By Alessandra (Safiyah) Palange
“Whatever good comes to you is from Allah, but what comes to you of evil, [O man], is from yourself. We have sent you, [Muhammad], to the people as a messenger, and Allah is sufficient as Witness.”
Qur’an Surat an-Nisa 79
Since the inception of XR Muslims, a number of XR affinity groups have contacted us with more or less the same request: ‘We are based in an area densely populated by Muslim communities but we have no Muslims in our group. How can we engage with Muslim organisations such as mosques?’
Some of us within XR Muslims have put together a few general tips that come from our personal experiences, both as Muslims in XR and as Muslims who feel close to the issues that affect Muslims in Britain today. A word of warning that these observations can only provide broad insights into the Muslim community. As Muslim communities differ from place to place, and there is much nuance between them, these insights should be taken as a general guide only. In addition, the tips outlined in this document aim to encourage a particular ethos of diversifying and decolonising our thinking and our ways of doing. This is only a draft document and we are happy to take feedback to improve its message and reach. Please contact us at xrMuslims@gmail.com if you’d like to give some feedback.
Our top tips, in no particular order are:
1- Learning and Listening
When engaging with Muslim organisations first listen to what they have to say about Islam, XR and climate change. You should want to listen, understand and engage with their environmental ideas and how, if at all, they are inspired by their faith. When you attend events or meet Muslims for the first time, don’t dominate conversations and Q&As with your own XR narrative, rather listen to the speakers, listen to other Muslims and the questions they ask, take some time away to reflect about what you observed and then maybe go back for more conversations. Resist the temptation of providing your own XR solutions, rather focus on the fact that there are a multiplicity of diverse solutions out there and that you want to learn a different perspective among many. Going to these spaces and providing your own version of by what means, how fast and what change should be achieved is the very hegemonic/colonial type of thinking that we want to avoid at all costs. Think about the ‘active listening’ that you’re required to do during a people’s assembly. We believe that that kind of active listening with a sincere willingness to learn different perspectives is the best way to build relationships, especially minority communities of which you may not know much about.
Likewise, when you go and visit an imam or mosque committee member, instead of telling them what to do (XR demands, XR actions, most effective type of activism etc) take the time first to ask them what Islam says about environmental issues or climate change, ask them, if prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was alive now, what would he do? How would he deal with this in Medina? This will empower them to give solutions and will leave them with things to think about while having shared knowledge with you at the same time.
Be aware that there are a number of publications and organisations working on Islam and the environment. We have put here links to some materials, including ones we (XR Muslims) are building. The list is by no means exhaustive:
● IFEES/ECO Islam and the prominent work of Fazlun Khalid. Eco Islam has worked with other organisations to draft the “Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change” and Fazlun Khalid has written a number of books on Islam and the Environment, including his most recent one Signs on the Earth: Islam Modernity and the Climate Crisis. XR Muslims hosted a People’s Assembly during the October Rebellion with two IFEES/ECO Islam members.
● The Sultan Bahu Trust is another organisation which is doing a lot of work to bring Islam and its ecological message to the forefront.
● There is an eco mosque in Cambridge, which is one of the first European mosques purpose built with sustainability and environment at its core.
● We have produced this video of a talk given by Kamran Shazad at the People’s Assembly during the October Rebellion in his personal capacity and as a spokesperson for Faith for Climate. Please feel free to share it.
● The East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre also recently hosted a major conference on Islam and the Environment, a flyer of which can be found here. To complement the speakers who provided a scientific explanation on why climate change is an important issue to engage with, the Imam of the Mosque also gave talk based on a khutba (sermon) on the Islamic principles underlying the need to act on climate change. The full khutba is available here for sharing with anyone in your community who might be interested. As the East London Mosque (ELM) and London Muslim Centre is a major mosque, providing awareness of this event may encourage other communities to host similar events for their communities. To build on this, we are also trying to develop a “Heading for Extinction” XR Muslims talk that could be hosted in Muslim/Islamic centres and we will draw, where appropriate, from this Khutba. You can also find IFEES Climate Change (and other) Khutba Notes here.
