What can we learn from Indonesian Muslim environmentalism?

Critics say that the Religion of Twenty, or R20 conference, recently held in Bali, is problematic as it excluded Indonesian Muslim environmentalists from the discussion. Activist groups inspired by Islamic and pro-environment ideas have the potential to do more to address climate change, if those in charge hear them out.

Muslims praying and wearing face masks as precaution against Covid-19
Muslims wearing face masks as precaution against Covid-19, attend Ramadan Tarawih prayers at Sultan Mosque in Singapore. Image: Reuters/ Edgar Su

The Religion of Twenty or “R20” conference was recently held in Bali as a precursor to the G20 Leaders’ Summit (15-16 November 2022), initiated by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) Chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf. Echoing the NU chairman’s vision, the R20’s general chair Dr Ahmad Suaedy claimed that religion could be the solution to global problems, including the climate crisis.

critic argued that the R20 forum was problematic, however, as it excluded Indonesian Muslim environmentalists and the actual victims of environmental damage from the discussion.

Global Islamic leaders have supported climate action, though most of this has been discursive rather than concrete. They have unanimously committed to reversing the effects of climate change. Some have collaborated with other religious groups through interfaith and faith-based environmental movements like GreenFaith, through the initiative “Faiths 4 Climate Justice”.

Given the criticism of the exclusion of relevant stakeholders and the newness of the R20 initiative, it is unlikely that the next convenor India, which like Indonesia is a large developing country deeply vulnerable to worsening climate disasters, can bring about much concrete progress.

Nevertheless, the global Islamic community and Indonesia’s religious authorities can look more closely at what contemporary Muslim environmentalists in Indonesia are doing to pursue environmental justice. Given the pressing dangers of climate change, government coordination with such grassroots eco-warriors could lead to better climate outcomes.

Muslim environmentalism is a term used by religious and environmental studies scholar Professor Anna Gade to refer to Muslims making ethical commitments to nature and acting upon such commitments. It captures a cause of action to which Indonesian Muslims of all Islamic streams (aliran) are seriously committed: there are already several Indonesian Islamic groups taking climate initiatives, at the national and local levels.

At the national level, the mainstream Islamic organisations in Indonesia have created autonomous bodies to address environmental issues. For instance, the Environmental and Natural Resources Board of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (LPLH-SDA MUI) issues sermons and rulings (fatwa) promoting ways to slow down environmental damage by educating their fellow Muslims on preventing forest fires and the destruction of animal habitats, and on improving poor waste and water management.

In the long run, Islamic environmentalism can be a precursor for durable social and systemic change to overcome climate problems.

Other bodies, such as Nahdlatul Ulama’s Institution for Disaster Management and Climate Change (LPBI NU) and the Muhammadiyah Environmental Council (MLH Muhammadiyah), generally do similar activities. At this point, however, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and other religious authorities are neither involved in nor overtly supportive of these civil society actions. Hence, these environmental bodies are arguably slow in advancing the green agenda, let alone in advocating social change.

For a country like Indonesia, urban climate problems will often require a modern religious approach in addition to activist action. Ideally, all imams would leverage their pulpits to promote green causes, while Muslim environmental activists would mobilise their grassroots networks.

For example, modern eco-religious groups like Ecodeen and AgriQuran can engage the middle and upper classes in Indonesia’s urban neighbourhoods on issues like minimalism and sustainable agriculture, and generally advise them on how to consume less.

They have also engaged urban, social media-savvy groups who have a profound modern Islamic identity, such as  #PemudaHijrah, a movement for urban young Muslims towards fostering Muslim piety in religious congregations in urban neighbourhoods. Another such group is the Nouman Ali Khan Network Indonesia, a local fanbase of Pakistani-American Islamic preacher and social media influencer, Nouman Ali Khan.

However, secular or feminist environmental groups in Indonesia, which are more in tune with the broader global discourse on climate change, are less likely to engage with or be engaged by Muslim environmentalists, precisely because of their vastly different worldviews. This limited collaboration has arguably slowed down the Muslim environmentalists’ momentum in Indonesia’s broader political sphere.

When it comes to rural environmental problems, it is this author’s argument that Indonesia’s government and civil society alike need to take a more progressive approach. Worldwide, climate problems disproportionately threaten lower-income and vulnerable groups, and ethnic minorities. On this front, there are some heartening signs that Indonesia’s existing organisational networks might provide the basis for such progressive action.

Traditional religious groups, like the Nahdliyyin Front of Natural Resource Sovereignty (FNKSDA) and Muhammadiyah Green Cadre (KHM), have established branches across the archipelago working with rural communities living in conflict or environmentally damaged areas.

In Pakel Village, East Java, FNKSDA is working with the community to mobilise their support to resolve an agrarian conflict between a local farmer and a plantation company. In February 2022, KHM joined forces with the locals against police persecution of local activists who fought against andesite mining in Wadas Village, Central Java.

While respectively inspired by the traditional values of NU’s liberation theology and Muhammadiyah’s progressive Islam, FNKSDA’s and KHM’s climate advocacy is more progressive compared to their patron institutions. The activists, many of whom are young, are comfortable with mobilising and working with other, even secular, progressive environmentalist movements like Greenpeace, Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), and the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI).

As a collective, green activists have often confronted others even when they might share the same patrons. For instance, young NU cadres (Ansor) in East Java were recently accused of blocking a Greenpeace campaign group heading to Bali for the G20 Summit.

Historically, environmental activists in Indonesia have faced various challenges, including the persecution of activists and the criminalisation of farmers who resist big corporations or so-called “progress” that destroys their environment.

If Jakarta is serious about climate action and forging an inclusive climate roadmap for all Indonesians, Indonesia’s religious authorities must consider deeper collaboration with activists of all stripes, Muslim or otherwise. Every Muslim would ideally be an advocate of behavioural change to live a sustainable lifestyle and of social change to collectively overcome systemic inequality.

Muslims from many Islamic streams can call on their local and national representatives to improve environmental policies. In the long run, Islamic environmentalism can be a precursor for durable social and systemic change to overcome climate problems and support Indonesia’s quest to be a true environmental superpower.

This article was first published by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute as a Fulcrum commentary.

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