In a society increasingly driven by science and technology, world religions and the communities they inspire remain a vast and rock-solid political force. Going by the numbers alone, Pew Research Center estimated in 2015 that there were over 5 billion people of faith in our contemporary world, belonging to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faith-based cosmologies, including Indigenous and Native belief systems. Despite their outsized influence on so many aspects of our personal, social, and political lives, however, religious thinking and morality have struggled to gain a foothold in debates over a number of critical issues confronting our world today, including climate change and environmental justice, consumer capitalism, and solidarity struggles.
In this four-part series, host and climate correspondent Aman Azhar shines a light on how faith-based cosmologies inform and influence our political conduct, even in the most intimate of ways. These interdisciplinary conversations with thought leaders from different faith groups explore the intersections of religion and the politics of climate change. What sort of political actions do—and can—these worldviews inspire? Do the gods and followers of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have a say in the future of our warming planet? If the answer is a resounding “Yes,” then why can’t we hear their voices more in popular media? Have they been muted? If so, why (and by whom)?
In the first interview of this four-part series, Aman Azhar talks to Abdul Rehman Malik of Yale Divinity School about how Muslim belief systems interact with climate discourse—and what counsel Islam has to offer its adherents on caring for the planet.
Studio: Tunde Ogunfolaju
Post-Production: Sebastian Pituscan
Aman Azhar: Hello, and welcome to Real News Network. I’m your host, Aman Azhar, and my guest this time around is Mr. Abdul Rehman Malik. He’s a lecturer at Yale’s Divinity school and has a keen eye on interfaith responses to the climate justice issues of our time. Thank you, Mr. Malik, for your time today on Real News Network.
Abdul Rehman Malik: Aman, it’s good to be here with you.
Aman Azhar: Now let me fire away with my question. How central is the climate justice issue to the communities of faith? And of course, I mean the major world religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Abdul Rehman Malik: I think it’s an important question and I think it has to be answered in a number of different ways. I think first we have to think about the ways in which religious institutions, particularly churches and the networks that are built around them have been responding to the issue of the climate emergency. And I think when I think about that, the first thing that comes to my mind is Pope Francis’ Laudato si, this very important document on preserving the environment, that’s come from the head of the largest Christian community in the world. So clearly in certain religious institutions and certain major world traditions, there’s been an increased importance around the climate emergency and around environmental protection.
I think the question for us is often where does the rubber hit the road? How important are conversations around climate justice and the climate emergency? And what is happening to the natural world are part and parcel of the conversations that are taking place within communities. And I think here the ground is a lot more sketchy and actually is a lot more nuanced. I think, particularly in Muslim communities, what I’ve been seeing, not only over the last five years, but probably over the last 25 years, is an increasing concern amongst scholars, religious leaders, and actually the development of organizations and spaces where scholars and religious leaders are talking more and more about the obligation that people of faith have to ensure that the earth is protected and that we make significant changes of human behavior that will circumvent our abuse of the abuse of the planet.
And within the Muslim tradition, this goes right back 30 or 40 years. And if you look at the work of scholars, like Seyyed Nasr, professor emeritus at George Washington University, he was calling to question the tenets of scientism, the tenets of inexorable human progress way back in the 1960s and ’70s, when he was writing about these issues through the lens of Islamic spirituality and Islamic mysticism. So I think actually the terrain, Aman, is far more complicated than it first seems. And I think a lot of the ways in which these issues have been framed for a lot of us have been through conservative Christian churches who are seen as God’s voice on capitalism and inexorable economic progress. And I think as we begin to look at various faith traditions and the plurality of voices of those traditions and the complexity of those traditions, we find a lot more nuance in the way in which this is being addressed.
Aman Azhar: Right. Well, I agree that this terrain is quite complex in itself, and there are many nuances, but here we are yet in the middle of a pandemic, which in so many ways can be linked back to the manmade or human made interventions in the name of development and other extractive practices. So, what went wrong? Are these just voices and not too much of an action?
Abdul Rehman Malik: Yeah, I wonder. Again, it’s a fascinating question. To what extent do faith traditions and faith guidance influence the way in which we behave in the world, particularly in relation to the natural environment? I’ll answer that in one of two ways. I think that, I mean, there is dilemmas. As a journalist who covers the climate emergency and responses to it, you know how much it takes to move human behavior, how much it takes to move individual human behavior, and let alone the important work of moving institutions and moving structures of power and privilege along this spectrum to addressing climate emergency. I think religious communities are no different than that. I think in some ways, faith communities have paid lip service to these things. They sound good in sermons and in [hut-bahs 00:05:18] and in epistles from the pulpit or the minbar, but actually when it comes to the bonafide human changes that we need to take place, we’re as capitalist as anyone else.
