It has been reported that a prominent Christian leader, Pat Robertson, has said that Haiti has been “cursed” by a “pact with the devil.” Fortunately, this is not the mainstream Christian position and my friend, the Reverend Paul Raushenbush, has rejected Robertson’s “blaming the victims” theology. Religious leaders must take a stance against extremist voices in their community, and I am glad to see Rev. Raushenbush respond to Robertson’s ridiculous and offensive suggestions.
As Muslims, we believe that human suffering is not always explainable or understandable. We do know that innocent people suffer all the time, from sickness and natural disaster, and that in such cases, we are required to do two things: First, pray and remember, as the Qur’an says that “to God we belong and to Him we return.” Second, we must help those who are suffering. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, reported in a Sacred Hadith that if we want to be close to God, we should visit the sick and feed the needy. On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will say, “O son of Adam, I fell ill and you did not visit me.” The person will say, “O Lord, how could I visit you when You are the Lord of the worlds?” He will say, “Did you not know that So-and-so fell ill and you did not visit him? If you had visited him, you would have found Me with him [the hadith continues].”
We realize from this hadith that the path to closeness with God is, after worship, service to humanity. Perhaps the most needy collectivity of people in the world today are the Haitians after enduring this terrible earthquake. Helping the Haitians in this time of need is certainly a sign of religious sincerity.
It is also important to realize, however, that this is much more than a “natural” disaster – that this suffering is not just part of God’s inscrutable plan. As was the case of the devastation that followed hurricane Katrina, human negligence and oppression made a challenging natural event into a disaster of hugely devastating proportions.
We cannot understand this disaster without asking the question, why is Haiti the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere? The sad reality is that the people of Haiti have endured almost constant oppression and injustice since the first arrival of European colonialists five centuries ago. The indigenous population was nearly completely exterminated following the arrival of Christopher Columbus, and then hundreds of thousands of Africans were enslaved and transported to Haiti, where they endured possibly the most brutal conditions ever experienced by humanity. Deep and enduring oppression continued under French colonialism, and every time Haitians attempted to assert their independence, they were brutally suppressed. After finally winning national independence in the nineteenth century, Haitians did not remain free of foreign interference, and were occupied by the United States in the early twentieth century. Imperialism was followed by a series of dictators in the second half of the twentieth century. Only recently have Haitians been able to restore democratic rule.
As we know from the experience of people across the Middle East and Africa, centuries of colonialism and imperialism destroy cultures, families, and all social and economic structures that are needed for a functioning society. The people of Haiti are desperately poor because they have endured centuries of injustice and oppression. It is because of their poverty that their homes and buildings were utterly unsuitable to endure a major earthquake, which scientists have predicted for many years. It is because of their poverty that the people of Haiti do not have even the basic infrastructure and equipment they now need to dig their people out of collapsed buildings and provide them with urgently needed care.
This Friday, I ask Imams, Khateebs, and other Muslim leaders to share the message of religious sincerity and compassion with their communities. We need to discuss the significance of the collective obligation to help the poor and needy, to ensure that we go beyond occasional charity to help reform oppressive social and economic structures. Finally, this is a lesson in human solidarity. Our community knows very well the devastation caused to Muslim societies by colonialism and imperialism, but we do not often recognize that others in the world have also suffered from the same history. Surely God will lift up the Muslim community and ease the suffering of our people if we sincerely and earnestly serve our brothers and sisters in humanity – the sons and daughters of Adam - who also cry out for relief.