Center for Strategic Communication

by Chris Lundry and Steven R. Corman

On September 30th, an earthquake struck Padang, Indonesia. It measured 7.6 on the Richter Scale, killed over 1,100, and injured around 2000.  Following the quake some religious leaders moved quickly to blame the victims, a familiar tactic of exploiting natural disasters to advance extremist agendas.

Located in the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” Indonesia is no stranger to devastating seismic and volcanic events that frequently lead to tremendous losses of life, livelihood and property. The September 30th earthquake near Padang was the most recent of such events.

Padang has long been called a “tragedy waiting to happen” because of its location and the city’s proximity to the sea. These warnings multiplied after the Boxing Day 2004 Tsunami that devastated Aceh in North Sumatra. Had a Tsunami followed the Padang quake, the death toll would surely have been much higher, considering the city’s large population (around 750,000).

By now we understand that the earthquake in Padang was caused by plate tectonics, a naturally occurring phenomenon (for some cool animations, look here). Padang was struck because of its location in relation to shifting tectonic plates.

But as is the case with any natural disaster, traumatized survivors ponder questions such as why the event happened or why he or she survived when others did not. Psychological conditions can include Survivor Guilt, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Acute Stress Disorder. People frequently seek solace in their religious faith as a means of coping.

Religious extremists exploit these conditions to advance their agendas.  For example:

  • On a visit to Padang, former rock singer turned Islamist firebrand Hari Moekti* stated that the imposition of shari’ah would be the only thing that would allow the city to recover. Moral lapses are what caused the earthquake, he argued, a punishment from God.  This story was published by Hizbut Tahrir, a group that promotes the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Indonesia, and quickly spread over the Internet.
  • In another post, Hizbut Tahrir blamed the quake on “deaf, dumb and blind” leaders who are stupid and do not think. They compared these leaders to the Pharaoh of the Qur’an, whom God killed for his tyranny and obstinacy.
  • In a third Hizbut Tahrir post on the subject, the author invokes Imam Nawawiy and his collection of hadith, in which (pious Muslim) victims of natural disasters can be considered martyrs.
  • Abu Jibriel, the father of suspected terrorism financier Muhammad Jibriel Abdul Rahman (see previous post), wrote that the disaster was the result of sins and immorality, people trading in the law of God for the law of Jahiliyyah, and following the traditions of their ancestors over the traditions of the Prophet.
  • Hidayatullah posted an essay claiming that disasters such as this are tests by God, similar to people being tested in life with stupidity, poverty or physical defects. If people pass the test, they may look forward to heaven, and survivors may view this test as a call to get closer to God. The passage later condemns immorality on television, men who dress like women, women who think they are equal to men, homosexuality, and an upcoming visit by Japanese porn star Miyabi to make a (non-pornographic) film in Java.

Most of these authors wear their Islamist extremist credentials on their sleeves. For instance they tend to use  the Arabic term for disaster (musibah) rather than the indigenous Indonesian term (bencana). Only the Hidayatullah article mentions alternative explanations by “secularists”  such as earthquakes being a normal, natural occurrence, and it does so only to discredit them.

Religion is by its nature based on faith, and therefore not accountable to scientific logic, rationality, or even disproof.  But here is an irony, even within a religous frame: Padang is one of the (comparatively) few Indonesian cities with “shari’ah-based bylaws” on the books. School girls and female civil servants must wear jilbab (hijab).  Civil servants have alms (donations to mosques and charities) deducted from their salaries, and high school students are required to study the Qur’an. If the earthquake in Padang is a punishment from God, why is it that regions that are “less Islamic” weren’t struck? Why didn’t the earthquake strike “infidel” regions of Indonesia, like  Hindu Bali or predominantly Christian eastern Indonesia?

This tactic of blaming victims to advance your agenda isn’t limited to Indonesia.  In the wake of Hurricane Katrina,  anti-abortion activist Steve Lefemine claimed it was divine judgment: “In my belief, God judged New Orleans for the sin of shedding innocent blood through abortion.” Hal Lindsey likened the event to a coming “judgment day,” and Fred Phelps (whose followers protest at soldier’s funerals with signs such as “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”) argued that the hurricane was God’s punishment for permissiveness to homosexuality.

Because exploitation of disasters by extremists is so predictable, there is an opportunity to think in advance about how these attempts could be resisted in the future. Countering their messages on scientific grounds seems futile. Without the need for logical arguments based on evidence, religious justifications can be manipulated to suit the goals of the messenger. More likely, arguments from within a religious frame, delivered by people with religious credentials, would be the most effective.


* All translations from Indonesian are by Lundry.