Monday, May 19, 2008

Food crisis creates an opening for Muslim fundamentalists

In the Middle East, Islamist charity programs fill a gap by feeding the hungry as prices soar - and their political allies gain ground.

By Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

"AMMAN, JORDAN — The smell of freshly baked bread calms the room filled with women in frayed cloaks and worn slippers. Grateful for the assistance, they walk out of a Muslim Brotherhood social service center into the trash-strewn alley, clutching plastic bags packed with flat bread loaves.

For five years, the Jordanian government has clamped down on the Islamist group's electoral ambitions and its charity programs, suspicious it was using good deeds to win political support.

But the global food crisis has carved out new opportunities for the Brotherhood and other hard-line groups across the Muslim world. Increasingly unaffordable prices underscore criticism of autocratic governments and drive more people toward fundamentalist groups. Though the Brotherhood fared poorly last year in municipal elections, it has been steadily gaining ground in recent months, sweeping votes for the leadership of Jordan's professional associations.

"We used to win some and lose some. Now, we win all of them," said Zaki Bani Arshid, leader of the Islamic Action Front, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. "The government which tried to marginalize us politically for years has now given us a big gift."......

"America is being held responsible for what is happening," said Arshid, of Jordan's Islamic Action Front. "It's supporting these corrupt regimes."

The frustration is potentially more explosive here than in more democratic parts of the developing world.

"People can tolerate anything except when it comes to food," said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian economist and critic of the government. "The security establishment cannot open a file for the hungry like you can for the political activists. One day you'll wake up and see havoc."......

Other than Islamic charities and social wings of militant groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas, there is no tradition of charitable giving to alleviate pressures on the poor......

In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front has ramped up its charity programs, offering food baskets and financial help to 32,000 families. Requests for help have jumped 30% this year, said Murad Adaileh, who oversees the group's social services programs. Applications for free bread have jumped 50% since the beginning of the year.

On some days, the line outside the food distribution outlet stretches into the streets. The poor come in droves......"

No comments: