By: AUSTIN BODETTI
The Islamic world is currently engaged in a debate over climate change: not about whether it’s happening, but about whether militants or reformists are best equipped to stop it.
As climate change threatens countries from Malaysia to Mauritania, environmentalists across the Muslim world are wrestling with how to respond. A growing number are looking to Islam itself for an answer to what is now being called a “climate crisis.” Some of the region’s activists and intellectuals have argued that Muslims, the stewards of what the Quran defines as God’s creation, have a responsibility to care for the Earth and promote environmental protection. And given that Indonesians and Iranians alike have embraced this idea, the concept of a religious obligation to the natural environment appears to transcend Islam’s geographic and theological divides.
Even Muslim militants are talking about environmentalism.
In Somalia and Afghanistan, longtime allies of al-Qaeda have begun to portray environmental conservation as an Islamic duty. Militants in Iraq and Yemen are taking steps toward copying this model, a sign that—at least in the Greater Middle East—environmentalism is far from the exclusive domain of progressives. Whether out of sincere theological conviction or just for the sake of their propaganda, several American-designated terrorist groups are trying to co-opt the environmental movement by aping the message of their traditional adversaries in the Muslim world: Western-friendly Muslim philosophers and scholars.
If Muslim proponents of eco-theology, the fast-spreading belief that religious texts can inform an approach to environmental protection, want to stop militants from polluting a philosophy that has potential to become a social movement, eco-theologians must refrain from making the mistake of ignoring them. Though al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) have failed to influence even the margins of political theory in the Muslim world, both umbrella organizations have proved adept at exploiting social issues that divide religious communities and encourage sectarian strife. Only the handful of Muslim intellectuals pioneering an eco-friendly interpretation of Islam can reverse what some militants are trying to turn into an extra-regional trend.
Like Muslim eco-theologians, the Taliban and al-Shabaab assert that Islam tasks humans with protecting the natural environment from all manner of threats, including humans themselves. The Quran has become the most reliable resource for Muslim environmentalists across the political spectrum, who cite a variety of Quranic verses about the importance of environmental protection. “Corruption has appeared on land and sea caused by the hands of people so that they may taste the consequences of their actions and turn back,” recites the website of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science (IFEES), a British non-profit that has held workshops in Indonesia, Nigeria, and Zanzibar and published a pamphlet highlighting “the ethical foundations of Islamic environmentalism.” Muslim environmentalists interpret that Quranic quotation as an ancient but timeless warning against soil contamination and water pollution.
While IFEES operates out of London, one of Europe’s many secularist bastions, the ideas behind eco-theology have proved popular in even the most conservative corners of the Muslim world. Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali, founding director of the International Institute for Islamic Studies in Qom, began his 2008 article “Aspects of Environmental Ethics: An Islamic Perspective” with a quotation from the Muslim prophet Mohammad: “If Resurrection is starting and one of you has a sapling in his hand that he can plant before he stands up, he must do so.” In the article, Shomali noted how “in Islam, the environment is sacred and has an intrinsic value,” adding that “as the vicegerent of God, [Muslims] have to channel the mercy of God to everything within [their] reach.” An idea championed by Muslims in the liberal democracy of Britain has a following in the Shi‘a theocracy of Iran. Across the Persian Gulf in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which adhere to a traditional interpretation of Sunni Islam often hostile to Shi‘a practices, officials have hosted conferences and research institutes dedicated to studying the intersection of ecology and Islam. Eco-theology has managed to appeal to Islamic schools of thought across the world.
Eco-theology’s distinguished Muslim voices include Dr. Odeh Rashid al-Jayyousi, chairman of the Innovation and Technology Management Department at Arabian Gulf University and author of Islam and Sustainable Development, and Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor emeritus of religious studies at the George Washington University. An outspoken member of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel at the United Nations, al-Jayyousi has pressed Muslims to reframe jihad as a struggle against climate change and urged the international community to establish an Islamic financial endowment dedicated to sustainable development. Nasr, who started writing about Islam and environmentalism in the 1960s, has lamented Muslim clerics’ failure to take a greater role in the environmental movement. Dr. Akhtar Mahmood at Panjab University in India, Dr. Md Saidul Islam at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway at Quds University in Palestine echo these sentiments in their writings.
Muslim eco-theologians found their most conspicuous platform in 2015, when supporters of an Islamic commitment to the natural environment traveled from countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America to Istanbul to release the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. The landmark document sought to reinforce the message that, because “Islamic environmentalism is embedded in the matrix of Islamic teachings,” Muslims must fight on the front lines of the war against climate change. Dr. İbrahim Özdemir, founding president of Hasan Kalyoncu University and a contributor to the document, has stressed Islam’s potential place in environmental policy: “Muslim countries must use the Islamic perspective in environmental protection and sustainable development, taking into consideration religious texts and the practices of Islamic heritage.”
No country embodies Özdemir’s ideal better than Indonesia, where activists, clerics, and officials have led grassroots and top-down efforts to incorporate Islam into the environmental movement. Indonesian environmentalists have launched several madrasas that focus on environmentalism as one of Islam’s foremost principles, and the Indonesian government has partnered with two of the country’s most influential religious organizations to campaign against plastic pollution. For its part, the Indonesian Ulema Council, Indonesia’s top faith-based organization and a government agency, issued the world’s first fatwa against wildlife trafficking in 2014.
Thousands of miles away from Indonesia, the Taliban and al-Shabaab have announced their own bids to combat environmental issues. Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s latest leader, called on Afghans to “plant one or several fruit or non-fruit trees for the beautification of Earth and the benefit of almighty God’s creations” in 2017. Just a year later, clerics tied to al-Shabaab outlawed plastic bags as “a threat to the health of humans and livestock.” Though experts on the Taliban and al-Shabaab debate the sincerity of these edicts, the pronouncements imply that some insurgents have adopted the methods of eco-theologians. The Taliban’s and al-Shabaab’s rhetoric also fits the wider pattern of militants taking advantage of environmental issues.
