Part of the problem, part of the solution? The role of religion in Middle Eastern environmentalism

Umwelt, Energie & Verkehr

When we think of environmental issues and approaches to solve them, religion is not usually the first thing that comes to mind. Nonetheless, research has shown the importance of our values in our responses to environmental issues: while informing people about the consequences of climate change is important, our actions are often grounded less in our knowledge than they are in our values. This is where religion comes into play.

It may come as a surprise that the religion-and-environment debate is not such a recent one. In fact, the issue goes back at least as far as a 1968 article by the US historian Lynn White, in which he accuses religion, particularly the Abrahamic faiths, of being the root cause of environmental problems. White argues that Judeo-Christianity and Islam inherently propagate an anthropocentric image of the world in which they consider humans to be the ‘crown of the creation,’ thus devaluing nature. Today, White concedes, this impact might be in some cases indirect: although many Europeans might not identify as Christians anymore, the Western society is built on Christian values.

In response to White’s accusations, religious scholars of all kinds have formulated environmental interpretations of their faiths to demonstrate that they are not inherently anthropocentric. One such reading has been proposed for Islam, largely based on re-interpretations of the Qur’an and other religious sources. Several teachings of the faith allow for such an environmentalist interpretation, like the idea that the Earth must be protected as God’s creation. By now, these interpretations have spread across the world, and there is a plethora of books and websites that discuss Green Islam.

Middle Eastern countries are particularly affected by environmental issues: air pollution, water scarcity and biodiversity loss, just to name a few, are gravely impacting human health and food supplies. Due to the economic and political challenges, or simply different leadership priorities, policies to prevent environmental degradation are often implemented poorly, or not at all. With the erosion of trust in public authorities, the question is whether civil society organisations, rather than the government, can act on environmental issues, and whether Green Islam could be a part of the solution.

Taking a look at research on social movements as well as the socio-political context of Middle Eastern countries, faith-based environmentalism appears to have certain strengths. First, framing environmental issues within religious values can help to make them more relatable. That is, using concepts and values that are already familiar to the audience—such as the idea that the Earth is God’s creation and must thus be protected—might create a more understandable narrative.

Second, by engaging with the religious norms and values of the audience, environmental organisations can tap into the legitimacy of religion and transfer it to environmental issues. The importance of environmentalism can be established through its place in Islam. To illustrate this, we could have a look at faith-based social charities: in the Middle East, like in other regions, many social organisations motivate their work with religious values, such as solidarity, generosity, and justice, to gain support. To gain legitimacy is pivotal for environmental NGOs, as they are not legitimised through affiliation with the government, and since their work on environmental issues might not be considered a priority.

Third, going beyond merely framing issues in a certain manner, religion might anchor environmental values more deeply on an individual level, creating a sense that nature is worth protecting for its own inherent value. This might help to counter typical issues related to collective action, such as fatalism or free riding, which are both linked to the perceived irrelevance of one’s actions to the final outcome. In a value-oriented setting, the outcome would lose its importance to a certain degree: the focus is on whether you act according to your values, not on whether your actions are successful. In this sense, environmentally detrimental behaviour must be avoided, as it is considered sinful, regardless of the expected final result.

Naturally, there are some dangers to faith-based environmentalism, such as predeterminism, the belief that God will set everything right in the end, which might equally lead to idleness. Nonetheless, it does appear that including faith in environmental advocacy might be fruitful.

It is questionable, however, whether this is done in practice, be it due to the perceived dichotomy between ‘rational/modern’ environmentalism and ‘personal/traditional’ religious values, or simply because environmental NGOs find it difficult to include religion in their work on a practical level. Although a few studies based on White’s theory have investigated whether religious people tend to be more environmentally conscious than their non-religious peers, it remains to be seen whether certain faiths—or faith in general—are capable of mobilising people to take pro-environmental actions.

Interestingly, even though—or perhaps because—White considers religion to be the root cause of environmental problems, he also insists that religion should be part of the solution. In a context like the Middle East, where Islam is presently an integral part of social activism, it could likely take a similar role in environmentalism.

Photo by Tienko Dima (Unsplash)