Can a ‘green Islam’ save Indonesia from climate collapse?

Calls for an environmentally conscious form of Islam are growing in Indonesia, as climate change poses enormous ecological challenges for the country. Experts say it could change society’s approach to climate efforts.

Following the publication of an alarming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Indonesia is once again at the center of the global climate debate.

As the world’s largest exporter of coal and palm oil, the country has a major impact on the global climate crisis. Yet the island state itself is increasingly affected by extreme weather events. In 2019, a severe drought led to widespread forest fires. In 2020, the country experienced massive flooding due to the heaviest rainfall in decades.

With a population of over 270 million, Indonesia faces enormous social and environmental challenges, and some experts see religion as a ray of hope. As the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, calls for an environmentally conscious Islam are growing in Indonesia.

“There is no doubt that the new Islamic environmental awareness is strengthening the entire ecological movement in Indonesia,” Fachruddin Mangunjaya, chairman of the Center for Islamic Studies at the National University in Jakarta, told DW.

A country in an environmental dilemma

Indonesia, with its more than 17,000 islands, is in a quandary. In addition to waste disposal, the two major climate sins of the country — coal-fired power and deforestation — repeatedly make the country’s headlines.

Indonesia is not only the world’s export champion for thermal coal, but also the largest producer of palm oil, which leads to the deforestation of large areas of forest every year.

Coal and palm oil form the backbone of the Indonesian economy, which cannot grow without reliable energy and the export of palm oil.

On the other hand, this economic model harms the very people it is supposed to serve: Indonesians. Greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and deforestation are having a significant impact on the health and livelihoods of the rural population.

As a result of climate change, many of Indonesia’s remote and poor provinces suffer regular droughts, exacerbating poverty in the country.

Green Islam creates hope

Islam, to which almost 87% of the population in Indonesia feels affiliated, could provide a way out of the dilemma.

“The protection of nature and the environment is one of the commandments of Islam. Therefore, the use of clean energy is also ethically and morally important for Muslims,” Indonesian anthropologist Ibnu Fikri told DW.

Together with his colleague Freek Colombijn from the Free University in Amsterdam, he has been researching the topic of “Green Islam” in Indonesia – an interaction between humans and the environment inspired by Islamic ideas and teachings.

Green Islam is also receiving more attention in politics. President Joko Widodo’s government recently engaged with Islamic leaders and communities to set a goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2060.

Holding onto that principle, last year, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry signed a partnership agreement with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Muslim organization, to improve environmental management and sustainable forestry.

‘Translate awareness into concrete action’

According to Fachruddin, however, that is not enough. The urgency for increased climate awareness has not yet reached the majority of the country’s rural population and clerics.

A 2020 survey by the Katadata Insight Center shows that Indonesian citizens place the highest trust in information from religious clerics.

As a result, Fachruddin’s institute in Jakarta is working specifically on building bridges between leaders in Muslim society and environmental scientists.

“It is important that Islamic clerics not only understand the religious teachings, but also their significance for climate protections, so they can translate their awareness into concrete action,” Fachruddin said.

So far, he has trained about 1,000 Islamic clerics who practice environmental protection and provide education in various villages across the country — and the number is growing.

Boarding schools as the nucleus of climate activism

Young people in particular need to be reached and made aware of environmental protection.

“We need to think more about our future so that our students can find answers to pressing environmental issues early on and get involved in their own communities,” Khatibul Umam, who runs an Islamic boarding school (Pesantren) on the island of Madura, told DW.

Islamic boarding schools are an important part of Indonesia’s education system. Umam’s boarding school alone has 11,000 students.

The school has made the combination of Islam and environmental protection one of its core tasks by supporting several environmental protection projects such as reforestation, sustainable agriculture and recycling, all of which have regional roots and are inspired by Islam.

The limits of ‘green Islam’

Although the direction is clear, Umam also knows that Islamic environmental activism in Indonesia is still at the beginning. “The main challenge we face, not only in our schools but in society in general, is to try to make people understand why these projects are significant, not only to us, but to all levels of society and the future generations,” said Umam.

Finally, as anthropologist Ibnu Fikri admits, there is no one Islam in Indonesia. “Due to compulsory religion in Indonesia, there is a huge diversity of practitioners of Islam. For some, it’s part of their daily routine. Others feel they belong less and are Muslim because they have to choose a religion.” 

Pluralism creates opportunities

Therefore, it is not only Islam and environmental protection that need to be reconciled in the long-term, but also different social groups.

Many experts say that a comprehensive, whole-of-society approach is needed. Fachruddin sees Indonesia’s pluralism as a great opportunity. “We learn a lot from traditions from before Islam. Because of our democratic situation in Indonesia, we respect not only nature and the environment, but all people and their ideas.”

Ibnu Fikri also gained this impression in his fieldwork in Indonesian communities. He describes it as a “cultural environmental awareness,” an interplay of religion, traditions and local practices that encourages people to protect the environment.

Even if there is a long way to go, Islam can still provide a strong source of inspiration for many. 

Edited by: Leah Carter

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