Religion and Disasters: When do they intersect?

I have been reading a lot about the floods in Pakistan — first from an interest in environmental evidence of climate change and then from an interest in the speed of aid that is going to Pakistan.  All of this reading has produced two questions for me.

1) Why is the international community so slow to respond to a huge environmental disaster that has affected over 20 million people already?

2) What role does religion play in who gets what aid and why? Are there times when putting aside the constraints of religion (any religion) is necessary in order to achieve a greater outcome?

I know that foreign aid assistance programs, especially in the US, are antiquated, generally slow to deliver aid, and usually do so under the conditions that the aid somehow go to benefit the US (like giving aid only with American products, or giving money to programs that promise to only deal with American companies, etc).  There are many people who can talk about this much better than I can, but still I think it is worth noting that foreign aid is not something to take time considering — when 20 million people are struggling to put their lives back together after a disaster, the international community should respond quickly.

My second set of questions is much more in depth.  As I read about the floods in Pakistan, I have to wonder about why all the news coverage seems so subdued compared to the coverage about Haiti.  I confess I’m a little surprised that, to my knowledge, some right wing pundit hasn’t spewed garbage about ‘Muslim terrorists’ deserving this flood (remember Pat Robertson’s comments about Haitians bringing the earthquake on themselves because of their voodoo practices?).   Where is the telethon for Pakistani flood victims? Maybe the flooding is too far removed from us in the US for the media to deem it worthy of our attention, or maybe I’m just too removed from regular news sources to really grasp the level of media attention. Either way, it disturbs me that 20 million people can be displaced by floodwaters and it barely registers on the global consciousness.

I’m also a little surprised that religion hasn’t played more of a role in the discussion of giving aid to Pakistan. I think that religion and politics play a bigger role in this.  It is hard to think about Pakistan without connected the country to some kind of terrorism — I have vague memories of reports of Osama Bin Laden fleeing to Pakistan after 9/11 — or war in general.  So I have to wonder if those vague connections are restricting the response of US aid communities.  The church (one of the biggest responders in natural disasters) in the US is so often tied to the right wing of politics that perhaps some of these churches fear alienating their base if they seek to offer aid to Pakistani people (although it seems to be that the greatest commandment is to love thy neighbor, not love thy neighbor when it helps you out). I can’t quite shake the feeling that somehow, the fact that a large portion of Pakistanis are also Muslim factors into the fact that the floods have had less media coverage in the US, and that aid is arriving much slower than in other instances.

At what point does religion play a role in aid? As mentioned above, I think it plays a role in deciding who gets what, and when.  It’s a political move — with the outrage surrounding the Islamic Cultural Center proposed near ground zero, the political climate of the US is not one that would favor sending aid to a predominately Muslim country, however wrong that may be.

Aside from that, religion decides who gets what internally as well. Religion has placed constraints on the way that society functions in Pakistan.   It is a predominately Muslim country (to the best of my knowledge. Please correct me if I am wrong.) and follows Muslim customs, the same way that the US is a largely Christian country and follows Christian customs and traditions.  One of these Muslim customs is purdah, which says that men and women who do not know each other must be separated.  In the disaster camps set up for people displaced by the floods, there often isn’t space for this to be observed.  The stress of overriding the religious custom is adding to the chaos and potential danger that the displacement has already caused.  Women are more at risk of violence in these camps (like they generally are in any refugee camp), and they’re needs are not necessarily met.  Because of purdah, women are not supposed to accept aid from a strange man, or even a soldier.  This is stopping women from receiving any aid at all — at the cost of their lives or their children’s lives.

So at what point does religion need to take a back seat to providing for people’s needs immediately after a disaster? Should purdah be lifted temporarily so that women can have equal access to aid? Or should the customs be maintained and the aid structure reworked to accommodate them?

My first reaction is that absolutely these religious customs should be ignored until people are stable again.  But then I think about the choas that that can create…and it doesn’t seem like the best solution.  I can’t decide what’s more important, people’s base needs like food and water, regardless of the means, or keeping a sense of structure and consistency, despite the slowness this method may take.


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4 Responses to Religion and Disasters: When do they intersect?

  1. My first reaction is that absolutely these religious customs should be ignored until people are stable again.

    I’m unclear who’d be doing the ignoring. Is this simply a pragmatic question about how secular organizations can best reach their secular goals? Obviously religionists aren’t going to ignore their religious customs, nor should they. What is necessary seems to be a meta-theological principle which would motivate any necessary reforms to religious praxis. The new practices (which might well include different codes of conduct for crisis situations then outside them) would then not be an “ignoring” of religious custom but rather the authentic living-out of fundamental religious principles.

    • My intent was not to say that people should ignore religious custom, but rather to say that in crisis situations, it seems more prudent to (I’m still searching for the right word here) put religious customs like purdah on hold until the people are stable again. I realize this is unclear in the original post, but my questions were trying to get at the idea of how long a religious custom like purdah should last when people are facing disaster (when I say how long it should last, I mean how long people should adhere to that custom at the cost of their stability. For example, how long should people observe purdah at the cost of getting food and clean water?). At what point does disaster supersede the religious custom, whatever it may be?
      Your answer about reforms makes sense, that any reforms during crisis situations would not be a disregard to the original custom or practice. But I have to wonder what you’re thoughts are on this: if these reforms come about during an extended crisis — like a flood — after the crisis is over, what is better, to return to the original custom, or to keep to the crisis-created reform?

      • Well, I guess my ultimate thought is that while it might make sense to a religionist to put a religious custom on hold, they’re not going to put their religiosity on hold (nor should they). So the “putting on hold” of the religious custom is going to have to be justified by the religious foundation, or it’s not going to happen in the first place. There’s going to need to be a religious motivation for the suspension, not just a secular one (and I’m not sure what “secular” even means here; an ideology is still an ideology even if it doesn’t invoke God).

        I think we need to ask: what is the purpose of the custom within the religionists’ paradigmatic framework? (Few religious customs will have just one purpose, but the more major goals can usually be identified.) If it becomes a situation where, because of a unique set of circumstances in a crisis situation, the custom suddenly ends up acting against its purpose, it’ll probably make sense to the religionists to suspend it. But that won’t necessarily be the case.

        I don’t make any claim to be able to parse what exactly is the primary function of the purdah custom for Pakistanit Muslims, but I think we can imagine several possibilities. If it’s primarily about obeying the Will of God come hell or (in this case literally) high water, then the specific situation probably isn’t going to be seen as particularly relevant. (I tend to doubt that that kind of fanaticis is the main thing motivating the custom, though.) If it’s about systematically disempowering women, then their plight’s not going to be given a lot of merit. If it’s primarily a feminist custom (and I don’t reject the possibility out of hand), doing its best to empower women as best it can within the context of that particular patriarchal culture, then it might make sense to suspend it–but then it would also make sense to put it back into place afterwards. But I don’t really see it as suspension and then replacement, but more as a meta-custom: “we do X in situation A, and Y in situation B.” It becomes a pragmatic question as to how a religious community can best live out its principles in different circumstances.

        But in the first two cases, the problem isn’t actually so much with the custom itself as with the principles which motivate it; the issue isn’t pragmatic but rather theoretical/theological. Sure, we can say that purdah should be suspended, but it won’t mean much to anybody if they’re reasoning from different first principles. The more relevant thing to say is that those principles are wrong and dangerous and need to be replaced, that they got the will of God wrong.

  2. lisachristina says:

    Interesting. So perhaps the disaster situation in this case (and I’m going to leap and say in all cases as well) serves to highlight a problematic custom that needs reform in some way?

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