Can Indonesia's Muslim leaders boost public climate change action?

A man reads the Koran

A man reads the Koran at Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta July 24, 2012. Indonesia's mosques are trying to sound their best for the Ramadan fasting month, splashing out on high quality loudspeakers to woo the faithful and avoid upsetting non-Muslims. Picture taken July 24, 2012. REUTERS/Beawiharta

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Imams in the Southeast Asian nation have been urged to raise awareness about nature and conservation efforts and persuade sceptics.

  • Religious representatives met to discuss green solutions
  • Activists say they can spur greater public engagement
  • Indonesia seen making progress on environmental efforts

KUALA LUMPUR - From packed mosques during Friday prayers to the classrooms of thousands of Islamic boarding schools, Indonesia's Muslim leaders have been urged to use their sermons and influence to boost conservation efforts and win over climate change sceptics.

The country's top Muslim representatives met last month at Southeast Asia's biggest mosque, the Istiqlal in the capital Jakarta, to discuss ways to raise awareness about global warming and develop climate solutions linked to Islamic teachings.

The leaders also established a forum - the Muslim Congress for a Sustainable Indonesia - and called for community donations, including alms, to be used to help fund such efforts.

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Green campaigners say Muslim leaders and imams can play a key role in fostering greater understanding and action on climate change - and also work with governments to focus on sustainability, not just economic development, in policy.

"Imams or religious leaders are really respected and highly listened to in Indonesia - they can have a big impact on both government policy and citizen action," said Jeri Asmoro, Indonesia digital campaigner at climate activist group

"Imams could affect a lot of social change ... seeding awareness of environmentally-friendly life and propelling the climate movement at the grassroots level," he added.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle global warming, Indonesia - the world's eighth-biggest carbon polluter - has committed to cut its emissions by 29% by 2030 versus business-as-usual levels and hopes to reach net-zero by 2060 or sooner.

Almost 85% of electricity in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation is generated from fossil fuels, and it is the planet's top thermal coal exporter.

Also home to a third of the world's rainforests, Indonesia is the top producer of palm oil and a major source of timber, which green groups blame for forest clearing for plantations.

Cutting down forests has major implications for global goals to curb climate change, as trees absorb about a third of the planet-warming emissions produced worldwide, but release carbon back into the air when they rot or are burned.

Indonesia is already suffering the impacts of global warming, with cities and coastal areas hit by regular flooding and rising sea levels, while rural regions often struggle to cope with forest fires and drought.

Girls walk along a street affected by floods in Jakarta, Indonesia

Girls walk along a street affected by floods in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 8, 2021. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

Girls walk along a street affected by floods in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 8, 2021. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

Zulfira Warta, a climate project leader at WWF-Indonesia, said there was a need for more leadership from Muslim clerics on environmental change among their congregations and communities.

About 90% of Indonesia's 270 million people are Muslim, while the nation has 800,000 mosques, 37,000 Islamic boarding schools, and more than 170 Islamic-led universities – offering a platform for education and action on a huge scale, he said.

"Imams can contribute a moral and spiritual energy that the climate and environmental movements urgently need," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Climate change deniers

Yet green groups say there is a long way to go on climate change, especially in the country's rural and poorest regions.

A YouGov global poll in 2019 showed Indonesia had the highest proportion of climate change deniers at 18%.

Conservationists say this is largely due to a lack of teaching about climate issues at many schools.

Stigmatisation of climate activists by the government and the fossil fuel industry has also influenced mindsets and pushed the narrative that green advocates are against economic growth, said Eji Anugrah Romadhon, a campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

David Gaveau, an ecologist who has researched deforestation in Indonesia, said that economic development was a top priority for the government while climate change was not.

However, there is growing awareness about climate change among Indonesia's youth and civil society, while the government has made some headway in tackling deforestation in recent years.

Workers plant mangrove trees at a conservation garden in Jakarta to mark Earth Day

Workers plant mangrove trees at a conservation garden in Jakarta to mark Earth Day April 22, 2009. REUTERS/Dadang Tr

Workers plant mangrove trees at a conservation garden in Jakarta to mark Earth Day April 22, 2009. REUTERS/Dadang Tr

It has also banned new conversion permits for old-growth forest and carbon-rich peatlands, temporarily stopped issuing new permits for palm plantations, created an agency to restore damaged peat, and promoted the electric vehicle industry.

Meanwhile, young Indonesians have spearheaded a mass tree-planting drive, established conservation groups, and taken part in weekly climate school strikes.

"Within the youth and the civil society, there is growing awareness and movement on climate," said Asmoro of "Mostly it emerges at the urban and educated levels of society."

Eco-mosques and fatwas

Many Indonesians believe God plays a role in disasters and climate change, according to Romadhon of Greenpeace Indonesia, while Muslim leaders are also still the main source for most people when making decisions about their way of life.

Religious leaders should dig "more into Islamic teachings about the earth and repairing it"," he added.

Some progress has been made already.

In a world first, Indonesia's highest Muslim clerical council issued a non-legally binding fatwa against killing endangered animals in 2014, followed by a similar edict to stop the burning of land and forests two years later.

Five years ago, worshippers in Indonesia launched a new initiative that aimed to establish 1,000 eco-mosques.

And in 2018, Islamic organisations partnered with the government in a bid to cut plastic waste.

"Such fatwas can support and bolster government regulations and give more impetus and inspiration for pro-environment behaviours," said WWF's Warta.

Annisa Rahmawati, head of Indonesian conservation group Satya Bumi, urged civil society, religious leaders and citizens to unite to pressure the government and business to declare a climate and nature emergency - and respond accordingly.

Many principles about protecting nature are embedded in Islamic practices, she added, urging religious leaders to help people understand how their behaviour impacts the environment.

"We have the solutions - we (just) need all actors to play their part and our Muslim faith can underpin all of this," Rahmawati said.

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