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January 6, 2005
Don't Get Your Hopes Up

USA Today and the AP have two different analyses of the reception US aid to tsunami victims has received from Muslims in the Middle East. Barbara Slavin and Kathy Kiely take a rosier view of the effect on the Islamic world that our efforts may bring:

U.S. relations with Indonesia have been strained in recent years. Though most Indonesians practice a moderate form of Islam, the country is home to a number of extremist groups that have advocated violence against Christians and other non-Muslims. The U.S.-led war in Iraq prompted protests in some Indonesian cities; a group known as the Islamic Defenders Front claimed to have signed up 400 volunteers in "jihad registrations."

But in Aceh, the province where Islam first took root in Indonesia and where a less tolerant, more conservative form of the faith is practiced than elsewhere in the country, residents this week were showering praise on the Americans who have come bearing instant noodles, water and other supplies.

"I really, really appreciate the U.S. coming," said Cutbang, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name. "We look in the sky and see only U.S. planes."

We discussed the politics of aid and its impact on the war on terror on our last Northern Alliance radio show. Just as Senator Brownback notes later in the USA Today article, we agreed that the aid need to go to Indonesia simply because people are in dire need of it, and it would be unconscionable for us to allow people of any creed to needlessly die. The politics of assisting the largest Muslim country in its worst catastrophe in living memory, however, still bears some thought, even if it is a secondary consideration.

None of us had great hopes that the massive US airlift would transform Islamists into Western-loving democrats. In fact, our concern was that Islamist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranians and Saudis would pre-empt our efforts there, digging a bigger toehold in the non-Arab nation and vastly complicating the war on terror. It turns out that we worried needlessly; so far, the Muslim nations have been singularly silent in their response to the tsunami, a terrible blunder for them politically. (The Saudis just upped their contribution to $30 million.) The Muslims of Indonesia know that the Saudis and the Iranians have vast resources -- and their failure to share will not be quickly forgotten.

However, given the aid that the US and the West provided to the Muslims of the Balkans and the mighty thin credit we received from those efforts, don't expect too much for our generosity in the Indian Ocean area among Islamists. The AP's Nadia Abou el-Magd reports that the Muslims of Southwest Asia retain much of their suspicion of US activity and motives in our aid response:

On the streets of Tehran, technician Dariush Darabian accused Americans of "talking more than they actually do." Jordanian columnist Aida al-Najjar wrote in the daily Ad-Dustour that America's was exploiting "the suffering of people" to try to improve its image.

In the pages of leading pro-government Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, prominent columnist Salah Montasser scoffed that America's initial allocation of $15 million "is less than what America spends every minute in its war in Iraq."

The Middle East has given birth to many conspiracy theories, and the tsunami just gives more energy to the lunatics who spin them. The aid will likely only change the minds of those directly impacted by it, while the rest of the ummah will simply shrug their shoulders and continue to view us as the Great Satan. It doesn't mean we shouldn't provide as much aid as possible -- we do that for our own humanity. We should remain realistic about the long-term transformative power of handouts. It only gives us a short opening in Indonesia and the surrounding areas, not anywhere else.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 6, 2005 6:42 AM

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