Catastrophic natural disasters are a true test of a nation’s leadership but when the government struggles, the fate of the nation depends on the strength of civil society’s conviction in its nationalist identity. President Bush’s lack of leadership caused a vacuum to form in the rebuilding of New Orleans, which was filled by civil society groups like volunteer firefighters and professionals who wanted to help their fellow-Americans. Unfortunately, this vacuum in Pakistan is filled by groups who attack the fabric of the national conscience by advocating for a religious insurgency or through ruling elites engaging in corrupt practices revealing their ambivalence to the suffering of minorities and the poor.
As the Bush Administration and FEMA struggled, the hope for New Orleans rested in the heavy stream of civilian volunteers coming from places like universities and churches with a motivation of helping their fellow citizens. For example, Howard University has sent dozens of volunteers every year to work on criminal justice issues as to help build homes for those displaced. In the aftermath of the storm, people blamed the government but the outpouring of aid and support from common-citizens strengthened the American identity rather than weakening it. In fact, the democratic system functioned properly as the unresponsive political leadership during the crisis was voted out of power in the next election.
If, on the other hand, there were anti-state militants handing out aid and creating relationships with the survivors, the same positive effect could not be said to result from non-governmental aid relief. The situation is far more radical in Pakistan than America, as groups like Lakshar-e-Taiba are administering aid to undermine the state which they hope to eradicate.
It can be said that Zardari’s trip to Europe during the floods was an early Eid gift for the Taleban and its associates, because they were able to create more propaganda to alienate the population from a national identity. These groups focus on subsuming the national identity with a religious one, as their donations and aid to people were based on shared religion rather than a shared national identity. Some analysts have said there is a security threat posed by possible resurgence of public support for groups like the Taleban, who are administering much needed aid in remote areas and gaining traction with the public.
However, the more pervasive threat posed by these groups is that they hand out bottled water with one hand and pamphlets advocating the overthrow of the state for religious causes with the other. In fact, the flood victims receive a message from these groups: while your “modern democratic” elites do not care about you, we care about you because you are a fellow Muslim. This is a dangerous signal to send in a nation that is wrecked by a national identity crisis, and has continually been attacked by religious institutions. Thus, the aid offered by religious militants doesn’t just physically challenge the state with even more terrorist recruits, but also it plays an ideological role in limiting the ability to create a national conscience.
The alienation from nationalism continues to deepen with the floods as the victims witness the corrupt nature of the ruling class exposing itself whether by creating fake NGOs or utilizing corrupt aid practices. This adds insult to injury for many residents of the border region, who have historically felt treated like second class citizens by the ruling elite as their regions have been left underdeveloped, lacking the basic infrastructure needed to facilitate rescue efforts.
The corrupt practices also create distrust amongst the international community as to the veracity of the civil society’s claims to help the “common-man” when foreign aid money has a way of landing in personal bank accounts. More damaging is that it demonstrates to the victims more reason why they should pledge no allegiance to a nation whose rulers feel no responsibility towards them.
All is not lost however. There are thousands of volunteers coming out from every part of the country to help their fellow-Pakistanis. Further, like Katrina, some incidents are just too large for any government to be able to effectively handle and the floods are a definite example of huge disaster. However, the best way to recover from such a catastrophe is when the civil society works alongside the government, due to a shared national identity and duty owed to those citizens who are suffering. All groups in Pakistan should stop blaming one another and treat this occurrence as an opportunity to finally build a national identity including the poor minorities who were washed away by the floods and have been ignored by the government.