Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Politics of the Muslim Conscience

In the year 2011, word poverty has become a shameful term by all means and measurements. As a collective race, we have become desensitized to the suffering of others, particularly those who due to centuries of merciless neocolonialism have been rendered silent victims of hunger, famine, and deprivation of basic human necessities. However, this jargon is not welcomed, because the suffering of others has never been a hidden secret; subsequently, stating it serves little purpose. Perhaps approaching the disturbing state of world's empathy, or lack thereof, is better completed by considering the numbers.

At this present moment, the world's 1.5 billion Muslims are observing the holy month of Ramadan, and the majority of us is fasting from dawn to sunset. There are 12.4 million human beings, just like you and me, on the brink of starvation in Africa at this present moment. In Somalia alone, 3.5 million of the 7.5 million citizens in the country are in need of immediate assistance to prevent starvation and death due to drought and famine. In the past 90 days, nearly 30,000 children in Somalia have died due to malnutrition. You see, we have a choice in fasting; the starving Muslim children in Africa do not. Their death is preventable because it is not the drought that has killed them, but our collective apathy and botched ideology that has disconnected us from other human beings.

It would be wise to acknowledge there are obstacles that may prevent aid from reaching each and every one of the millions in the Horn of Africa that are suffering from the worst humanitarian crisis in generations including security and systematic corruption. However, this does not free us from the burden of at least caring or making others aware of the situation. It is disappointing we have embarked upon the holy month without relating to the poor in a meaningful way.

This begs the question: what's the point of fasting? Islam facilitates the institution of fasting as a means of allowing us to fill our hearts with mercy towards the less fortunate. Imam al-Sadiq (peace be upon him) further explains the social benefits of fasting, "God made fasting obligatory so that the rich and the poor are made equal. If there were no fasting, the rich would never experience the feeling of hunger that would make them have mercy on the poor, for whenever the rich desire something they are able to acquire it. Thus God desired to place His servants on the same level, and that the rich experience hunger and pain so that they have compassion for the weak and have mercy on the hungry." (Mahajjah al-Bayda)

Islam rejects the notion of detachment and ignorance we seem to have misled ourselves into concerning the famine in Africa. Why does our community vehemently push for certain countries and nationalities to gain freedom and have human rights while neglecting our duty towards those suffering in Africa? The politics of awareness and picking our causes is colored by race and class bias. Famine in Africa has never been a particularly popular topics in our mosques, centers, or rallies. Naturally, there are those among the Muslim world that will fight fiercely to maintain the current status quo towards human rights and political causes Muslims should uptake. How is it the same individuals rally us to their cause by quoting the Prophet's famous tradition, "Who does not concern himself with the affairs of the Muslims is not a Muslim" are nowhere to be found when it's time to discuss the man-made tragedy in Somalia and Ethiopia? The crisis engulfing Africa today and 20 years ago deserves our attention just as much as Palestine and Bahrain do. Our hypocrisy in this regard is glaringly disappointing and facilitates the slow and painful death of thousands due to hunger.

A novel approach to denying our responsibility by some Muslims is to claim ignorance of the famine by stating the United Nations declared the famine in July 2011, and that this has not given us much time to react and organize relief efforts. Unfortunately, these same individuals should consider saving themselves a certain level of embarrassment by realizing that the FEWS Network (Famine Early Warning Systems Network), set up after the 1985 famine, forecast stated eight months that this year's drought would be the worst witnessed in 60 years. Basically, the world knew for eight months what was coming and didn't seem too eager to act. Perhaps we weren't convinced and needed to see pictures of children dying from hunger and unable to fight off the flies surrounding them in order to be convinced. Time is running out, and even in a best case scenario, the crisis will worsen.

Islam has placed upon each and every one of us a responsibility towards the starving children in Ethiopia and Somalia. The Holy Qur'an is clear in setting forth our duty towards the poverty stricken, "And (as for) the believing men and the believing women, they are guardians of each other; they enjoin good and forbid evil and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, and obey God and His Messenger; (as for) these, God will show mercy to them; surely God is Mighty, Wise." (9:71) It is hoped that in this holy month, we as individuals, religious leaders, and Muslims are able to fulfill our duty towards our brothers and sisters who are deprived of clean water and a simple meal for their families. It is unacceptable to delude ourselves into further believing that our obligation towards Muslims and human beings in general is defined by race or skin color.

Readers who are interested in making a financial contribution to assist in the East African relief effort are encouraged to visit Comfort Aid International.

Source: Huda Jawad at Islamic Insights

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