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Floods water seeds of jihad

As public anger rises over the government’s slow and chaotic response to Pakistan's worst flooding in 80 years, hard-line Islamic charities have stepped into the breach with a grass-roots efficiency that is earning them new support among Pakistan's beleaguered masses.

world Updated: Aug 07, 2010, 23:17 IST
The New York Times
The New York Times
Hindustan Times

As public anger rises over the government’s slow and chaotic response to Pakistan's worst flooding in 80 years, hard-line Islamic charities have stepped into the breach with a grass-roots efficiency that is earning them new support among Pakistan's beleaguered masses. Pakistan Floods

Victims of the floods and political observers say the disaster has provided yet another painful reminder of the anemic health of the civilian government as it teeters between the ineffectual and neglectful.

The floods have opened a fresh opportunity for the Islamic charities to demonstrate that they can provide what the government cannot, much as the Islamists did during the earthquake in Kashmir in 2005, which helped them lure new recruits to banned militant groups through the charity wings that front for them.

In just two districts in this part of the northwest, three Islamic charities have provided shelter to thousands, collected tens of thousands in donations and served about 25,000 hot meals a day a since last Saturday — six full days before the government delivered cooked food.

"The West says we are terrorists and intolerant, but in time of need, we're the ones serving the people," said Maulana Yousaf Shah, the provincial leader of one of the groups, Jamiat-ulema-e-Islam.

Mian Adil, the vice chairman of another group, Falah-e-Insaniyat, said the aid he distributed at a center in one of the districts, Nowshera, came with a message attached — "not to trust the government" and its Western allies.

Falah-e-Insaniyat is the charity wing and the latest front for Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, the group behind the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Jamaat-ud-Dawa is the political arm of Lashkar, which the United Nations has listed as a terrorist group.

Under pressure since the Mumbai attacks, Jamaat-ud-Dawa had lowered its profile. But now, at least one of its relief centers in Mianwali, in Punjab, boldly flies its trademark flag, displaying a black sword.

The very visible presence of such groups shows they continue to operate openly from their strongholds in Punjab Province, the nation's heartland, to far-flung corners of the northeast, where they are expanding their legitimacy, and by extension, their ideology.

A 30-year-old tobacco dealer, Gohar Aman, said he got a taste of the nearly complete absence of the government's response when he got in his car on Thursday to search for a relief post he could entrust with an $80 donation.

For 25 miles all he could find were centers run by hard-line Islamic groups, an unsettling option for a man whose brothers are elected leaders of the governing secular party.

Finally, he settled on the Haqqania Madrasa — a fundamentalist boarding school whose alumni include Jalaluddin Haqqani, who runs the militant network that recruits suicide bombers to strike at coalition forces in Afghanistan from his redoubt inside Pakistan.

The school's leaders, including the director, Maulana Shah, had converted their buildings just off the main road in Charsadda into a dignified homeless shelter providing hot meals, medical treatment and 24-hour electricity to 2,500 flood victims.

"It's our first time here," said Aman, giving a wad of cash to the director. "But we see how comfortable the people are living here, and we can't trust the government."

President Asif Ali Zardari, already deeply unpopular, has come in for stinging criticism for leaving in the middle of the crisis to visit France — where, among other things, he visited his family chateau — and Britain. "I don't care if Zardari is in Europe," Main Gul, 50, a laborer who lost his home and two cows, said. "His government is in Pakistan, but where are they?"

A senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak the news media, said the state was serving only 40 percent of the needs of the people because of a lack of manpower and the vast nature of the catastrophe.

The government is housing tens of thousands of people inside public schools, but a person who lived there said the conditions were so foul that when rice was available they "fight like dogs." In places where foreign and government officials retreated for security reasons, the well-mobilized Islamic charities have consistently been a step ahead and penetrated even remote villages with ease, survivors said.

The Islamic charities sprung into action immediately after the floods hit last week, they said, sending a brigade of 4,000 volunteers in Nowshera, in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, to rebuild homes in villages far too dangerous for foreign aid workers to enter.

Officials at one aid center associated with Jamaat-ud-Dawa said that the police tried to dismantle their operation on Tuesday morning as they prepared a breakfast for about 25 flood victims, using an ordinance that prohibited public gatherings without a permit.

The victims protested and pleaded with the police not to shut down a humanitarian service that the government was not providing. They got their way.

"They could not put a hand on us," said Farhad Ali, a madrassa teacher who volunteers at the post, "because we were here first and we're the only ones delivering."

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