Indonesia’s Islamic Leaders Tackle Climate Change

By Nabila Sekartanti

Outdoor shot of Al-tin Grand Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia. Source: Nanda Riezky's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Outdoor shot of Al-tin Grand Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia. Source: Nanda Riezky’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Connecting Islam to ecological sustainability goes back to the late 1970s, but this link has reemerged following the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, which was adopted in August during the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul.

The declaration highlights how Muslims, who make up around 25 percent of the world’s population, should be part of the solution and should lead as the khalifa, or steward, of the earth. Its aim is to mobilize the Muslim community worldwide against climate change by igniting a change in the behavior of Muslims. Issued ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year, the declaration can be seen as a necessary – if not obligatory – contribution from the global Muslim community. Among the countries that signed on to the declaration is Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population in the world.

Indonesia’s top Islamic clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), has also issued a fatwa – an Islamic ruling or scholarly opinion – on sustainable development, in coordination with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s plans. One of the council’s three broad goals includes “participation of the Ulema in national development.” MUI’s board of clerics has said it plans to disseminate the fatwa through thousands of Islamic preachers across the archipelago with the ultimate goal of strengthening Indonesian Muslims’ resolve to promote conservation.

MUI leader Din Syamsuddin, who previously represented Islam in a climate change conference at the Vatican, conveyed that having a religious view on climate change is important. This rings especially true in a country such as Indonesia, where Muslims still take their troubles to mosques when real-time solutions lose currency.

Indonesia has been struggling to retain the relevance of Islam in national issues, given its multitude of moderate believers. Liberals and conservatives alike often criticize government policies that either do not adhere to their religious values, or which they believe are too orthodox to be implemented publicly. While most Indonesians take pride in their openness toward religious differences, there have been growing threats of intolerance and extremism that are not easily remedied by the preaching of Islamic leaders. In other words, Indonesia’s Muslim identity is at a crossroads.

Entering its 70th year of independence, Indonesia’s present challenges include not only growing religious intolerance, but also ecological losses from continued bad planning and even worse implementation. The country’s notorious annual peatland fires have invited complaints from neighboring countries, which are suffocating under the smog. Heavy traffic congestion in Jakarta and other urban areas adds to the problem. Poor governance, especially through the top-to-bottom and central-to-district decision-making systems, is one of the biggest factors affecting Indonesia’s environmental ills.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s campaign theme about the need for a “revolusi mental,” or mental revolution, has not touched the sustainable development movement. However, large Islamic organizations such as the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah should expand their efforts to talk about climate change. MUI, which heads both NU and Muhammadiyah, can play an intangible role in shaping religious behavior in ways that would align with environmental concerns.

Since approximately 87 percent of Indonesians frequently listen to clerics , a slow but positive shift in awareness can be expected in the long run if clerics embrace the need for climate change mitigation more forcibly. While clerics have lost much influence in bigger, more modern areas, their teachings still hold significant sway with the rural population. In fact, local religious leaders can still be role models for many Indonesians.

This unprecedented, religious approach, if done right, can gradually salvage Indonesia’s troubled environment. As Muslim leaders begin to adopt more sustainable modes of action, the government should support their efforts by promoting more tangible plans to combat the effects of climate change on Indonesia. The fight against climate change is a collective struggle, and as Indonesia’s Muslims start changing their behavior, so should the government.

Ms. Nabila Sekartanti is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.


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