● Imam Dr Rashied Omar gave an eid ul-fitr khutba in South Africa about becoming an eco Muslim and adding Protection of the Environment (Hifz al-Bi’ah) to the aims of Islamic Law (maqaasid al-Shari’ah). This can be read here.
We are slowly building a bibliography of works on Islam and the environment. The bibliography can be found here.
Learning about this work is an acknowledgement that you are willing to engage with Muslims (as you should do with other communities) as partners on a level playing field. In some cases you may find that the Muslim organisations you get in contact with will refuse to be seen as a part of XR or to be seen working under the XR ‘brand’ and this is not an issue. In these cases it may be worth providing support to these organisations to help them build successful environmental advocacy on their own terms and using their own identity.
2- Do some homework
Before approaching Muslim organisations, do a little bit of homework to get a sense of what the communities are about. For example, sometimes there can be more than one mosque in a small area because they cater for different demographics or religious orientations. Muslims (although they often share a feeling of unity and a sense of brotherhood/sisterhood) do not constitute a monolithic community, in the UK or anywhere else in the world. A basic understanding of Islam would also be helpful (see below for some basic information and where to look to find more). Some research on the links above about Islam and the environment will help you understand the communities you are trying to approach and the issues they face. This will show that you have real interest and will help to find areas where XR’s and Muslim organisations’ efforts meet.
Tower Hamlets community groups, including East London Mosque and XR Tower Hamlets, organised a march for Climate Justice on 29 November 2019. Doing research about what other local Muslim groups are doing and supporting them can help build connections with your local Muslim groups.
3 – Beyond tokenism
Overall, Muslim organisations are likely to be very welcoming to non-Muslims, so be yourself and honest about your willingness to listen and hear their views. To ensure meaningful engagement, it is important to include Muslims in discussions and decision making and to move away from token diversification.
If any Muslim shows interest in actually joining your XR group (as opposed to collaborating as two separate organisations), make sure you involve them in all you’re doing, across a variety of topics and activities and not only on those topics/activities that relate to ethnic minorities or religious issues. It can be very frustrating for people from communities that are considered ‘ethnic or religious minorities’ when they are not treated as part of the wider group and only consulted when issues of ‘integration’ and ‘diversity‘ are being discussed.
Within the principles of XR, let the people and communities you invite shape your relationship with them and shape XR culture. Try not to impose XR culture on them. Generally, assume that Muslim communities and organisations know their stuff about climate change and current politics and have as much to teach you than you have to teach them.
Basic info about Islam
● Prayers – if you are going to a masjid/mosque, be aware of the five daily prayer times, which you can find here, as those are the times when you are likely to find Muslims at the masjid. Most mosques/masjids have websites with prayer times, so google the mosque to find out exact times. It is better to approach them after the prayer time, as beforehand many will be rushing to prayer. Times may differ in other parts of the UK and beyond.
● Remember that shoes MUST be removed at the entrance.
● Many (not all) mosques have separate entrances for men and women, although some of the smaller mosques are men only. There are likely to be points of contact in both women’s and men’s spaces and making contact in both may be a good idea, respecting the fact that in some Muslim communities, women may prefer to engage with other women.
● Islamic terminology can be easily found online, and whilst you aren’t required to utilise it, it can be a gesture of understanding to know the most common greeting ‘Assalamu alaykum’ which means “Peace be upon you” and its reply ‘wa alaykumu salam’.
● If you mention Prophet Muhammad’s name or indeed any other prophet’s names such as Jesus (pronounced Isa), Moses (Musa), Abraham (Ibrahim), Isaac, then it is normal to hear and a good gesture to say, if you wish, the words “peace be upon him/them” afterwards as a sign of respect.
● In a mosque you’re likely to find some Muslims who do not shake hands with people of the opposite sex, so if you are a man being introduced to a Muslim woman or vice versa, perhaps opt for a different kind of greeting.