In the most obvious example of a Western-labeled terrorist group benefiting from environmental degradation, ISIS recruited Iraqis in rural areas by blaming the beleaguered central government of Iraq for water scarcity. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), often considered the most dangerous franchise of the umbrella organization that Osama bin Laden founded, attempted to improve its poor reputation in Yemen’s hinterland by refurbishing some of the drought-plagued country’s water mains and wells. Even bin Laden himself demonstrated a bizarre fascination with environmental issues, at one point recommending that Americans undertake “a great revolution for freedom” to bolster Barack Obama’s campaign against environmental degradation and global warming. Unlike the Taliban and al-Shabaab, ISIS, AQAP, and bin Laden never seemed to link these actions to the tenets of eco-theology or any other overarching religious themes. How long that divergence between al-Qaeda’s allies and offshoots will persist remains another story.
Anti-Western militants expressing support for the environmental movement and trying to rebrand themselves with an eco-friendly image may seem entertaining. Even so, this phenomenon could create further challenges for Muslim eco-theologians already struggling to spread their message beyond academia. If the concept of an Islamic approach to environmentalism becomes associated with the reactionary ideologues of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, not the liberal activists and scholars who have dedicated their careers to devising an Islamic interpretation of environmentalism, the Muslim and Western worlds will prove that much more reluctant to embrace eco-theology.
Nothing suggests that the Taliban and al-Shabaab got inspiration for their nascent environmental policies from mainstream eco-theologians, nor have leading Muslim advocates of eco-theology responded to extremists’ attempts to frame banning plastic bags and planting trees as an Islamic obligation. In fact, neither side of the extraordinary political spectrum that spans eco-theology in the Muslim world—from Somali guerrillas to eco-friendly philosophers—seems to have acknowledged the other’s existence. This appears all the more striking in light of the widespread, well-publicized ridicule that has greeted the Taliban’s call for reforestation and al-Shabaab’s ban on plastic pollution over the past two years. While a staffer at the Daily Caller took a moment to lampoon the Somali militants’ strange announcement as “giving them at least one thing in common with U.S. states California and Hawaii,” eco-theologians missed a chance to denounce al-Shabaab’s half-baked attempt at environmentalism and distinguish the innovative field of eco-theology from the insurgents’ ultraconservative interpretation of Islam.
Eco-theology has the potential to revolutionize how the Muslim world confronts global warming. Given that summer temperatures are predicted to rise twice as fast in North Africa and Western Asia as in the rest of the world—and that, according to scientists, “prolonged heat waves and desert dust storms can render some regions uninhabitable”—the need for a sociopolitical philosophy that can unite Muslim-majority countries behind the environmental movement has become more urgent than ever. Still, the longevity of any Islamic approach to environmentalism will depend not only on the ability of eco-theologians to mobilize peoples and governments but also on whether they can prevent extremists from co-opting and corrupting eco-theology.
Muslim eco-theologians have yet to ignite the kind of viral, country-spanning social movement sparked by the world-famous teenage Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg. This problem likely stems from the intellectualization of their field: With the promising exception of Indonesia and a handful of limited initiatives sponsored by Arab governments, eco-theology has remained the domain of academics and philosophers. The public-facing work of scholars such as Özdemir and al-Jayyousi has failed to translate into the type of attention from the international community and the news media that the Taliban and al-Shabaab’s strange edicts received.
To build a political movement and keep extremists from dominating the already-scant coverage of eco-theology in the Muslim world, advocates of an Islamic approach to environmentalism will have to employ a multi-pronged strategy. First, eco-theologians must highlight al-Shabaab and the Taliban’s hypocrisy: Just as the Council on American-Islamic Relations has condemned actions that ISIS has undertaken in the name of Islam as “anti-Islamic,” supporters of eco-theology can draw attention to the Taliban and al-Shabaab’s involvement in illegal logging, which contravenes the militants’ eco-friendly propaganda. Emphasizing the disparity between militants’ halfhearted environmental policies and eco-theology will not only preempt any cynical attempts to conflate eco-theology with extremism but also undermine militants’ hopes of hijacking the environmental movement. Eco-theologians can no longer ignore extremists’ forays into environmentalism.
In addition to combating the rhetorical threat of extremists’ propaganda, Muslim eco-theologians will have to overcome the much larger challenge of rallying a coalition of their faith’s disparate ideologies and religious denominations behind an Islamic approach to environmentalism. Even if eco-theology appears confined to seminaries and universities for the time being, the geographic and theological breadth of its supporters—ranging from a Shi‘a scholar in the United States to a Sunni academic in Singapore—indicate that the up-and-coming philosophy can bridge this gap. Despite eco-theology’s promising future, its proponents have a lot of work ahead of them.
As Islam has evolved into a rallying cry for militants, reformists, and revolutionaries alike, few analysts have doubted its potency as a tool for exciting social movements and structural changes. If Muslim eco-theologians hope to capitalize on this centuries-old trend, they will have to stop extremists from exploiting their ideas, transform their philosophy from an arcane academic field into a call to battle for Muslim environmentalists, and win the race against the dangerous effects of global warming. As climate change devastates the Global South and the Greater Middle East in particular, the importance of the eco-theologians’ mission becomes all the more apparent. In fact, the fate of the environmental movement in the Muslim world may rest on their success.
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. His research has appeared in the Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. This piece was originally published on American Interest on August 16, 2019.