In light of the recent attacks in Paris, I wanted to write something about Islam. While I have not personally heard much in the way of Islamaphobia recently, the fact that American Muslims have felt the need to publicly condemn the attacks is just plain depressing. I mean, yes, I condemn the attacks, too, but I don’t feel compelled to say so on YouTube because no one has any particular reason to doubt that I do. That American Muslim children apparently feel differently suggests that some serious misunderstanding is in play.
But this blog isn’t about bigotry per se. It’s about climate change. So I’m going to talk about Islam and climate change, especially since this is not the angle from which non-Muslim Americans (the majority of my readers) usually hear about Muslims. In fact, when I sat down to research for this article I had no clear idea what I’d find. This article should therefore be regarded as extremely provisional, since I am new to the subject myself.
Muslims comprise about one percent of the American population. It may surprise some readers to learn that only a quarter of these people are of Arab descent (the vast majority of Arab-Americans are actually Christian). A third of American Muslims are of South Asian descent, a third are African-American, and the remaining fifteen percent is from everywhere else. While many American Muslims are either immigrants or the offspring of immigrants, African-American culture has had a Muslim component from the beginning because many Africans taken as slaves were Muslim.
So, how do all these people feel about climate change? I don’t know.
There are two reasons I don’t know. One is that Islam, unlike some branches of Christianity, has no inherent hierarchy. There is nothing directly comparable to the Roman Catholic priesthood in any branch of Islam that I have heard of (and yes, though I’m hardly an expert, this is not the first time I’ve read up on Islam, only the first time I’ve researched it in the context of climate change). There are religious scholars who can give advice on Quranic interpretation and Islamic law, and some of these lead prayers, if their communities want them to. That’s what an imam is; a Quranic scholar whom other Muslims want to listen to. There is no central authority on belief and policy except the Quran and the consensus of scholars (which rarely happens, for obvious reasons). Therefore, there is no way to find out what Muslims believe except to ask Muslims. It isn’t something one can just go look up.
And that get’s us to the second reason why I don’t know what American Muslims think and feel about climate change–if anyone has asked them recently, their responses have been drowned out by John Kerry.
I’m serious. Internet searches on “American Muslims and climate change” (or variations on that theme) yield Secretary of State John Kerry explaining that Americans have a Biblical mandate to help Muslim countries cope with climate change. Arguably, he’s right–more on that later–but he fills up literally pages of search results. Interestingly, mixed in with John Kerry were a few sites that appeared to feature assertions and Muslims and climate change are together some kind of scourge against American freedom, but I did not click on those links. Basically, my search engine reacted as though I’d asked about “America, Muslims, and change” and ignored the American Muslims.
But there are American Muslim environmentalist organizations and there is information on climate change and Islam as a whole. There is, in fact, an Islamic environmental consciousness and Muslims often have less difficulty reconciling science and religion than many Christians do.
Although concern about modern environmental problems originated in “the West” (a rather puzzling code word for the European-derived cultural continuum), the Islamic world has had its own environmental movement since the 1970’s. Resistance to the issue has not been religious but political. Many protest, with some justification, that environmental degradation is an essentially “western” problem and that the “western” countries first got rich by fouling their lands and then decided that pollution is bad just as other countries are starting to make some money, too.
Where religious issues are a barrier to the environmental message, it’s often that environmentalists are not being religious enough; Muslim communities sometimes drop unsustainable practices very quickly once the issue is framed in terms of their own values. Islam not only includes a concept of environmental stewardship equivalent to some Christian interpretations of “dominion over the Earth,” but also has a rich tradition of appreciating and studying the natural world in a religious context. To quote Sarah Jawaid, director of Green Muslims, in Washington, DC:
In the Quran, God identifies nature as a tapestry of signs for man to reflect upon his existence, just as the verses within the Quran are also considered signs, sharing the same Arabic word, ayat.
Generally, people in the Muslim world accept that climate change is real and they take it seriously; in both Turkey and Lebanon, over 70% of those surveyed described climate change as a “very serious problem.” Many, especially in Jordan, are reluctant to pay money to solve the problem, but again that is understandable given the history of who has profited from fossil fuels and who has not (Jordan’s oil production has, in recent decades, been minimal). Imams often ignore climate change in favor of more pressing concerns, but given that many Muslim countries are poor or war-torn or both, that is understandable. Climate skepticism and climate denial are not strong forces in these cultures. Specifically among American Muslims (I was able to find a few tidbits of information) almost two-thirds of those surveyed do not perceive any conflict between science and religion, whereas among Americans as a whole almost two-thirds do perceive such a conflict.
What we can gather from all of this is that while the United States of America does have a problem with climate denial, its small Muslim population is not part of the problem and is probably part of the solution.
John Kerry, meanwhile, has a point. Leaving aside discussion of the Biblical mandate, many Muslim countries stand to be disproportionately affected by climate change–and have begun to be so already. By pure bad geographical luck, many of them are unusually susceptible to regional symptoms of a global problem–Bangladesh and Indonesia are being flooded while much of the Arab and Persian worlds, plus much of Africa, are drying up.
People in these regions generally know that the climate is changing, whether they are familiar with the greenhouse effect or not. They can tell that the weather is going wrong, that new, more severe disasters are occurring. Many interpret these changes as signs of the imminent end of the world. Muslims, like Christians, believe that God will one day end this world. However, unlike evangelical Christians, who often attribute disaster to the End Days and not to climate change, Muslims tend to see no conflict between natural and theological explanation.
I am not certain if of my understanding here, but that could mean that Muslims can use the religious stories about the end of the world to relate emotionally and morally to the scientific predictions of the end of the world as we have known it.
How all of this relates to the American Muslim experience is not clear to me. I’d be delighted if American Muslim readers can write in an expand my understanding. But since many are immigrants or descendents of immigrants, a lot of American Muslims probably have friends and relatives back in the old country(s) who are variously desiccating or drowning these days, because of climate change. That must matter.
And since climate change causes increased social instability and terrorism, chances are good that the future will see more American Muslim children apologizing on YouTube for things they did not do.