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A Disaster is a Disaster! - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In every disaster and tragedy, there are those who suffer and those who benefit. Those who suffer are the ones the disaster affected directly while the beneficiaries are those who capitalize on this disaster and the fear brought about from its occurrence by marketing a specific product to those in fear whether that product is materialistic or moral.

In financial crises, consultants and advisors recommend safe haven investments. When it comes to incurable diseases, which exhaust medical research, there are those who always offer easy solutions by deluding patients into thinking that their condition is curable. This is playing with a patient’s feelings who would eventually say, “I’ve got nothing to lose!”

In any major environmental crisis, such as the dreadful [2004] Tsunami, overwhelming seasonal fires or the global warming phenomenon that is worrying the world, some people try to exploit such an atmosphere, not by claiming to have the ability to put a stop to such catastrophes, as they are not yet that arrogant or audacious, but rather by taking advantage of the collective feeling of fear of the unknown and the fate of humans on this planet and thereby marketing certain ideas and explanations that bolster their intellectual orientation and ideological model. Merchants of crises are present everywhere and at all times.

They range from vendors on the street selling chairs and bottled water in crowded places to those selling ideas and illusions and traders of political, personal and doctrinal projects during large-scale environmental, political and economic crises.

This applies to all societies, and those who have seen the film ‘2012’ currently showing in movie theatres would have seen the excellent role played by actor Woody Harrelson who plays a fanatical Christian even though he is a meteorological and ecological researcher. But he uses his knowledge of a devastating catastrophe that will strike Earth and leave only a handful of survivors for [promoting] an ideology. And instead of trying to save himself or increasing awareness among people, he puts all his effort into evangelism and into supporting statements made by bishops whilst being burnt in a volcano. (The film caused a lot of concern around the world from people who belong to all kinds of cultures and creeds).

The tragic disaster that struck the Saudi city of Jeddah in the form of floods, which engulfed and displaced hundreds of people and wrecked properties and lives, has caused people to feel increasingly unsafe as rumours began to spread. This is perfectly normal in such an atmosphere where the probability of such a catastrophe reoccurring in a fiercer manner has been highlighted. That has heightened the feeling of anxiety and introduced numerous interpretations though the whole catastrophe could be primarily attributed to human factors of negligence and corruption. For that reason, a fact-finding committee was formed by royal decree from King Abdullah and the public is impatiently awaiting its findings.

However, this is not the subject of this article as a lot has been written about the tragedy of Jeddah. Rather, I was appalled to read a statement by some Islamic preachers about the tragedy. In principle, every social group has the right to express its opinion about any public matter, voice its interpretative vision and present its proposed solution that suits its way of thinking. Nevertheless, others have the right to disagree with that category and to criticize it too. In accordance with this, I was appalled to discover that after they had spoken about the importance of rebuilding the infrastructure of Jeddah and of not hesitating in this regard, they demanded “the prevention of public vices and increasing the role of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), and paying more attention to beneficial preaching activities, as sinning is a major cause of calamities in the past and the present,” and the significance and timing of this could not go unmissed.

I do not know whether they are talking about Jeddah, the gateway to the Two Holy Mosques, whose entire population are Muslims, and which houses thousands of mosques and hundreds of religious and guidance centres (where some of those who signed this statement work) or whether they are talking about Las Vegas!

The entire statement is summed up in this outmoded paragraph. This is the crux of the matter, and I do not blame them for this intimidatory attitude and their exploitation of catastrophes or collective feelings of fear in order to serve certain ideological orientations, as others do this as well.

There is Kuwaiti Sheikh Hamid al Ali who is known for his support of Jihadist groups, or let us say terrorist groups, and who wrote an internet article titled ‘Jeddah: Between the Mixture of Sewage and Slavery’ in which he pursued the same misguided direction.

This same Sheikh gave an Eid al Adha sermon in which he gloated over the financial crisis currently taking place in Dubai. He said that sin, immorality, and deviating from the right path were the reasons why Dubai is facing an economic and financial crisis.

However our energetic sheikh did not tell us whether [he believes] Germany and Japan are more pious and God-fearing than Dubai, and this is why their economies have not been negatively affected. He did not say whether China and India are more [religiously] upright and adherent to the righteous path, and this is why they are breaking onto the world economic scene with their [financial] strength.

Perhaps we should not be too critical of Hamid al Ali and others like him when they offer such bizarre interpretations. The problem however becomes much larger when we observe somebody like Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi not being too far away from such intimidation tactics and the “investment climate” surrounding a crisis. When the global financial crisis hit the US and the world, including the Islamic world, al Qaradawi was the one who said that this was a divine punishment (“al-Sharia wa al Hayat” television show, October 2008). He said practically the same thing about the 2004 tsunami [2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake]. This prompted well-known Islamic writers such as Yasser al Zatera to disagree with al Qaradawi (Moroccan At-Tajdid newspaper, 4 February 2005). In this article, al Zatera makes an amusing analogy, as following the tsunami some said that God had preserved the Muslim villages located on the Asian coastlines, and a picture of a mosque that survived the tsunami was circulated [around the world]. However al Zatera contrasted this with the Christians who were circulating the picture of a statue of the Virgin Mary that also emerged from this catastrophe unscathed.

The psychological and ideological exploitation of a catastrophe is the same in both camps. On each side there are those who exploit a crisis to direct the public sentiment in the desired direction.

But the wise Muslims – and there are many of them – do not pay attention to such things, and do not base their belief in religion on such events. The moral strength of religion is beyond tsunamis, hurricanes, and global financial or climate crises.

The entire Earth, since time immemorial, has been exposed to countless catastrophes. Hardly a year goes by without news of a raging inferno here or a sweeping flood there. And a financial crisis or economic failure takes place [on average] every 5 or 10 years whilst every 10 or 20 years we hear news of a disease or epidemic that appears to strike certain parts of the world.

Anybody who looks at the history of famine and disasters that have struck the Muslim World since the early Islamic era, as recorded in the accounts of Ibn al-Jazwi or al-Maqrizi, they would hear heartrending accounts of misery.

Let us not look too far back in time and say the following to those who signed the Jeddah statement: In the Year of Mercy (1337 Hijra) [1918] before the invention of television and other technology when the small population of the Arabian Peninsula was decimated by rampant disease, was this also a divine punishment due to the absence of “preaching activities?”

In short: what happened in Jeddah was a disaster caused by human error rather than human sin, which resulted in what happened, and this is also why an investigative committee has been formed in order to bring those responsible for this to account.

As legal and political issues, the role of women, and cultural discourse, these issues will remain a matter of dispute and controversy in our society, whether a disaster had taken place in Jeddah or not. Simply speaking, disasters take place in the territories governed by the Taliban, as well as those governed by the gambling gangs in Las Vegas…there is no difference!

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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