On earthquakes, aid, and human fault lines

On earthquakes, aid, and human fault lines
In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, Khaled A. Beydoun reflects on how the identity, race, and religion of the victims impacted the global humanitarian response to the tragedy.
5 min read
28 Feb, 2023
A man prays in front of a collapsed building on 8 February 2023 in Hatay, Turkey. [Getty]

Two minutes.

An amount of time so negligible, so short, that its very brevity would seem to prevent it from having any kind of significance.

However, the very opposite was true in the early morning of 6 February 2023, when a massive earthquake violently shook southern Turkey and northern Syria for two minutes and, in the days that followed, brought both nations to their knees.

The first tremor came in the dead of night, when most of its victims were sound asleep. The earthquake spawned 2,100 aftershocks that ultimately left over 50,000 dead, hundreds of thousands injured and homeless, and an unknown number still missing buried under the rubble.

"Those who evaded death were instantly forced to make sense of an absurd new life – disfigured like the landscapes surrounding them – and spent their days relentlessly searching for loved one"

Those who evaded death were instantly forced to make sense of an absurd new life – disfigured like the landscapes surrounding them – and spent their days relentlessly searching for loved ones everywhere, between soil and sky.

The images of life and death instantly made their way to timelines and television screens across the world: living fathers gripping the hands of dead daughters crushed between slabs of concrete, elderly grandmothers grieving the discovery of limp baby bodies, and Syrian villages and cities flattened by the shelling of war and then again by the earthquakes.

For more than 6,000 dead Syrians, this earthquake – abetted by the walls of sanctions - was able to do what a brutal authoritarian regime and a decade of civil war could not: take their lives.

Two minutes. But what followed would seem to take an eternity to fix. Or perhaps the devastation, both physical and psychological, is entirely unfixable, no matter the amount of time that passes.

Rescue teams poured into Turkey from every corner of the globe. South Korea and Pakistan, Japan and South Africa and nations beyond and in between delivered personnel and resources to help.

As the number of lives claimed by the earthquake kept rising, and the window to rescue those still buried beneath the debris and rubble kept diminishing, and the scale of damage seemed insurmountable.

The cost of damage in Turkey alone is estimated at $85 billion, an astronomical figure only superseded by the unquantifiable cost of lost lives and lost hope for those still breathing atop unrecognisable Turkish cities and Syrian towns.

Two minutes. A flash of time about as long as the modern attention span, where the news cycle shakes from storyline to storyline then rapidly shifts us to the next matter of the day.

We are conditioned to scrolling past images of human tragedy that demand prolonged attention and protracted commitment, and that time is sadly cut shorter when the subjects of concern are Arabs and Muslims, Turks or “Middle Easterners.”

There is this innate human impulse to believe, or at least to want to believe, that the identity of people accosted by natural disasters should not matter when coordinating relief efforts and dedicating news coverage. Certainly, the scale of the latter can materially shape the degree – and impact – of the former.

However, reality has its way of cruelly rebutting that impulse and exposing its naivete, particularly when the victims are rooted in the “Middle East,” and the faces are Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab and the faith is Islam.

It took two minutes, or less, scrolling through my Instagram inbox – while steering a fundraising effort for earthquake victims – to uncover that rebuttal buried in between messages of scorn and support.

"Two minutes. A span of time that can fracture families forever, and permanently alter the landscape of ancient cities and proud nations"

“GOD MADE The Earthquake happen to PUNISH U Muzlims,” the man wrote, and the capitalised words screamed off my telephone screen with rage, unhinged and unfiltered.

His words mingled with the images of head-scarved mothers weeping over their children shrouded in body bags and pictures of elderly men prostrating toward the very earth that shook their homes to the ground.  Muslims, yes, but victims.

“GOD hates ISLAM motherf****g sandn****r.” He closed, directing his hate this time at me, a known Muslim figure most known publicly for his work addressing Islamophobia.

I moved from my inbox to my timeline, where the mental stain of his words juxtaposed with the images of debris and destruction, shattered lives and shuttered futures for a limitless number impacted by the earthquake.

This message was no aberration. As I dug through the debris of hate mail, I discovered notes that pondered whether those in dire need of emergency aid “were terrorists,” and if “Muslims were getting their just due.” It was a sobering reminder that for many the race and religion of the victims mattered.

In the days in between the initial earthquake and the 6.3 tremor that followed on 20 February, two London mosques received messages taking glee in the carnage.

“The more Muslims that suffer the better,” one letter wrote, praying for more earthquakes in the region, while the second letter “mocked the death of Muslims in the earthquake and ‘wished’ for the death of more,” an utterly vile revelation that points to the scale of Islamophobia in the United Kingdom and beyond.

Two minutes. A span of time that can fracture families forever, and permanently alter the landscape of ancient cities and proud nations.

Two minutes. Two insignificant strokes of the time’s long hand that, in this instance, significantly changed the course of life for millions.

Two minutes. The approximate amount of time it took me, and far too many more than me, to set aside that romantic notion that the colour of human tragedy should not determine the character of global aid.

Earthquakes that rattle the earth beneath us do not discriminate along lines of identity. But the human aftershocks that arise from manmade fault lines, dividing us across rifts of race and religion, certainly do.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor and public intellectual, and author of the forthcoming book The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Muslims.

Follow him on Instagram and Twitter: @khaledbeydoun

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@newarab.com

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.