Rewriting the fatwa at COP22

Chui-Ling Tam's picture

[This post is part of a series offered by IECA members attending COP22 in Marrakech.]

At COP21 last year, a strained air of defiance and urgency permeated Paris, still reeling from the lethal Nov. 13 terrorist attacks launched by extremist forces under the guise of Islam. COP21 delegates and other visitors arriving in the City of Light a scant two weeks later were greeted by constant reminders of the attacks: impromptu shrines to the victims, police tape across bombed restaurants, the very visible and heavily armed security presence, and banners proclaiming "Je suis en terrasse" as French citizens reclaimed their public spaces.

Both before and after the Paris attacks, a conflicted and by turns demonizing narrative of Islam and its followers has emerged in various media and in the public consciousness. One popular framing is the description of Indonesia as “the world’s most populous Muslim nation”, where more than 80% of citizens officially observe Islam.

A tint of Islamic threat taints this framing of Indonesia, a secular state that protects freedom of religion and requires its citizens to declare allegiance to one of the six officially recognized religions: Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. Other religions – e.g. animist – that predate these great religions are not recognized, leading to diverse syncretic practices among the country’s more than 300 ethnic groups, including those officially Muslim. 

Indonesia wrestles with multiple governmental, developmental, ethnic, ecological and spatial challenges across its 17,000 islands strung across an expanse the width of Canada. Collectively, the country is the biggest producer of the land and forest fires and associated smoke haze that periodically blanket Southeast Asia, a huge carbon footprint at odds with the mission of COP22 to combat climate change.

And yet, Indonesia is emerging as a champion of social innovation to combat climate change. On the second day of COP22, five religious leaders representing Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian faiths were invited to address an interfaith session hosted at the elegant Indonesia pavilion where staff milled around in an array of clothing typical of its multi-ethnic secular society: kebayas, hibabs, loosely flowing hair, pencil skirts, suits, denim jeans. The faith leaders spoke of the moral imperative to combat climate change. They spoke of the religious responsibility to combat climate change and the opportunity to reaffirm spiritual faith as part of that struggle. They spoke of the practical work of Asian-specific religious networks in communicating effectively with local communities about climate change, especially impoverished populations bewildered by the shifting landscape of agrarian and maritime livelihoods amid new patterns of rains, storms and ecological hazards. And they applauded Indonesian Muslim leaders for leading the declaration of environmental fatwas.

In this increasingly coordinated interfaith effort to address climate change, the fatwa has become a tool for environmental action in “the world’s most populous Muslim nation”. 

A fatwa is a non-binding legal ruling or opinion issued by an expert in Islamic religious law. It is not by definition a pronouncement of death or a declaration of war, a popular misconception reinforced by globally prominent affairs such as the fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses and on the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s editorial cartoons in 2005 depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The jihadist group Islamic State has reportedly issued more than 30 fatwas directing behaviour across an array of human activity.

Indonesia is using the fatwa differently. The Islamic Council of Indonesia has issued no less than five environmental fatwas, declaring various environment-degrading and climate-altering activities haram, meaning forbidden or sinful. Deforestation exacerbated by land and forest fires, deliberately set, overwhelmingly, to clear virgin forest for palm plantations, is haram. The council has also issued fatwas on destructive mining, on poaching of endangered species, and on overfishing. 

Speakers at the Indonesian pavilion spoke of community-building through Hindu society-led efforts to develop solar cooking in South Asia. They shared that global Christian Church networks are taking a stance against the bottling of water. They mourned Buddhist followers’ slow absorption into global habits of technology and consumption, and advocated a return to the non-material tenets of Buddhism.

There was a uniform message of interfaith coordination to combat climate change as an ethical imperative. But there is another opportunity during this call for religious action in Marrakech, and that is to re-orient the global imagination of Muslim engagement. As the leaders of COP22 frame this year’s negotiations as the COP of Action, the COP to implement the Paris Agreement carved out of a defiant stage freshly marred by terrorist attacks, the environmental fatwa is both a tool against climate change and a tool against the demonization of Islam. We can find something positive in the label: “a populous Muslim nation”.