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The Greening of Islamic Politics

By Saleem H. Ali, Haris N. Hidayat | August 11, 2008

CREDIT: HKmPUA (CC).

As the host of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2007, Indonesia welcomed the world to the idyllic island of Bali as a venue to reach agreement on one of the most challenging environmental issues. Several years prior, the island had been the scene of the worst series of terrorist bombings in the region, killing more than two hundred people. These attacks, which were carried out by Muslim militants, further stigmatized and marginalized Islamic political parties in the international community.

In particular, Indonesia's pesantren (religious boarding schools) came under great scrutiny due to their perceived connections to some of the Bali bombers. Even U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama felt obliged to distance himself from his childhood days in Indonesia because of a rumor that he had attended a pesantren, since both his father and stepfather were Muslim. Yet a closer analysis of the political scene in this sprawling country of more than 17,500 islands shows that Islamist political institutions are making a remarkably green comeback that might appear progressive even to many Western politicians.

National Awakening?

Veteran Islamic politician Abdurrahman Wahid (popularly known as Gus Dur) recently established the Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB) or National Awakening Party, which has a powerful environmental message and is calling itself the country's "Green Party." The slogan was officially launched just before the climate change meeting in Bali at a ceremony at which many Muslim activists joined forces with environmental campaigners. Specific nongovernmental organizations that have been most strident on environmental issues, such as Greenpeace, were invited by the PKB to attend the event. Beyond the branding and rhetoric, the PKB has a clear strategy to improve Indonesia's environmental performance.

The party has proposed to amend the Indonesian constitution to make the right to a clean environment a fundamental human right and to strengthen national laws on pollution, forestry, and land access.

Accordingly, the political agenda of the PKB includes encouraging the establishment of a moratorium on logging and forest restoration within a period of ten years, and pressuring the government and the House of Representatives to conduct eco-friendly budgeting in the state's policies. No doubt such stances will be politically controversial, but coming from the PKB they are considered more grassroots. The party also hopes to accelerate a slew of environmental legislation ranging from mining to maritime management. In addition, the PKB is establishing an environmentalist Islamic boarding school and a program of energy diversification in the schools through a "pesantren biogas management project."

The enunciation of environmentalism is thus quite explicit among Islamic politicians who recognize that their rural base relies on environmental resources. The onslaught of repeated natural disasters on the archipelago has also heightened this awareness, which blends with a religious sense of divine retribution for environmental harms.

"Environment-oriented political ethics are part of a collective effort to implement a new ecological philosophy that is knowledge-based while being predicated in spirituality," said prominent young party member Muhammad Lukman Edy in a public address in November 2007. "It is not difficult for PKB to achieve this, since the party also represents the politics of the Islamic scholars. The creation of a philosophical foundation and spiritual values for the party's environment-oriented political ethics is thus very realistic." (translated by coauthor Haris Hidayat).

Nuclear Nemesis

Another remarkable manifestation of the greening of political Islam in Indonesia has been the fatwa (religious edict) issued by some notable Islamic clerics in Java against nuclear power. Much to the surprise of Western political pundits, several clerics declared recently that nuclear weapons are inherently un-Islamic and that even nuclear energy must be avoided because of its potential for abuse. Several Islamist parties are thus opposing the development of the Muria nuclear power plant in the Jepara district of Central Java, and have called it haram (forbidden).

Declaring the power station haram did not solely emerge from the ulamas' (scholars) distrust of the government, nor was it simply a case of political expediency. Rather, it was based on the logic of Islamic law (fiqh). The benefits and harms of the project were the main concern of the scholars in issuing this fatwa, and they made an attempt to consolidate their normative doctrines and regulations with empirical social aspects so that the fatwa could provide an answer to public concerns about the project.

Clearly there is some disagreement on the matter within theological ranks, since Muslim leaders had previously supported nuclear energy as a mark of power and prestige. Ma'ruf Amin, the head of the Islamic Teaching Commission in the ultraconservative Indonesian Ulemas Council, responded to the fatwa by urging caution about hastily declaring external issues as forbidden.

The PKB stands firm in both its opposition to nuclear energy and its alliance with environmentalists, while making its priorities as a religious party clearer for its constituents. Muhaimin Iskandar, a former National Chairman of the PKB National Representative Council, stated in a recent interview that becoming an environmentalist party did not mean that the PKB would denounce its characteristics as a religious nationalist party. Rather, the declaration to be green, as manifest in actions such as nuclear opposition, marks a new focus for the party.

An Unfinished Agenda for Development

The greater political freedom that Indonesia has achieved in recent years does not necessarily equate to an improvement of the consciousness and commitment of all the political elite toward environmental conservation. For instance, only 9 out of 24 political parties in the 2004 general election had environmental visions in their platforms. These parties, some of them Islamic, were expected to follow through on their commitments by improving the poor organization of Indonesia's environmental conservation by tying it to development.

For example, PK-Sejahtera party representative S. H. Suripto has commented on the importance of balancing the material and spiritual aspects of the developmental paradigm, as a means of keeping mankind on a pure path as stewards here on earth. Despite such positive statements, observers of the development of environmentalism in Indonesia, such as Emil Salim, the first environment minister of the country and a Berkeley-educated economist, are still cautious in their optimism about the greening of political Islam. Now in his late seventies, Dr. Salim reminisced on how thirty years ago, upon his appointment as Minister of State for Development and Environment, he had first visited the notable Islamic scholar Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah (known also as Buya Hamka) to seek guidance. The scholar told him clearly that "Islam is an environmental faith." The political parties have thus been a step behind some of the scholars on this matter. Perhaps they are finally catching up.

In his latest book, The Creation, eminent ecologist E. O. Wilson writes an open letter to world religious leaders in which he urges theologians to unite on environmental causes: "The defense of living Nature is a universal value. It doesn't rise from nor does it promote any religious or ideological dogma. Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity." It seems as though Wilson's plea is at least being heard in Indonesia—one of the world's highest biodiversity regions.

For centuries, Muslims considered Indonesia to be Islam's most distant outpost—the furthest east that the message from Arabia had traveled and endured. Yet this diffuse country with multiple identities is leading the way in the greening of Islamic politics. Perhaps the contentious clash of civilizations that is so often foretold by conservative politicians can be averted by some simple acts of collective conservation.


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Read More: Democracy, Education, Energy, Environment, Ethics, Governance, Religion, Indonesia, Asia

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