What I see happening, particularly in the global South, in places like Indonesia, where I’ve spent a lot of time, is something different going on because the climate emergency in those particular places is acute. What we’re seeing is religious leadership institutions and bodies engaging far more robustly with climate activists and with policy makers, because it’s a matter now of life and death. In a city like Jakarta, which you and I know is literally sinking into the ocean, and potentially tens of millions of lives are at risk, I think what we’re looking at is major Islamic organizations like the Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, the Al Muhammadiyah organization actually issuing fatwas about behavior vis-a-vis the environment. In places where there has been over fishing, for instance, in places where there has been deforestation, you now see Ulama religious scholars uniting with indigenous and local communities to actually create action, not just ideas and theology, but action in terms of protecting those places.
An interesting organization, the Islamic Foundation for the Environment and Ecological Science, IFEES, started a program many years ago on the east coast of Africa, looking at the problem of over fishing. And what they were finding was that fishermen often who are at very difficult economic circumstances were using TNT and dynamite on coral reefs to basically blow them apart, and they would pick up the fish who had passed away. It was actually the intervention of local religious leaders that stopped that from happening. So I think there’s parts of the world where we’re finding a far more robust engagement on the ground in terms of practical action. I also think that there is the growing development of a kind of a theological terrain. I think in the Christian tradition, there’s well-established now fields of what we would call ecological or environmental theology, even climate theology that are being developed.
Aman Azhar: Right. Right. But I guess the question then becomes, in the time of pandemic, which is as a close as you can get to an emergency all around the world, including the United States, yet do you see any articulation from the standpoint that you are talking about that this is also very closely linked to the human intervention and all the extractive practices? I don’t hear that voice in the mainstream media. Do you?
Abdul Rehman Malik: I don’t hear it in the mainstream media, which is why we’re on the Real News Network right now, because I think what we’re finding is, is that in the mainstream, not only are these voices marginalized, but these voices are often ignored. This Ramadan, for instance, which as you know, has been such an unusual Ramadan. Ramadan is a time of community, a time of people coming together in service, in fasting together and breaking our fast. So much of Ramadan is around community, isn’t it? However, given that this Ramadan has been so unusual and so and so different, and we’ve been called to become much more internal in many ways than connect with our families. There’s been a proliferation of programming online, as you can imagine, as people try to connect the virtual community.
One of the popular and important programs that has been taking place has been out of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and the Cambridge Muslim College, which is an emerging seminary institution, has actually been highlighting these issues through the work of its Dean, Dr. Tim Winter, also known as Shaykh Hakim Murad. And actually it’s interesting because Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, Dr. Tim Winter in the lead up to Ramadan issued a really important almost manifesto around a theological understanding of the pandemic, and core to that was issues around climate emergency. Core to that was issues around human consumption. Core to that was a deep questioning of the systems and the ways in which we act as humans in the world in an extractive and exploitative way.
So what I’m seeing happening is, is that not only are those ideas emerging, I think they’re emerging in a way to suggest that they are core and fundamental to our religious traditions. And it is vital at this time to recapture that ethical and moral core, which speaks to our relationship with creation. I mean, I think as someone who’s engaged at times, and more than engaged, learned from indigenous communities in Canada, where I’m originally from, we often with indigenous communities and in that language speak about the earth as our mother, which I’ve always found an incredibly emotive way of seeing our relationship with the earth. But I have to go back into my own tradition. And I find that when the prophet Muhammad spoke about the earth, he says, “Preserve the earth because the earth is your mother.” So these are shared values across broad cross sections of not just monotheistic traditions, but of faith itself.
Aman Azhar: Right. Which actually brings me to the question I’ve been meaning to ask you. Does faith have much of a pull on its followers in this day and age, given all the competition from Amazon, from Netflix, from buying things, from visiting places, having a good time? I mean, especially when you look at the younger generations.
Abdul Rehman Malik: Yeah. I mean, there’s a constant tension, constant battle. There was a point at some point where people thought faith would disappear. I spent 15 years in the United Kingdom and was deeply engaged in the secular non-secular controversies of modern day Europe. The fact is faith is not disappearing. Faith and faith identity continues to remain vitally important for billions of people on the planet, even in the heart of the “secular West”. We only have to see this in the case of the United States, as an example of that. In places like Europe, of course, the revival of faith in the public square has really been through the emergence of robust dynamic Muslim communities who mitigate against the atomized capitalist Christianity that surrounds them.
