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Originally published January 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 6, 2005 at 12:06 AM

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Arabs doing some soul-searching

Amid a swelling debate in oil-rich Arab countries over the size of their donations to aid tsunami victims, several Persian Gulf governments have hurriedly fattened their cash pledges...

Los Angeles Times

CAIRO, Egypt — Amid a swelling debate in oil-rich Arab countries over the size of their donations to aid tsunami victims, several Persian Gulf governments have hurriedly fattened their cash pledges.

The increase in aid from countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates came after a debate over whether governments were damaging their images by failing to dig deeper into their pockets.

Of an estimated 150,000 dead, about 94,000 are from Indonesia, a country far from the Islamic heartland in the Middle East that is nevertheless the world's largest Muslim country. Most of the others killed were in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, all of which have Muslim minorities.

Some Saudis, Kuwaitis and other Gulf citizens have said publicly that more generosity might be a way to correct an image in the West that they are both decadent and financial backers of terrorists such as Osama bin Laden.

But the controls imposed on Muslim charities after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the lack of public campaigns for tsunami relief, have so far kept donations down.

Even after the pledges were increased in recent days, many Arabs and Muslims continued to fret that their offerings lagged behind the region's growing oil wealth and fed anti-Arab stereotypes. The hand-wringing in the Arab world mirrored American worries that the United States damaged its image by responding too slowly.

Analysts in the Persian Gulf said state-run media responded sluggishly to the disaster, and that some potential contributors were concerned they might unwittingly choose charities accused of funding terrorism.

The Saudi government tripled its offering from $10 million to $30 million Tuesday. The United Arab Emirates increased its aid from $2 million to $20 million and began airlifts of relief supplies. And Kuwait, after being blasted for stinginess on the front page of a prominent Sunday newspaper, upped its pledge from $2 million to $10 million.

Newspapers in Kuwait and Lebanon have been among the most outspoken critics of the Arab response.

"Caricatures of white-robed sheiks sailing their luxury yachts on seas of oil and using $100 bills to light their Havana cigars will only be reinforced in the face of collective miserliness in this hour of human need," warned an editorial in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. "Especially if the petroleum-rich Gulf states do not dig a bit deeper into pockets that have become quite deep indeed over the last few years of high oil prices."

The rumblings came to a head in Kuwait, where a leading newspaper, al Qabas, published an editorial criticizing the government's offering and reminded Kuwaitis of the intimate links that bind the desert nation to Southeast Asia.

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As in most Gulf countries, South Asians account for most of the foreign work force in Kuwait — toiling as laborers and nannies.

Israel has deployed a medical team in Sri Lanka to help tsunami victims. It also denied that Indonesia turned down an Israeli offer of assistance for political reasons.

"There was no formal Israeli offer of humanitarian aid to Indonesia, so in consequence, there was no Indonesian refusal of the aid," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Amir Gissin said Tuesday. Israel is widely unpopular across the Muslim world.

"If the tragedy was presented as a 'Muslim tragedy' you could have found a stronger response," said Waleed Nusf, editor of Kuwait's al Qabas. "Some would even go as far as saying what happened was God's wrath on people who deserved it. Unbelievable."

Heba Raouf, a political-science professor at Cairo University, said these countries had no history of offering aid to non-Muslim nations.

"They are focused on religious solidarity rather than global society," she said, adding that the debate over how much to contribute was an indication that their societies were changing.

But the broader impact of U.S. assistance to Muslims in Southeast Asia will be diminished by "a sort of second-class Muslim idea in much of the Middle East," said Jon Alterman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Many Arabs, whose lands gave birth to Islam and in whose language the Quran is written, look down on their brethren in Asia, he said.

On Islamic Web sites and in chat rooms, questions included the following: Is it all right to donate to tsunami victims, even though some of the goods and money could end up in the hands of nonbelievers?

"There is no harm or prohibition to pray for those people who lost their lives in that natural disaster," replied Sano Koutoub Moustapha, a professor from the International Islamic University in Malaysia. "However, your beloved Muslim brothers and sisters deserve more and more of your prayers and [appeals to God]. They deserve your moral and financial assistance."

Moustapha told the readers that money given to non-Muslims did not count as zakah, or the percentage of a Muslim's wealth that he or she is obliged by the Quran to give to the needy.

"The Muslims among them fall under the category of needy people," he wrote. "As for non-Muslims, they might deserve donation or any other form of assistance, but not zakah."

Information on post-Sept. 11 restrictions and Israel's relief efforts were reported by The Associated Press. Jon Alterman was quoted by Knight Ridder Newspapers.

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