Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The West is not alone in failing quake victims

How many helicopters could Saudi Arabia send? A million tents paid for by Dubai would be pin money
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The Independent Online

An envelope sits on my desk. It is yet another cheque to post to the Pakistan earthquake appeal. What good will it do, I ask? How pitifully small is the sum I am sending compared to what we spent on Eid last week and what we are about to squander on Christmas. These are self-indulgent mediations, immoral even when millions of people - old, young, newborn, able, disabled, sick and fit - wait out in the wintry mountains of Kashmir, their still faces turned to the probability that death will get them after they miraculously survived the violence of the tremor that blew down their world four weeks ago.

All I know of Kashmir is what it once was in the Hindi movies I saw as a child, a surreally beautiful place on celluloid, with garish lovers who invaded its peaceful lakes and mountains for a song or two. When I was young and in love with my ex-husband, I imagined going to a houseboat in Kashmir for our honeymoon. This was paradise, in its way, though not since India and Pakistan turned the region into a battleground. And now this.

An Indian journalist contact who interviewed some marooned sufferers says they still fasted through Ramadan, knowing that there would be hardly anything at sundown to ease their hunger and thirst. I fasted, too, for as many days as I could, and it was hard. The stoicism and faith of these victims is awesome. Many never even got to bury their loved ones and still they struggle to live, as their hearts break and psychological terror consumes them. Old men walk for miles carrying injured relatives, trying to get to places where they can get help. But in many of these tent cities, typhoid and tetanus is spreading.

Pervez Musharraf made an accusatory speech this week, criticising the West for its inadequate response to the disaster in his country. As there were few Westerners caught up in the earthquake, he said, indifference has settled rapidly over the initial shock: "I would say the damage here is much more than the tsunami - the magnitude of the calamity is much more."

Only £74m has been received, yet 15,000 villages have been devastated. Jan Egeland the UN humanitarian co-ordinator agrees the challenge is "unique". Although the West was initially lethargic, Britain and the US have picked up the challenge and are now delivering. Other nations less so.

When you log on to public debates on the crisis, some of the cruel coldness and bigotry is repulsive. A Sikh believes his donation would only go on weapons and sponsorship of terrorism. An American abroad, a "liberal", confesses: "The only shock I felt was my own lack of feeling. Maybe if these people did not cheer for suicide bombers things would be different today." A white Briton says the dead and dying are just bleeding "Pakis" who breed too much anyway and that we should look after our own.

Even more upsetting is that my friend Rehana, herself a Pakistani citizen, one of the kindest most generous women I know, has sent nothing. She is that angry with her own government and tells me my money will go to corrupt officials in her country:

"Why donate when it's only going to line the pockets of the military and rogues? You are only placating your own Westernised guilt, don't tell me it is of any use. You don't understand, the Pakistan elite cares nothing about these villagers. Same thing around the Muslim world, to them they are just hopeless Pakis."

I replied that I thought her attitudes towards the "hopeless Pakis" were no better and we quarrelled as we often do until we make up, as always. But is Rehana right? What about the President himself? He too has been slow to understand the nature of the catastrophe and what he must do. This is a wake up call for the entire governing establishment of this Muslim state.

An army man, the president spends extravagantly on military equipment. In order to avoid a backlash, he has just postponed the purchase of 50 F-16 fighter planes from the US, each costing millions - a mere gesture. The country he runs, a nuclear power, provides no security for the hapless when nature or war strike.

Meanwhile, wealthy Muslim countries that could make a difference are inert. Why did Musharraf not point his accusing finger at the Saudis or Iran or the Gulf States?

In the oil-rich states, poor Pakistanis are only servants, worthless flotsam and jetsam who are exploited then discarded. To be an impoverished "Paki" in the Arab countries is far, far worse than to be one anywhere in the West. Powerful Muslims would rather we didn't remind them of their responsibilities to their own. Blame others, hold the West accountable, is their reflexive response.

What is the point of the so-called Ummah, the universalising Islamic bond, if it only materialises in theatres of hatred, not of need? It would be heartening if the internet were used not to disseminate instructions on bomb-making but to renew the Ummah and awaken its duties to the wretched.

Zakat is one of the five pillars of my faith. It means "charity", and much more. It is a social and moral commitment, an understanding that we must all contribute what we can to reduce poverty, injustice and human pain - within our families, tribes, nations and internationally. Ramadan itself is meant to give us an experience of what the starving of the world know all too well. During the month, we are meant to become more aware of Zakat and our humanity.

Ordinary Pakistanis here and the world over showed themselves worthy of their faith in the way they immediately responded to the earthquake collecting food and clothes and money. These are not rich folk; some come from the poorest families and localities. Many young Muslims from Britain, with or without family connections, have travelled out to the affected areas, and some Muslims in Parliament and the media are doing sterling work. But like my measly cheque, their generosity is a fading petal falling on a mountain.

The snows are coming fast; the blood of little children and other vulnerable Kashmiris will soon freeze. Everyone in the inaccessible parts of the mountains is already weakened. Eighty thousand or more have perished already. The West must do more, that is obvious. But we must also call on rich and powerful global Muslims to stir from their palatial lives and deliver assistance. How many helicopters could Saudi Arabia send tonight? A million tents paid for by Dubai would be pin money for that commercial hub.

And President Musharraf must look to himself. If necessary he must eat humble pie and ask India for more help. Those small frozen bodies will haunt his future and his complaints against the West will echo in the empty valleys to no effect.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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