Is faith important? I think it is. I think faith identity continues to remain important. And especially, Aman, in a time when certain faith identities are highly politicized, I speak about things like the Muslim ban, rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, rising anti-immigrant feeling connected to rising Islamophobia. This kind of political situation is going to create an environment, a terrain if you will, where people are going to express their faith identities more and more. Now for some people, that faith identity isn’t going to be religious. It’s going to be around Muslimness. It’s going to be around holding to a certain type of culture, but I’m not one of those people who likes to categorize those things. I see faith and culture as these ecosystems where a lot is happening. Muslimness is as important to those for whom Muslimness is important.
And I think we’re reaching a point when it comes to the issue of the climate emergency, where we need all hands on deck. We need religious institutions, we need scholarship, we need faith inspired and faith based civil society action. And I think what we’re seeing is more and more, whether it’s the faith climate action weeks that have taken place all around the world, whether it’s the interfaith summit on climate change that’s happened, whether it’s the representation of faith communities during the broader climate summits that are taking place, or it’s the local actions that multi-faith communities are taking place, faith is a powerful source of not only solidarity, but a powerful source of organization.
Aman Azhar: Okay. So could you tell me if there’s a worthwhile effort or efforts on part of the faith or interfaith communities in the United States that are putting their weight behind the movement for climate justice?
Abdul Rehman Malik: Interfaith Peace and Light, which is a really interesting climate organization, IPL, has been doing some important work around this. The Faith Climate Action week, which they sponsor, is an opportunity for faith communities across the United States to come together. A lot of the major humanitarian organizations, and on the Muslim side of the equation, those are organizations like Islamic Relief, have at their core now advocacy around climate change and are engaged in that conversation, and in fact are engaged in humanitarian work, which now takes into account issues around the climate emergency. When I was in the United Kingdom, for instance, I was involved in, at that time the first interfaith effort around climate change, which involve organizations like Islamic Relief, Christian Aid, the largest Christian inspired humanitarian organization in the UK. And it was a coming together not only faith leaders, but young people and people from communities around this issue.
Does more need to happen? Absolutely it does. Here in the United States, we’re lucky. I’ve been seeing particularly this Ramadan an incredible emergence of locally organized online efforts, Green Muslims, Green Deen, the excellent book and work by Ibrahim Abdul-Matin called Green Deen has been the catalyst for a number of community actions around the climate emergency. I think we’ve got to see this whole thing, and particularly the movement around the climate emergency, we have to see ourselves as a broad church, so to speak, or a broad synagogue or a big temple, where a whole variety of voices have to be engaged. You know, Aman, I think where the real work has to be done, if there’s work that has to be done, it has to be done amongst the influential evangelical Christian organizations in the United States, places where things like the prosperity gospel reign supreme, where the church itself supports mass consumption, where somehow religiosity and Christian identity is tied to capitalism. I think that’s where a lot of the work at this country needs to be done. And there are important movements that are doing that work.
Aman Azhar: Right, right. And yet when we go to polls and when we look at the candidates and we look at the political discourse from one end of the spectrum to the other, we don’t find much of the candidates, neither Republican nor Democrats, to really talk about going green or conservation practices, anything that can bring a cut to this unreal consumption. Why is it that? Are these two disconnected discourses, one on the ground and one in the power quarters?
Abdul Rehman Malik: I mean, I think that there is that disconnect. And I think we have to ask candidates from all sides of the political spectrum why this is important. I think we saw in Bernie’s campaign and other campaigns a strong centering of issues around the climate emergency. In some ways, Aman, this pandemic moment is such a confusing moment, isn’t it? Because I think what’s happening is, is that right now in terms of economic devastation, in terms of the fact that we have 40 million people in this country who are now unemployed, the fact that the people who are most at risk of getting the novel coronavirus are people of color and marginalized people who have no choice but to work in dangerous jobs, raises all kinds of issues around personal survival in our most marginalized and segregated communities.
In many ways, this is a challenge for the climate movement. Isn’t it? How do we not only acknowledge, but work for economic justice while working for climate justice? And the truth is that, and the people who are leading this movement know it, economic justice, justice for the global South, is deeply tied to climate justice. A weaning ourselves off extractive economic practices and developing new forms of economic wellbeing are vital to this work. And it’s true. I think we are living in a time where the political will behind this has decreased because of the emergency that we’re in. The question for me, as someone who engages in faith and faith communities, is how can we as faith communities be a catalyst to bring these issues back into the center? And I think that comes from speaking maybe in some ways, at times in a risky way, speaking about these things holistically, that we cannot separate out climate emergency from economic justice. We can’t separate economic justice from racial segregation and racial injustice. And none of that can be separated from institutional violence against people of color and those who are marginalized.
