Green Leaders: Maisaloon Al-Ashkar

Maisaloon Al-Ashkar
Maisaloon Al-Ashkar

Green Leaders is new online series, profiling Muslims who are involved in the environmental movement. The goal is to highlight the achievements of those within our community and provide role models for youth who are interested in pursuing a career in the environmental field. This week we follow Maisaloon Al-Ashkar, a university student and activist in British Columbia who is part of Fossil Free Faith, a national multi-faith consortium that supports and engages our faith institutions in climate justice, fossil fuel divestment and strengthening the role of  faith in our shared future.

1) Briefly explain your educational and professional background. What piqued your interest in the sustainability field? Was there a defining cause, person or event that was your source of inspiration? What possible career options do you have in mind?

I just started my second-year at Simon Fraser University, particularly focusing on First Nations Studies and Political Science. I work for the City of Burnaby as a Program Leader, through which I facilitate a wide-range of activities for children.

I’ve always had a spark for contributing to my communities, but I often got absorbed by popular organizations that glamourize youth engagement and approach activism from a subtle, yet problematic perspective. My view of involvement shifted in grade 12, when I took a Social Justice course. It was the pivotal moment through which I began to think critically, and learned how to conceptualize and contextualize embedded systems of oppression. As I reflect back on that class, I find that it was also a source that guided me to reconnect with and rediscover the causes that are dearest to my heart.

I feel the most gratitude when I do work that directly pays homage to my communities and where I come from. Also, as an immigrant-settler who lives on unceded Coast Salish Territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, I want to engage in work that meaningfully supports Indigenous sovereignty. The main career options I’m currently exploring involve a combination of human rights law and community organizing.

2) Your identity has played an instrumental role in shaping your worldview when it comes to social and environmental justice. What are the parallels between the two and what experiences/lessons have you drawn from this? Why is it important that we review the impact of social issues with an environmental lens?

I’m a Muslim Palestinian woman of colour. These labels that constitute my identity are deemed problems that must be silenced by current hegemonic systems. So, engaging in activism is essentially both an act of resistance and survival for me; I’m fighting for my liberation, which is deeply intertwined to the liberation of beloved people and sacred places.

My grandparents were Palestinian farmers who planted so much knowledge in me through oral history, teaching me that land, culture, and traditions are interwoven, and that they cohesively contribute to the resilience of our well being, both as communities and as individuals. My grandparents were also refugees, and it really hits home when I witness that many communities, who are often already marginalized, are facing displacement due to the climate crisis.

Social and environmental issues are inseparable, and acknowledging this reality allows for approaching such matters with a meaningful and holistic lens. Existing colonialist and capitalist structures have formed the belief that lands, peoples, and cultures are separate entities, and internalizing these principles desensitizes and isolates us from everything around us. However, when we begin to look for the impact of social issues with an environmental lens, and vice versa, we can pave the way for reciprocal solidarity among diverse communities and empower our calls to action.

3) Describe what Fossil Free Faith is about. How did the organization arise and what is its mandate? Why is it important that youth become involved in the divestment movement? What lessons can you provide for other youth that are looking to become more environmentally active?

Fossil Free Faith is an interfaith divestment network, composed of passionate leaders who contribute their respective faithful voices to climate justice. It’s powered by Faith & the Common Good and Spirited Social Change, emerging from volunteers across Canada who are eager to involve faith communities in the divestment/reinvestment movement and contribute new perspectives to climate justice. We have a shared vision of bringing together diverse individuals who want to advocate from a place of faith or spirituality.

From a divestment perspective, fossil fuels and the corporations that perpetuate their use are embodiments of capitalism, colonialism, and injustice. They operate through the domination over lands, extraction of resources, and exploitation of all the life that relies on these lands and resources. Thus, divestment is one piece of the climate justice movement that seeks to revoke the immense socio-economic power that the fossil fuel industry holds and give this authority back to local communities.

I would encourage youth to learn about what it means to be environmentally active to them personally, and to also find ways to ground this awareness to a bigger picture that goes beyond making sustainable choices.

4) Are there any parallels you can describe between Islam and the environment specific to your educational/career path? How has your faith been a source or inspiration or direction in your life (both professionally and personally)? What is one environmental message you would like the Muslim community to adopt?

Faith is central to my soul, and so it’s a guiding force in my life. Islam means peace, and in many ways, it brings me internal peace, as I find that faith is very much integral to my self-care and sense of hope. Stewardship and valuing the intricate environment that Allah blessed us with are concepts I learned from Islam, and from stories about prophet Muhammed (PBUH) and how he was mindful of respecting his surroundings.

I decided to join Fossil Free Faith’s Youth Fellowship program because I was keen on finding an avenue that would allow me to directly unite my Islamic knowledge with my activism, while collaborating with youth like myself who also want to mobilize their respective communities to interlink faith and climate justice.

It’s crucial that I acknowledge that the Muslim community is widely diverse, as we are often generalized and made into a homogenized group. The Muslim identity isn’t one-dimensional; rather, it intersects with one’s ethnicity, gender, culture, and so many other aspects. The personal awareness I want to share with our exquisitely diverse Muslim community, is that all the magnificence of life around us is a reflection of Allah, and so I believe it’s a daily act of worship to treat the environment and honour all the humanity it encompasses as such; a reflection of the Divine.

5) Can you provide any advice for someone considering a career in the environmental field? Are there any lessons you have learned, mentors who were influential or causes that influenced you so far? What advice can you provide to those considering becoming involved with the social justice movement? 

I’m eighteen-years-old, and although I’m grateful to have a strong sense of purpose, I’m definitely still exploring the idea of career paths. I value intersectionality and aspire to bring all of who I am to any experience. I want to free myself from the narrative that restricts ourselves and our dreams into categories and hierarchies. I believe that we can bring an environmental lens, or any particular climate justice perspective, to any field we choose or encounter.

The social justice movement has opened my eyes to systemic forms of oppression, allowing me to become much more critical of the status quo around me. I’ll admit that this awareness can be daunting at times; however, I can wholeheartedly say that my soul, mind, and body are much more content now. I’m the granddaughter of Palestinian farmers, refugees, resisters and freedom fighters, and it is now that I truly appreciate the powerful beauty of my ancestors. I feel their legacy living within me when I engage in activism, which is a subtle yet empowering internal spiritual experience that brings so much meaning to my life. So, the social justice movement has been a blessing to my overall well being.

From what I’ve learned thus far, I strongly encourage starting from within to be able to meaningfully and holistically situate yourself in any activism you participate in; try to learn about your ancestors, cultures and heritages, and connect with causes that speak to your heart. I find that the process of doing so, is in itself a profound act of dismantling oppressive structures, as it supports me in revitalizing my spirit and intertwining my roots along the way.