4- Language barrier
The likelihood is that most people in any Islamic organisation in the UK will speak fluent English. In the unlikely case you come across people who don’t speak English, please bear in mind that while we are in the UK and English is the official language, English remains just another language among many others. Don’t feel offended if people speak their own language in front of you. As ‘community languages’ are at risk of being lost, with the risk of losing all the knowledge that comes attached to them (including all that which is not easily translated), community/religious centres are spaces where these languages can be kept alive. It is sometimes helpful to get someone from the Muslim community to interpret your talk for those who don’t speak English.
5. Islam and Civil Disobedience
Be aware that many Muslims have strong concerns about civil disobedience because of the principle that we can’t achieve good results from doing haram (the prohibited), like breaking the law. For example, there is no reward from God in trying to achieve some good, like feeding one’s family, by doing something that is considered unlawful such as selling illegal drugs or dealing in counterfeit money. In Islam, however, there is also a tradition of peaceful civil disobedience so it’s important to be aware that there is scope for dialogue and exchange of ideas on effective methods to demand climate action.
6- Political Issues and Prevent Strategy
Be aware that Muslims are a politicised community so some Muslims, especially some leaders of organisations, are likely to want to stay away from controversial issues and actions that will put them under further scrutiny (even more so now after the recent headlines of XR being ‘mistakenly’ added to a Prevent list of extremist organisations). Be aware of the government’s Prevent Strategy and the impact it has had on Muslim communities in terms of making the community as a whole feel as if they are constantly under surveillance. There is an episode of ReOrient podcast about the Prevent strategy (30 mins or so) that would be helpful to understand what is going on.
Beyond Prevent, also be aware that Muslims often feel under threat by xenophobic and Islamophobic narratives that want to delegitimise the existence of Muslim identities and can even result in physical attacks. Anti-Muslim narratives often criticise Islam by claiming that certain Islamic views are normative and universal or by vilifying some mainstream Islamic views in ways that seek to target ordinary Muslims going about their daily lives.
Why do we point this out? We believe it’s important to understand that Muslim communities may experience other existential struggles in addition to the ones you are concerned about, and as such may weight these concerns differently. Our suggestion is to not approach a community by saying something along the lines of ‘climate change is the biggest existential threat’ or ‘a bigger existential threat than X or Y’ or ‘there is no more time’. For one community an existential threat may be ongoing: conflict, violence, poverty, racism, state surveillance and control, police brutality, drugs and alcohol, isolation, depression, or the disappearance of traditional culture.
The planetary emergency is also partly the result of a colonial mindset of domination and a worldview that see us humans as separate to nature and nature for something to be exploited and extracted for profit. This has involved othering and violently exploiting indigenous people and people of colour around the world, and the natural world itself, for hundreds of years. As such, understandings of the climate emergency, when it started, what its causes are, and the way to mitigate it may differ considerably from community to community.
7- Bringing up Extinction Rebellion and Climate Change
When introducing XR to an Islamic organisation, talk about other things that XR has done on the ground that may be more relatable to an organisation serving the community at the grassroots level. Are you organising a tree-planting event or family friendly activities? Are you making charitable donations to the homeless or refugees? Are you upcycling clothes? Giving charity, helping the poor or those affected by floods, greening urban areas or craft skill-sharing are likely to be things that open channels of communications between people who may be unsure of XR tactics and XR rebels.
● When talking about climate change, give specific examples that people can relate to e.g. air pollution and their children. Research specific examples e.g. Hajj (pilgrimage) being at risk due to climate change or the practical impact of climate change in Muslim majority countries or even here in the UK.
● There are a number of initiatives that impact personal lifestyle choices and where the environmental ethos is being instilled in the community practice. Do not forget that individual and organisational changes can be a catalyst for political action. Right now, all changes are necessary. The Rabbani project has a number of initiatives such as zero waste iftars (evening meals during Ramadan/breaking of the day’s fast) and clothes-swap events. A good article with a short summary of initiatives taking place during Ramadan can be found here.
