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Defying Saudis and Iran: Muslim Thinkers Call for Action on Climate Change

More than 1.6 billion Muslims were called upon to urge governments to reach an agreement at December's Paris Climate Change Summit, after Islamic leaders and scholars unveiled a new Climate Change Declaration in Istanbul on Tuesday. (Photo: Islamic Relief)

Attendees at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul from 20 countries produced, and 60 of them signed, a declaration this week warning of the dangers of climate change and urging urgent action to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

But, I fear the press reporting on this meeting is exaggerating its significance.

Contemporary Islam is more like Protestantism in Christianity than like Roman Catholicism, in not having a single head or firm church hierarchy. While the message of the symposium is most welcome and one hopes it will be influential, it has to be pointed out that it seems to come mainly from Muslim academics, with only a few clerics joining in, and that there weren’t many representatives from the Muslim world’s big hydrocarbon states such as Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t seem that al-Azhar Seminary in Cairo, Egypt, one of the foremost seats of Sunni learning and authority, was in any way involved.

The most important clerics seem to have been the mufti or jurisconsult of Lebanon, the mufti of Uganda (where Muslims are a minority), and Din Syamsuddin, the chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). With the exception of the latter, these university professors and NGO heads are not the real authorities in the Muslim world.

In fact, that culture region has a problem when it comes to taking on climate change. While it does not generate very much of the world’s CO2, its major countries produce much of the petroleum and gas that is burned by the industrialized world– Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, e.g.

Oil states such as Saudi Arabia are extremely influential in the Muslim world, spending billions on influencing preachers and mosque congregations.

Saudi Arabia’s officials led the charge at international meetings in the 1990s forward on climate change denial and attempting to stop international bodies from highlighting this issue.

Though, it should be underlined that some hydrocarbon states, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, frankly recognize the problem of global warming and urge climate action. Qatar mainly produces natural gas, which produces about half the carbon pollution of coal, so in a way its product could help reduce carbon emissions in places like India and China that are now heavily coal-reliant. But this process is only a decade-long bridge to wind and solar, which will soon be so inexpensive even not counting externalities that the world will abandon oil and gas.

The Guardian says only one of the attendees at the Istanbul conference was a Saudi national. And all the Shiite invitees from the Middle East declined the invitation (Iran is the chief patron of Shiites, and it has big plans for selling more oil and gas once international sanctions are removed as a result of the UN Security council deal on its civilian nuclear enrichment program.) The Shiite mystic and intellectual Seyyed Hossein Nasr attended from the United States.

Indeed, many of the speakers and signatories at the conference appear to be expatriate Muslims in the West.

It is the hydrocarbon-consuming countries, not the producers, that are taking the lead on carbon reduction. Morocco, for instance, wants to get 40% of its energy from renewables in only five or six years. Malysia, Indonesia, Turkey and Lebanon bulk large at the Istanbul conference, and they are all consuming, not producing nations. So I think we are beginning to see a split between the Muslim producers of oil & gas, and the Muslim consumers of these fuels. The consumers are more fearful of the effects of climate change and less negatively affected if renewables are substituted for fossil fuels. They will likely get pressure and pushback from oil states like Saudi Arabia.

And it was for the most part intellectuals from the consuming countries who produced this document.

The manifesto argues that the vision of the Qur’an, the Muslim scripture, is that God has created the world to be in balance, and charged human beings to be wise stewards of its bounties. There is some pretty good green theology in the statement.

I checked Arabic news for reports of the manifesto, and didn’t find it mentioned in the major Saudi-funded press. Nor did it seem to be in the Egyptian press. The independent Arabic media outlets, Middle East Online (based in London) and Al Bawaba did carry the story (the latter is based in Amman, Jordan). Maybe the rest of Arab media will carry it tomorrow, I don’t know. But it isn’t there as I write.

So, no, this declaration isn’t like the Encyclical of Pope Francise. It is more like a resolution passed at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association (not there is anything wrong with the latter). But it is a welcome sign that Muslim intellectuals are thinking about how to enlist their faith in the fight against climate change. It is brave and selfless of them; but they’re likely to suffer for it.

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Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (Simon and Schuster), will officially be published July 1st. He is also the author of Engaging the Muslim World and Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (both Palgrave Macmillan). He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.

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