Muslims and their Environment: Advocating a Green Deen

This article of mine has been featured in Visions 2009 – an annual magazine by the National University of Singapore’s Muslim Society (NUSMS)

9/11. Osama bin Laden. Iraq. Gaza. Media coverage and political developments on these issues have taken the Muslim world by storm, as the latter continues to struggle in coming to a consensus on how best to manage what is supposedly a dichotomy between Islam and the West. However, there have been a series of other events that require as much attention by the Ummah – Global Warming. “Natural” Disasters. Water Scarcity. Food and Energy Insecurity. These, too, have been a source of social unrest and conflict.

There is clearly a need for Muslims to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, as a means of encouraging a progressive train of thought and being aware of pertinent issues in contemporary times.

There are several reasons why the Ummah should consider climate change as a significant driver for ensuring progress from within. Firstly, Muslims – like everyone else – are victims of climate change. Whether it be issues of food insecurity, lack of energy resources or humanitarian disasters (which often overlap each other), these incidents ultimately feed back into a potentially vicious cycle of poverty – the root of all suffering in the Muslim world today.

This is evident as most Muslim countries are less developed countries, and are therefore highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. To date, there has been an increasing number of weather related disasters in Muslim countries (i.e. member states of the Organisation of Islamic Conference). According to the United Nations Relief Web statistics, OIC member states have experienced a total of 76 floods/flashfloods since 2006. This is 22 more than the period of 2001 -2005, and close to double the number of incidents in the period 1996 – 2000. Given the low capacity of governments in developing countries, it is often difficult to respond efficiently to these disasters. Moreover, the increasing frequency of weather related disasters complicates the situation, as states would have a reduced amount of time to recover from the previous disaster before the next disaster strikes.

The second reason for greater engagement in climate change issues by Muslim countries would be that they too contribute to climate change. According the World Resources Institute (WRI), gulf Arab countries such as Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain, are amongst the top ten countries with the highest level of carbon emissions per capita. Indonesia also contributes a high level of carbon emissions with its rapid rate of deforestation and land degradation – largely a result of illegal logging and the increasing global demand for biofuels. Wetlands International notes that if carbon emissions from land degradation were included in existing measurements, Indonesia would be the third largest carbon emitter after the United States and China.

Nevertheless, the Muslim World can provide solutions to this global challenge. For one, Muslim states should take advantage of the global mechanisms available to mitigate and adapt to climate change. One such example would be engaging in the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Under the CDM, less developed states would be able to acquire green technology from carbon emitting countries, as a means for the latter to reduce its carbon emissions. Although said to be one of the UNFCCC’s best achievements thus far, few Muslim countries have used this opportunity. Moreover, wealthier Muslim states such as the gulf Arab countries, Malaysia and Turkey, can play a significant role in investing in green technology and supporting the transfer of technology to their less developed counterparts. In addition to this, current international discussions on climate change also include the possibility of extending a carbon trade system to the forestry sector – ie. Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). Forest rich countries such as Indonesia, therefore have a significant part to play by conserving its forests to act as carbon sinks. As such, engagement in global deliberations and actions on climate change would demonstrate their willingness to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

In light of the above-mentioned points, much of the work would have to come from governmental officials and negotiators in international climate change discussions. Civil societies in Muslim states must also provide support for their governments by promoting environmental awareness on the implications of climate change to the mass public. Often times, it would be difficult to change old habits, especially amongst older generations, who do not see climate change as a critical issue. A useful way of affecting change amongst the older generation would therefore be to speak to them – “in their own language” – such as with common shared values. Islam itself is a beacon of environmental principles, but is often not given much attention in Muslim circles.

Good work has been done in several Muslim environmental groups – such as the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES) in the UK and Eco-Pesantren in Indonesia. These organisations have done their bit by engaging Muslim scholars, the public as well as local leaders to advocate environmentalism from an Islamic perspective (Islamic Environmentalism, for short). The point here is not to suggest that Islamic Environmentalism is distinct from the secular notions of environmentalism, but rather that it provides a useful tool to engage fellow Muslims on caring for the environment, and more importantly, encouraging them to think of their faith holistically.

In an upcoming book on Singapore Muslim Youth – under the auspices of the Young Association of Muslim Professionals (Young AMP) – a chapter is devoted to Islam and the Environment. In this chapter, a survey was conducted amongst Singapore Muslim Youths. The results were interesting as many were not consciously aware of the emphasis that Islam places on the environment. Moreover, more than 75% of respondents were of the opinion that Muslims would be more environmentally friendly if religious scholars/leaders played a more proactive role in advocating environmentalism. In addition to this, 90% of respondents mentioned that they would like to see more being done by religious scholars/leaders to promote environmental awareness.

What this survey has highlighted is that religious leadership still plays a significant role in influencing or shaping the ideas of the community. In this regard, community engagement – at best a collaboration of religious scholars/leaders, environmentalists and scientific experts – would be a novel way of further building awareness on the environment, as well as bridge the gaps between theology and science in a bid to generate progress in the Muslim community.

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