Aman Azhar: Right. The question also is, do we really need religion to tell us something as basic as caring for the planet?
Abdul Rehman Malik: I mean, we clearly do and we clearly don’t. Our faith traditions, whether you’re a believer or not is irrelevant. Our faith traditions, and I say faith traditions in the broadest possible way, not merely in an Abrahamic way, I’m talking about indigenous traditions, I’m talking about Vedic traditions, I’m talking about Abrahamic traditions, I’m talking about tribal [inaudible 00:20:19] traditions. Faith is a repository of human wisdom that takes us back thousands and tens of thousands of years into our humanity. What we need now is for our faith to be wisdom traditions. My friend and mentor, the late [Fahad Al Nahdi 00:20:38], who passed away of COVID-19, just as the pandemic was beginning, had an incredible phrase, which he used to use and which I come back to. He talked about the need in this time of fragmentation and this time of emergency. He said, “We need convergence, not conversion.”
The goal of faith now is faith to animate us to action. Why? Because we need to converge. We need to converge together in terms of dealing with this. So, is faith needed? For some it’s not, but I would say that we ignore faith at our peril. We ignore the wisdom tradition. We ignore the powerful, ethical, moral frameworks that faith gives us. And faith has been an animating force, and it is the time that that force be animated for good. And I think in that way, Pope Francis is very early intervention in his papacy on this issue, the Laudato si, was so vital. You read the Laudato si, it is a manifesto clarion call to action for people of faith to jump deeply into the work of repairing the planet. And why I raise Pope Francis again is that often it is these large religious institutions who we are deeply and appropriately critical of, but there are times when those very institutions and their ability to move people is actually exactly what we need.
Aman Azhar: Right. Well, which also brings me to my last question on that point, and which is that and yet we find ourselves in the middle of a catastrophe, a catastrophe which is propelled also by our extractive practices and increasing deforestation. So in retrospect, do you think that the organized religions have failed us in the manner that they have historically put their weight behind such extractive practices?
Abdul Rehman Malik: I think some organizations have failed us. I think institutions like the church have failed us, and those religious institutions which have supported imperialist exploitation, extraction, that have taught the prosperity gospel, I think they have failed us indeed. The failure of certain interpretations of religion doesn’t mean that I and so many others are willing to throw the baby out with the bath water. Aman, I feel like I’m incredibly pragmatic about this. I think the pragmatism of the moment right now is that we need to create as many linkages as we can, as many possibilities as we can for people to engage. And if that means calling on the divine, and that is the way that we are moved by it, and certainly that’s the way in my own faith practice I am moved by it, deeply moved by it.
I see it at a place like Yale Divinity School, an incredibly progressive institution with incredible young people who are going to go out into not only the work of ministry, but are actually going to go out into the work of non-profits and public service. I see them being animated by faith, and animated by faith in a way that’s not merely parochial and tribal, but they see the work as being the work of connectors. And the best of religion that I’ve seen from the work of chaplains and community activists and incredible individuals who are doing incredible work out there is that the best of them are those who want to connect with others. And I think definitely the growing interfaith work and consensus around this issue is vital. I think the real rubber, and you were right to mention it, when the rubber hits the road, it is really about how that changes our behavior.
But I also caution about that. And I recently was speaking to a student about this and she had written a very provocative and exciting paper on Slavic theological approaches to personal responsibility for the environment. One of the things that I didn’t push back on, but I wanted to put into the equation of that particular conversation was we, as individuals, can take action, but you and I know that these are systems and institutions that are exploitative and extractive. You and I can do what we need to do, reduce our consumption, reduce our carbon footprint. That is the right moral and ethical thing to do. I totally agree. However, where are we in pushing our governments and our policy? Because that’s where the problem is. The problem is in policy and state driven policy. The problem is in our support for corporate entities that do the extraction. It’s in removing environmental safeguards, as governments are doing today. That is the real issue. Isn’t it?
These are big systemic issues. And I think this is one of the challenges of the climate movement. How do we move the needle on these massive systemic issues which are causing catastrophe, while at the same time taking personal responsibility?
Aman Azhar: Right. Yeah. Which brings us back also to the point that we discussed earlier in this conversation about the disconnect between a grassroots movement and the political structures on top of it. Well, that brings us to the end of this conversation. Let me thank you, Mr. Abdul Rehman Malik, for taking out time, speaking with us in such a holistic manner and telling us about shedding light on the matter of faith as they’re tying to the climate justice issues in the United States and the rest of the world. Also, thank you, thanks to the audience for tuning in. If you want to look us up, we’re at therealnews.com. For myself and the rest of the team, for now it’s goodbye and be well.