● Be aware that there are some religious interpretations that see natural disasters and extreme weather events as signs from Allah for which Muslims need to prepare themselves by doing good deeds. They are interpreted as signs of the Day of Judgement. We need to balance this approach with one that reminds us Muslims of the Islamic call for justice, balance, truth and standing up against corruption on earth, especially the corruption that comes from excessive and unsustainable exploitation of nature due to greed. These are extremely important concepts in the Islamic tradition that we need to frame in terms of Climate Justice.
● Dispel myths about XR, like ‘XR all are all white middle class hippies wanting to impose veganism and stopping you from having children’. It is true that XR gathers together many people who come from different backgrounds, however the current make up, culturally speaking, is predominantly white European. This has been stated in various media articles over and over again. That’s the very reason why XR groups want to build links with other communities. The reason we mention veganism and birth-control is because one problem you may face is to inadvertently ‘push’ your own cultural/lifestyle choices as blanket solutions. There is no science that is not biased, so self-reflection is an important tool to use on these occasions. Veganism and choosing not to have children due to the climate emergency are two examples that have been pushed by the media, and, if seen to be advocated by the XR movement as ‘policy solutions’, are likely to alienate Muslims (and perhaps other communities).
Try to stay away from offering this kind of solution-based approach to the climate emergency. It is essential to discuss facts about overpopulation, energy consumption per capita, the impact of the meat industry and more sustainable farming methods, yet assess first in what way these issues are being framed and for what purpose and in what context. Be aware that these issues can end up targeting (poorer) communities who traditionally have large families (some Muslims believe that Islam encourages us to have children) and who have elements of animal sacrifice embedded in some of their traditions (a main component of Eid ul Adha includes the act of sacrificing an animal to feed the poor). Muslims are addressing these issues from their own traditions already on their own terms, so we recommend that you assess which issues you want to focus on, which cultural and religious sensitivities may be at play and how best to approach them.
A good approach is to think about XR’s third demand. XR is demanding a citizens’ assembly where people from all walks of life, representing the whole of society, gather together in an assembly to consult experts and the scientific evidence available to us, read statements from members of society who have submitted their views, and listen to the experiences of those who are already impacted by climate change. Assembly members then develop informed policy proposals over extensive periods of learning, consultations and deliberations. The idea of having a transparent process through which experts are consulted and vested interested are scrutinised on specific issues combined with the idea of choosing assembly members that represent different communities of a society may resonate with some people, especially those, like Muslims, who feel underrepresented in politics. Climate Injustice and conflict are most likely to increase as climate risks increase, and so greater civic participation in collective decision making through Citizens’ Assemblies is essential to prevent worst case scenarios.
● Many communities will also be interested to hear how the Climate & Ecological Emergency is likely to impact Global South countries the most, even though they are historically the least contributing to emissions and ecological destruction. Many of the Muslims you speak to will have second, third or fourth generation connections with Global South countries. Show interest in those connections and what community members have to tell you about how the climate emergency is impacting people within their wider transnational networks. Let them know that XR is pushing politicians to address the issue of food vulnerability with Global Hunger Strike and the UK Hunger Strike.
8 – Inviting Muslims to events
In practical terms, be culturally flexible when inviting people to meetings and events, especially important ones that involve some decision making.
Many Muslims, if invited to a meeting, would not attend if the meeting is organised in a pub and would not go to places where alcohol is served and where there’s loud music. Calling an event a “rave” is likely to turn some Muslims away. While you may commonly find Muslims in pubs and music concerts, if you’re approaching an Islamic organisation the chances of encountering people who will not go to a pub or music concert increase significantly. It’s generally good practice to pick neutral spaces where everybody will feel comfortable and welcome.
Finally, let the Muslim organisations you approach know XR Muslims exist. We are happy to get in touch with them and they can join our WhatsApp or Facebook groups, email us or call us to brainstorm ideas. We are developing an XR Muslim equivalent to the “Heading for Extinction” talk which can be hosted in local Muslim communities.
Thanks to Khadijah for her extensive proofreading of an earlier draft and Harfiyah Haleem of IFEES/Eco Islam and Kamran Shezad of the Bahu Trust and Faith For Climate for their extremely helpful comments and suggestions.