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Spring 2008

Interfaith Cooperation on Environmental Issues

Muslim Southeast Asian Contributions to a Global Ethic

IN RECENT YEARS SOME MUSLIM WRITERS (NOTABLY THE IRANIAN SCHOLAR KAVEH AFRASIABI AND THE MALAYSIAN HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST FARISH AHMAD NOOR) HAVE CALLED ON MEMBERS OF THEIR FAITH TO EMBRACE ENVIRONMENTALISM AS A TOPIC THAT CONCERNS MUSLIMS AS BOTH A GLOBAL AND AN ISLAMIC ISSUE.

Noor acknowledges that for too long many Muslim thinkers have been preoccupied with collective-identity agendas and a defensivesiege mentality that have precluded interfaith cooperation on global crises. Too often, Muslim scholars—like some of their Abrahamic kin in the Christian community—have regarded the environment in terms of a simplistic formula: Submission to God entitles the faithful to exploitative mastery over the earth. Taken to its extreme, this triumphalism results in an adversarial and manipulative attitude towards nature.

But resources—often overlooked—for countering such trends exist within the Islamic tradition, especially in Sufism (the Islamic mystical tradition). The contemporary IranianAmerican scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr argues that “Nature in Islamic spirituality is...not the adversary but the friend of the traveler upon the spiritual path.” He sees in nature an invitation to meditate and behold the “signs of Allah” in the created world. Nasr uses this as the basis for proposing an Islamic theology of environmental stewardship.

Yet little has been written to date on how Islamic notions of stewardship might best interact with non-Muslim thought worlds in multicultural societies. Here, I think, Indonesia and Malaysia, with their religiously diverse populations, present opportunities.

With such opportunities in mind, in October– November 2007 I served as a volunteer at an East Java wildlife rescue center that is run by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) known as ProFauna Indonesia. The camp, located in the forest hill country near the village of Petungsewu (at some distance from the city of Malang), served as home during much of my time in Indonesia.

Rosek Nursahid, an Indonesian Muslim biologist and the founder of ProFauna, established this NGO to counter the illegal trafficking in wildlife that has increased in recent years as the logging industry reduces the available woodland habitat in Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), and West Papua (the Indonesian part of New Guinea). The rate of deforestation has accelerated because of expanding foreign markets. In particular, the 2008 Beijing Olympics have fueled China’s demand for construction materials, much of which is shipped from Indonesian forests.

Many people are aware of illegal logging in Indonesia. Less well-publicized is the tragedy suffered by Indonesia’s wildlife as a consequence of such activities. Poachers—who find their access facilitated by roads carved through the jungle by the logging corporations’ bulldozers—net thousands of members of endangered species, from pangolins to orangutans.

Some of these captive animals are sold as pets to Indonesian households. Others are trafficked all over the world. For example, in recent years smugglers have been caught at Jakarta’s international airport as they tried to export arboreal primates known as lorises to Kuwait, Japan, and Korea. Many forest animals and sea turtles (from Indonesia’s coastal waters) are illegally shipped via cargo boats to Vietnam and then smuggled via freight trucks across the border to southern China. There the animals are butchered, their organs used as ingredients for aphrodisiacs and traditional medicines. Under Rosek Nursahid’s leadership, ProFauna has fought to stop this trade.

While working at the camp, I had the opportunity to interview Nursahid, ask about the history of ProFauna, and learn about his approach as a Muslim and a scientist to ethical issues concerning the environment. During my stay at the camp, I obtained copies of some of his Indonesian-language writings, such as an essay entitled “The Protection of Animals from the Viewpoint of Islam,” which I’m in the process of translating.

Nursahid’s approach is twofold: activism— rescuing animals, spurring the government to enact and enforce Indonesian environmental laws, and, when necessary, confronting animal traffickers, and education—holding classes and workshops at the camp for students, teachers, government officials, and other members of the Indonesian public. ProFauna’s founder considers especially important the ecology camps it runs for Indonesian children. “By educating them in environmental awareness and respect for animals,” he told me in one of several conversations we had, “we are investing in the next generation.”

