Sunday, July 22, 2012

Is environmentalism a low priority for Muslims?

by Salman Hameed

We have had posts on Irtiqa in the past that have highlighted the environmental efforts in the Muslim world. For example, see Eco-Islam and a "Green Imam" in TanzaniaGreen Muslims, and Islam & Environment: Conference and Book. But here is an excellent article by Saleem H. Ali (currently a professor of sustainability at the University of Queensland, Australia), that highlights the difference between a lip-service to environmental thinking and the reality on the ground. Indeed, when I visited Qatar and Sharjah last year for a conference, I was dismayed to see green lawns being watered during mid-day, air conditioned shops in Doha with their doors open, golf courses and an indoor ski resort (yes - you can ski in Dubai in the summer heat). I have praised the efforts of building the zero carbon city, Masdar, near Abu Dhabi - but I hope it is not a gimmick.

I think Saleem Ali cuts to the chase and asks pertinent questions:
Environmentalism has taken root in many Muslim communities but it remains a marginal issue for discussion at the pulpit. Most imams in America, pressed about the importance of ecological themes in Islam, usually offer a polite nod: “Of course brother, Islam respects nature; God’s creation must be valued; Cleanliness is essential and part of our ritual.” Such vacuous platitudes are very common but when it comes to the serious task of educating our children about ecological ethics, there is rarely any attention given.
Unfortunately, the essence of ecology – the natural science of studying how humans interact with their environment – eludes most centers of Islamic learning. This apathy towards nature is emblematic of the growing imbalance which many practicing Muslims have regarding “deen” and “dunya.” They are often drawn to one pole or the other with a reluctance to engage productively with the time-tested Islamic edict of “meezaan” or balance. For livelihoods, they might ostensibly appear to be keeping a balance between work and family but they are in fact compartmentalizing their lives. So yes, most religious Muslims are also successful professionals but do they really try to connect with their world in the same planetary way that the term “dunya” suggests in its natural connotation? Such an ecological lens of viewing their lives would help them keep perspective of this need for “meezaan.” 
For political reasons, terms like “moderation” have been stigmatized and are often branded as a co-optation strategy to drive people away from theology. One young Muslim scholar responded, “all this environmental stuff – what relevance does it have when Muslims are dying in wars or being persecuted?” The response to such thinking would be: Have you ever thought why things are not changing for the better in terms of our predicament? One explanation might be that Muslims have become “denaturalized” – we do not want to make the full connection with the natural world in terms of scientific inquiry, reflective appreciation for the natural world and thus we have an existential angst that comes out in either aggression or apathy. 
Muslims, particularly influential and well-intentioned groups like the Tablighi-Jamaat, simply dismiss requests for environmental education by saying: “Brother, this world is ephemeral and so we should just prepare for the Afterlife.” Such a simplistic vision of the present and the future and human obligations to the planet, however, is detracting Muslims from reaching their full potentials as stewards of the planet – which was the primordial obligation given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
To make a practical impact, he is collaborating with local Muslim communities in the US to emphasize environmental values in their religious teachings:
Once we have the knowledge base to appreciate and understand the natural world, we need to change our day-to-day conduct and consider our impacts on the planet. This means changes in behavior in terms of what we eat and drink and the kinds of products we consume and many of the usual edicts one comes across from contemporary environmentalism. Of particular note might be a reconsideration of the dominance of meat in the diets of many Muslims. Apart from certain rituals, there is no injunction in Islam to consume so much meat (particularly cattle meat) which has become a cultural corrosion and has an enormous impact on resource depletion. 
Perhaps the most salient behavioral change that Muslims can make is greater awareness of their surroundings and realizing the complex web of interactions that sustains our planet and is manifest majesty of the Divine. Experiential learning is the most effective form of inculcating a value for ecological processes. In January 2013, I am facilitating the launch of a new program in collaboration with the Zaytuna Academy in Berkeley, California to help teachers and leaders in Islamic schools and mosques implement ecological learning more easily within their curriculum. Imam Dawood Yasin, the Muslim chaplain at Dartmouth College is leading the development of the program. Hopefully this program and others like it will spring up “organically” across the Muslim world and spark a movement of greater consequence. But to have a measurable impact, they will need to be taken seriously by Muslims in their daily lives. Making the connection between science and ecology, and instilling the importance of empirical research within Islamic learning at the earliest stage is the most sustainable way for such a process of inculcation to proceed.
I don't know much about Zaytuna Academy (I think it is the same as Zaytuna College) and their views on science. My skepticism comes from some other Islamic academies (and a number of dubious Christian Evangelical universities in the US) that hold problematic views on science. But if Saleem H. Ali is on board with them - at least on this issues, then I take a bit more comfort on this. I think it will be fantastic if they can shape and export a fruitful and practical green-Muslim narrative.

In any case, read the full article here.


tambi jalouqa said...

i live in jordan and i see the similarity between what you are saying in the west and here.

Everytime a movement toward being environmentally conscious will draw negative attention and be called a western ideology. And that there are more important things.

This is because of the vicitimhood mentallity the muslim world has been having since, well, at least 600 years :)

Salman Hameed said...

The attribution to western ideology, in this case, becomes a convenient excuse for not doing anything. At the same time, there is a lot of lip-service regarding environmentalism. Much of science is treated in the same way. Everyone gives a standard answer about how Islam encourages science - but few actually encourage their kids to go into pure sciences, or to promote critical thinking skills so essential for scientific thinking. Well - that is a whole other matter...

DonE said...

Here's another example from a Malaysian author, coincidentally reviewed by someone else in Queensland.

It just popped up under my regular google alert for these kinds of things.