, "these great tragedies . . . are Allah's punishments of the people of these countries, even if they are Muslims." Cleric Muhammad Al-Munajjid concludes that the tsunami was caused by Christian holidays "accompanied by forbidden things, by immorality, abomination, adultery, alcohol, drunken dancing."

These are not isolated rants by errant preachers: They reflect official government positions. Al-Bashar is an adviser to the Saudi justice minister, and Al-Fawzan is a professor at the Al-Imam Mohamed bin Saud Islamic University, a position that he, like Al-Munajjid, cannot hold without government approval. All their sermons were shown on the state-controlled Al-Majd TV channel and reflect the Wahhabi ideology that is the state religion of Saudi Arabia--and which the Saudis, flush with petrodollars, assiduously propagate around the world, including in the United States.

The same pattern is shown in Saudi government giving. Riyadh originally offered $10 million for tsunami relief; then, after international criticism, upped its pledge to $30 million. This sum is dwarfed by the $150 million per year the Saudis have given to the families of suicide bombers. Meanwhile, according to government websites, they spend billions funding 1,500 mosques, more than 200 colleges, and some 2,000 schools for Muslim children in Europe, North and South America, Australia, and Asia. Their aim is not to alleviate human suffering, or even Muslim suffering, but only to promote their version of Islam.

The tsunami tragedy shows once more that Islamist extremism does not seek freedom, democracy, or the alleviation of poverty. Its explicit goal is to advance enmity between Wahhabis and all others, and to create reactionary regimes ruled by a perversion of Islamic law. The extremists would remove a Muslim leader such as Mohammed Younus, and perhaps execute him for the "crime" of cremating Hindu bodies and placing crosses on the graves of Christian victims. Islamist extremism--an incubator not only of terrorism but also of universal hatred--is the enemy of all other beliefs.

Paul Marshall is senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, which will shortly release a report on Saudi influence in American mosques.