As I had hoped, I was integrated into the daily responsibilities linked to the care and rehabilitation of the animals at the center: food preparation, cleaning of cages and habitats, interacting directly with the animals inside their habitats, etc. The most challenging of these activities was serving as a veterinary assistant during surgery on behalf of various animals (especially Sumatran gibbons and Javanese leaf monkeys). I also was invited to visit ProFauna’s sea turtle rehabilitation center in Kuta/Denpasar (where I was able to draw on my earlier experience as an Earthwatch volunteer with leatherback sea turtles in Costa Rica). The benefit of being part of this daily round of chores—aside from learning, in the most immediate and direct way, what ProFauna does to help rehabilitate animals and prepare them for reentry into the wild—was that I had the opportunity to interact with dozens of Indonesian ProFauna staff members—Muslims, Hindus, and Christians—and learn from each of them what it means to be a person of faith who is also committed to the concept of environmental custodianship. And as the only foreigner and American in the camp, I drew plenty of attention and had my share of questions to try to answer.

Capitalizing on the opportunity constituted by my presence, Nursahid and the other members of ProFauna arranged for me to give a workshop and discussion of perspectives offered by world religions on wildlife and environmental issues. ProFauna staff and officials from the Indonesian government’s Department of Forestry attended. In addition, members of the local Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian communities were invited to participate. According to Nursahid, this was the first time such an interfaith event had been attempted.

This was one of the best experiences during my research, insofar as representatives of each community in turn responded to the points I presented. This was followed by a general discussion on how each faith can contribute insights to environmental issues. Among the topics we discussed: the morally problematic sense of overlordship and entitlement that Christians and Muslims have often derived from their readings of scripture. A point of agreement among all those present was the need for religious educators to emphasize humanity’s responsibility for environmental stewardship.

Also worth noting is that although some workshop attendees said little during the public discussion, a number of them sought me out for private consultations in the days that followed. These conversations were far-ranging. A Muslim teacher wanted to follow up on my comments about the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, Sally McFague, and Mark Wallace (the Crucifixion as an ongoing event, as the Spirit of God suffers in solidarity with the created environment) by comparing Christian environmentalism with the Sufi notion of a deity that is emotionally bound up with events on earth. A ProFauna supervisor who happens to be Hindu wanted to apply Jain and Hindu vegetarianism to ethical issues concerning the treatment of animals. Muslim staff members from a town with a mixed ChristianIslamic population asked me for pointers on how to present Christianity to their fellow Muslims in the most “Islamically friendly” way possible. And, as soon as people learned I’ve done research on Shiism, I was asked repeatedly for information on this topic, and I wound up offering a supplementary impromptu presentation on the history of Sunni-Shia relations.

In addition to the work at the camp, I also traveled a good deal. In particular, I visited pasar burung (“bird markets” where in fact all kinds of animals are sold) in Denpasar and the port of Surabaya. In these cities as elsewhere throughout the archipelago, protected species are sold by traffickers to the highest bidder. In conjunction with ProFauna staff, who wished to flush out such dealers, I presented myself as a foreign buyer. We succeeded in locating dealers trafficking in lutung-lutung (Javanese leaf monkeys) and elang ular bido (serpent-eagles).

Shortly before I completed my project at the camp, Nursahid invited me to become a member of ProFauna’s advisory board. I was glad to accept, as I intend to continue my involvement in this work and hope to return to Indonesia.

As an independent nongovernmental organization that responds to numerous environmental issues, ProFauna is in a constant struggle to raise money to continue its work on behalf of Indonesia’s wildlife. Readers who wish to help can visit ProFauna’s website at www.profauna.or.id. For further information, email info@profaunauk.org or dpinault@scu.edu.

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