If nothing else, the popular religious discourse in the aftermath of the earthquake reveals yet again that institutional reform in Arab countries is long overdue. Those voices that value humanity over religious polarisation deserve our unconditional support.

Turkey-Syria earthquake
Polarising religious narratives

Religious discussions on the causes and aftermath of the earthquake disaster in Turkey and Syria have dominated Arab discourse recently, revealing the urgent need to support marginalised, humanist religious voices and those placing the human above polarisation and the instrumentalisation of events. By Mustafa Karahamad

According to Turkish and Syrian officials, more than 50,000 people lost their lives on 6 February, most of them in Turkey. It was the largest natural disaster to hit the two countries in more than a hundred years. During a visit to the areas most affected by the earthquake, director of the World Food Programme David Beasley described the situation on the ground as "incomprehensible, devastating and apocalyptic", leaving "ghost towns" behind; all phrases expressive of the shock left on those witnessing the disaster.

While natural disasters have a tremendous impact on land and material infrastructures, they also reveal the development of social thought, one of the most important pillars of which are religious beliefs. Due to the failure of the democratic project of the Arab Spring, which has witnessed the transformation of many uprisings into Islamic armed movements, not to mention the failure of the democratic transition in countries where the uprisings were successful, religious actors remain one of the dominant forces occupying the public domain in the Arab world.

The suppression of political parties and civil society organisations, accompanied by the prevention or restriction of effective political participation, leaves Arab citizens with limited options both in the public domain, where the media is censored, as well as in religious circles. Hence the need to review the religious narratives currently circulating in the Arab world relating to the Turkey-Syria earthquake.

"A punishment from God"

Al-Azhar graduate Abdullah Rushdi claimed in a video posted on his Facebook page that natural disasters were evidence of increasing corruption among those affected. The Egyptian cleric's comments were met with a wave of criticism from his followers, who noted that many of those affected were people displaced by the war in Syria. Rushdie responded saying that "the logic of divine retribution went beyond human comprehension".

Egyptian regime opponent Abu Ishaq al-Huwaini expressed similar views. The Salafist cleric went on to say that the recent disaster was a warning to survivors to return to the "path of God" – i.e. the Salafist straight and narrow. In the same context, Lebanese Shia cleric Sami Khadra tweeted that the earthquake was a reminder of "God's greatness", and a warning to believers to turn away from what he described as the "path of sin and negligence". Khadra was also heavily criticised by some of his followers, to which he replied that "atheists and leftists" had not understood his views. He blamed social media for allowing his opponents to express their opinions.

Graves of earthquake victims in Turkey (image: Selahattin Sonmez/DVM/abaca/picture alliance)
February's devastating earthquake produced some terrifying statistics: at least 50,000 people are known to have died, 214,000 buildings collapsed and eleven cities were completely destroyed in Turkey alone. In addition, millions of people who have lost their homes are in dire need of assistance

In the Christian camp, some Lebanese social media pages shared that the earthquake was divine retribution aimed at Turkey for converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque two years previously. Father Abdo Abu Kasem, head of the Catholic Media Centre in Lebanon, released a video disproving these interpretations, explaining that the Christian faith does not accept that God punishes the guilty, adding that fear should not be the believers' motive. Yet, in the same video, he called on "atheists, pro-abortion and supporters of homosexuality to return to God and learn from recent events".

It must be noted that those opinions are not representative of all believers belonging to these religions or denominations. Still, the very existence of such discourse, especially in the absence of humanistic approaches, is telling. The diversity of discourse among religious figures from different groups reveals the extent to which the disaster is being instrumentalised for religious purposes.

Responding to the wave of outrage, Egyptian preacher Mustafa Hosni posted a video on his website citing hadiths that confirmed that natural disasters were a torment before Islam, but that God made them a mercy for the Islamic ummah. The victims will occupy the position of martyrs, Hosni said. Despite his fundamentally different interpretation, Mustafa Hosni has quite a lot in common with Al-Azhar graduate Abdullah Rushdi – namely his stance regarding the logic of divine retribution.

Jordanian preacher Dr. Iyad Al-Qunaibi said that disaster fell on everyone in that region. He agreed with Hosni that it raised the rank of those Muslims affected, but he also added that it was a punishment for the infidel, as described in a video on his Facebook page. Al-Qunaibi added that people were affected in accordance with their degree of piety, and that the Muslim victims were martyrs.

Instrumentalisation and dawa the primary objectives

In reacting to the disaster, religious figures have felt the need to furnish their own religious interpretation of what happened. Those interpreting the earthquake as an act of retribution see the disaster as an opportunity to attract followers and call for a return to the teachings of their own particular brand of religion. In this case, the earthquake was the result of moral turpitude and a failure to follow religious teachings.

Victims of the earthquake are classified as sinners, those God chose to make an example of. Such utterances have triggered a popular backlash, indeed the reverse of what religious figures were hoping for. They have been lambasted for their lack of humanity, while discussions about the nature of divine justice have increased as a result.

In a second approach, those in positions of religious authority have gone on the defensive, responding to critics of the first religious interpretation by presenting more measured opinions. They show solidarity with the victims, naming them as martyrs, not sinners, and consider their suffering to be more deserving of comment than the earthquake itself. Despite appearing more humane and pragmatic, the Muslim clerics reserve the status of martyr only for Muslims, focusing their sympathy solely on them.

A more charitable approach

Some religious clerics, especially the Syrian, have avoided taking a religious stand or providing a metaphysical explanation for the earthquake or its victims. The social shock has had a greater impact than the religious need to provide an interpretation, or the need to instrumentalise the event. Dr Muhammad Ratib al-Nabulsi, for instance, merely offered his condolences to the families of the victims and called on believers to donate to the families of the victims, describing this act as the "worship of the time".

In a slightly more self-critical move, doctor in Islamic law Muhammad Habash wrote on his Facebook page: "How silly and inhuman were we when we were waiting for the tsunami and the Agadir earthquake to practice the culture of blaming; and gloat about God's revenge, God's wrath and God's deception."

Habash not only distances himself from presenting a religious interpretation that might condemn the victims of the earthquake, but he has also shifted in the direction of providing religious comfort, thus relieving those affected by the consequences of the disaster. Since the earthquake, he has been actively involved in drafting the religious regulations for the adoption of children who lost their parents in the earthquake.

He has proposed the system of "joining"/dam as a religiously acceptable alternative to adoption, which fulfils all the noble purposes of adoption, without changing the surname of the adopted child, or altering the inheritance/mirath system practiced in Islam, as described by Habash.

Critical standpoints limited

Critical narratives focus on the human being and use the public sphere, in which religious figures have a social responsibility, to shed light on the negligence of the state. The latter might point to the apparatus of engineers, planners and civil servants whose shortcomings led to a high number of victims following the earthquake, the lack of disaster preparedness in Arab countries, or the need to provide non-judgemental relief for those affected.

Religious figures deliver their arguments within the context of maintaining a complex relationship with the state and its apparatus. This explains why critical standpoints are either severely limited or totally missing from the equation in non-democratic Arab countries. Instead, we find metaphysical narratives that are generally polarising (such as interpreting disasters as a punishment) or apologetic (such as seeing disasters as sin alleviators).

If nothing else, the popular religious discourse in the aftermath of the earthquake reveals yet again that institutional reform in Arab countries is long overdue. Those voices that value humanity over religious polarisation deserve our support.

Mustafa Karahamad

© Qantara.de 2023

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