Concerns grow of aid wrapped in ideology for flood victims

    Monday, August 16, 2010

    Islamists are beating the government in getting help to flood victims, writes Mary Fitzgerald in Peshawar

    THE FLAG flying above the knot of thickly-bearded young men sorting bags of lentils and rice is a distinctive one, featuring a long sword and the Muslim declaration of faith above black and white stripes. This is the standard of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the hardline Islamist organisation suspected of being the public face of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), a militant group accused of orchestrating the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

    One volunteer, a 29-year-old pharmacist with a wispy beard who gave his name as Mawiya, reeled off details of Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s relief efforts in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the northwestern province which has been one of the worst-hit in the floods that have engulfed Pakistan since late last month.

    “The government is not helping, but we have been working with the flood victims from the very first day,” he said. “The people trust us.”

    As he spoke, his fellow volunteers – all men – piled donations of food, cooking oil and clothing under the shade of the tent they had erected on a street in central Peshawar, a frontier town just an hour’s drive from the border with Afghanistan. The tent, festooned with large banners on which the name of Jamaat-ud-Dawa featured prominently, drew a steady crowd of passersby, many of whom dropped bundles of rupee notes into a perspex donation box.

    Some picked up a copy of Jarrar (meaning “courageous”), Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s weekly newspaper. Its front page carried reports and photographs of the flooding alongside provocative headlines including one which declared that the conflict in Kashmir would only be solved “with the gun”.

    Others took away pamphlets proclaiming the catastrophic floods, which have so far affected some 20 million people, a “punishment” and “test” from God. Next to the tent stood a minibus emblazoned with the insignia of the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, another alleged LeT affiliate.

    It was filled with bedding and other humanitarian supplies. Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation claim to have provided aid to tens of thousands of flood victims.

    “We have 3,000 people working on the ground in [the provinces of] Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Punjab,” Yahya Mujahid, a spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, told The Irish Times by phone.

    “We have been involved in rescue and evacuation efforts, we have been distributing cooked food and medical supplies, and we have been alerting people to the dangers of further flooding.”

    He said the group was running dozens of mobile medical camps staffed by doctors and other personnel, and it had 45 ambulances operating in the affected regions.

    Such assistance has been gratefully received across the deluged Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, where homes, businesses, crops and animals have been swept away and more than 90 bridges torn down. Locals who have lost loved ones and livelihoods complain bitterly that government help has been either slow in coming or absent.

    As groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa fill the vacuum, the concern is that their ideology and influence will also take hold.

    “On the surface, these groups are doing charity work,” said one analyst. “But when you give aid while telling people the floods are a sign of God’s wrath, you are planting the seeds for further indoctrination and recruitment in the future.”

    Jamaat-ud-Dawa occupies something of an ambiguous space in Pakistan. It is believed that after LeT was outlawed in Pakistan in 2002, it took on the name Jamaat-ud-Dawa – though its members dispute this. The charity came to international attention in 2005 when it mobilised relief efforts following the earthquake in Kashmir. So impressed was then president Pervez Musharraf that he publicly praised its work.

    After the Mumbai attacks, in which 170 people were killed, the UN proscribed Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Pakistan subsequently banned it, but the move was challenged in the courts by its leader Hafiz Saeed.

    “We have no political agenda,” Mr Mujahid insisted.

    “We are just addressing the needs of these vulnerable people who have lost everything in the floods.” He played down the suggestion that groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa were hoping to gain influence by filling the aid gap left by a government overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster.

    “This is a time to address sufferings, not to criticise or point fingers,” he said. “The scale of this is so huge we need to work in parallel with others, not in replacement.”

    Jamaat-ud-Dawa is not the only Islamist group working on the ground in regions left devastated by the floods.

    Al-Khidmat, the social welfare wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s largest and most influential Islamist political party, says it has deployed more than 100,000 activists to assist in relief efforts in more than 40 districts across the country.

    The leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a banned Sunni extremist outfit, told the BBC last week that hundreds of its members were participating “without identifying themselves” in evacuations and aid distribution in south Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

    There are also a host of smaller Islamic charities many of which, like the UK-based Ummah Welfare Trust (UWT), are linked to the Pakistani diaspora.

    At a college in Charsadda, a town close to Peshawar which suffered extensive damage during the flooding, UWT volunteers in day-glo baseball caps were providing medical treatment to the displaced.

    More than 350 families had sought refuge in the college grounds and the UWT volunteers said they had treated thousands over the past two weeks.

    “There has been nothing from the government,” said one. “We are bearing all the burden of looking after these people. It is a catastrophe.”

    Orignal article can be viewed here.