More than four million Somalis are living in famine zones, according to the United Nations, with 750,000 at risk of starving to death in the next few months. A protracted drought has been made worse by decades of war, high food prices and local militants blocking foreign food aid in the south.
Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss this crisis and the topic of faith in conflict areas. Readers, if you choose to join the commentary, please do so as our panelists have – in the spirit of debate, rather than hostility.
Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary’s Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.
Michael W. Higgins is a biographer, a CBC documentarist and currently the vice-president of Mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Abuse Scandal .
Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master’s degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman .
Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and executive producer of Context with Lorna Dueck, on Global TV, Sundays at 11 a.m. Eastern time, and Vision TV, 9:30 a.m.
Moderator Chris Hannay is an online editor in The Globe and Mail’s news section. He might be agnostic.
Chris Hannay: Thanks for joining us. Panel, the last time we discussed disaster was in the context of Haiti, which had been devastated by an earthquake. This famine in Somalia was also initially caused by nature’s wrath, but has been made much worse by human actions. What does religion tell us about the actions of these militants?
Howard Voss-Altman: Organized religion can and should play a significant role in famine relief. Our sacred texts teach us that we are commanded to feed the hungry. That's just the first step. Our next obligation must be to begin the conversation regarding distribution of food and resources.
Michael W. Higgins: I know of no religion faithful to its ennobling and humanizing traditions that could justify under any circumstances the willful obstruction of food being transported to the hungry and desperate. When fanaticism trumps faith we are all in trouble. All our religious histories are peppered with atrocities perpetrated by the devout and those in authority but they represent the underside.
Lorna Dueck: Christianity would say a great travesty of justice is underway. When Al-Shabab reportedly prohibits aid from “infidel” faith-based aid groups from reaching the needy, you have the worst sort of religious hypocrisy from a group living by their own interpretation of Islamic laws. There’s a great challenge in Psalm 133 where all the Abrahamic faiths are called to live together in harmony – it is sadly lacking in the Somalian family and must be called for.
Sheema Khan: The actions by al-Shabab are so antithetical to both the spirit and the laws of Islam. Many of us were fasting, from dawn to sunset, during Ramadan. Every year, we do so, to temporarily feel what it is like to go through without food or water. This year, our fasting was made more acute, by the knowledge that so many were starving (and facing death) in the Horn of Africa. There have been so many fundraisers, and appeals, within the Muslim community (here in Canada, and throughout the world) to provide assistance to those at risk in the Horn of Africa.
Those who play politics with aid – be they “religious” groups, politicians, militants, etc. – are serving their own ends, and do not care for the welfare of people. On the contrary, those who are trying their best to alleviate the suffering – be they atheists, believers, etc. – are partners in humanity.
Howard Voss-Altman: As Michael eloquently states, let us not confuse Somali warlords with a faith tradition that proclaims justice and dignity for all. Let us call those who exploit and starve their own people by their proper name: criminals.
Chris Hannay: If we think of them as “criminals” then how do we approach the idea of justice? Peacekeeping in the region faces serious problems, as many relief workers have been killed trying to bring aid. How should we feel towards those who are responsible for such atrocities? How would religion tell us to seek a solution?
Michael W. Higgins: Justice, whether considered under the rubric of faith or politics, must be both grounded in firm and constant philosophical principles that speak to our understanding of what it is to be human as well as open to the complex negotiating that accompanies any controverted and messy human situation. Though controverted is hardly the word in so blatant a transgression of human values as we face in the Horn of Africa but controverted in the sense that finding a univocal approach to restitution will be difficult.
Sheema Khan: I believe that we should have many approaches, including the viewpoints of those versed in security, mediation and conflict-resolution. There should also be a judicial component. However, one rarely hears of prosecution of those whose actions precipitate or exacerbate famine. Why is that?
Lorna Dueck: Religion would tell us to lock arms and do justice. Brazen, bold moves that just need to be done. For example, on August 13, the Global Ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance left Toronto and arrived unprotected, and uninvited into Mogadishu. Some of us thought Dr. Brian Stiller was foolish for going with no plan or security, but he was going to simply show up and say, our community will stand with you to see this change. “Simple expressions of love can be used in ways one would never imagine,” he wrote as he began his work back in Canada to network globally for change on this crisis. Nothing will happen unless we show up with innovative ways to work together and push past the danger.
Michael W. Higgins: I think that is right: the quiet and potent witness that comes from presence.
Chris Hannay: Is there something particularly resonant in religious histories or texts with the fact that this crisis deals with something so vital as food?
Lorna Dueck: Yes, texts of basic provision are fundamental in the Bible. I am struck by the compassion Jesus had on crowds who had forgotten to pack a lunch – even that mattered that they got fed as we read in the stories of the loaves and fishes miraculously appearing. In every story where Jesus is around hunger, there is food provided, physically and spiritually. In my tradition, we have the uncomfortable belief that Christians are now to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and that God acts through us. That means Christians must be providing food for the Horn of Africa’s need.
Sheema Khan: This is also echoed in the Qur'an and the authentic traditions of the Prophet (pbuh). There are so many exhortations in the Qur’an to feed the needy. In fact, we are told to make sure that our neighbours are not suffering from hunger. And, Muslims are reminded to feed others with a clear heart: the motivation is not for thanks or reward from people, but for seeking the pleasure of God, in humility and service.
Lorna Dueck: So Sheema, with all respect I ask, why is there not a global unified condemning cry from Islam against the Al-Shabab who have created the political climate of this famine? Could that kind of pressure not force their hand into opening the transportation routes dropping their restrictions so food can flow freely?
Sheema Khan: That is a great point, Lorna. I think up to now, al-Shabab has been off the radar screen for many. This famine – combined with the heartless tactics of this group – should give Muslims pause. However, as many have written (see Thomas Keneally's Saturday Globe article and statements from the World Bank), this famine is the result of widespread corruption and criminality. It is not just al-Shabab (although they have exacerbated the matter). Yes, let us condemn the actions of al-Shabab. But, there is widespread condemnation to go around.
Chris Hannay: That’s all our time for this week. Thanks for joining the discussion.