Islam and the Environment: Realism and Rhetoric
Judging from all the talk on the subject, there seems to be a rather common belief among Westerners that Islam is in some deep and fundamental sense far more enamored of the environment than the West. There are any number of reasons that this might be quite commonly believed.
First, there is the fact that the Qur'an clearly does seem to show on balance rather high levels of respect afforded to the environment. Humanity is described as the "steward" of the earth throughout the Qur'an, the signs of God are often wonders of nature and natural beauty and God refers to humans as part of a grand scheme of obedience to the creator that also includes the heavens and the earth.
Second, there is the fact that Sayyid Hossein Nasr by mere force of his intellect and his personality (he's at GWU) has promoted these views quite strongly as part and parcel of an Islamic civilization, describing environmentalism as the result of a loss of spirituality in the world in favor of materialism and the idolatrous worship of material gain. (He is juxtaposing his own vision of Islamic civilization to Western, he's not suggesting Muslims necessarily adhere to this vision now).
Finally, it has to be conceded that environmentalists are on the left, and the left wants to find common ground with Islam, even as too much of the right wants to dismiss it as demonic and evil. We've become another front in the culture war, I am afraid, and green Muslims helps out one side.
Overlooked in all of this is the fact that you don't have to travel very far in Iraq, or Indoneisa, or the Hajj in Mecca, all places I have been, to get the sense that by and large the Muslim world isn't very concerned about the environment. There is trash everywhere. Littering is not just commonplace, it's considered normal, as opposed to say, bribing, which is commonplace but still considered bad. It was depressing to hike the Mecca mountains to the Hira cave, where the Prophet received the Revelation. It looked like the world's largest trash pit (and no, it's not sacrilege for me to say that, it's descriptive. What is sacrilege is to contribute to making it a trash pit.) Sure carbon emissions tend to be lower per capita, but that's hardly because of consciousness of global warming, as opposed to, say, no money for a car.
Moreover, it's not like the Muslim clerics and jurists are out there telling people to quit throwing their damn McDonald's wrappers on the street and leaving them there. God forbid you are a woman walking around without a veil, now THAT's scandalous. Ignoring all sorts of environmental rules and regs? Well if it is a sin, the learned devout have largely held their tongues.
Now to be clear I am not suggesting that somehow Islam PROMOTES environmental destruction. It doesn't, it is largely however, in practice, indifferent. And that's not a surprise, Muslim countries are generally (though nto always and I can't explain what the hell the deal is in the Gulf) poorer, and sorry green friends but generally speaking environmentalism is a rich man's issue. You feed your family, you provide them education and shelter, you keep them safe, and once that's all settled comfortably (typical in the US, rich by world standards) then you start thinking about gorillas in the Congo. I think about them a lot, I got to see them. My cousins in iraq haven't even seen a camel (yes it's an arab country, we don't use them for transportation anymore though). They are worried about explosions every night. Where do you think gorillas in the Congo lay on their scale of issues of concern?
And Nasr may be right, there's a lack of spirituality problem too. I don't mean to disparage that. All I mean to say is that if you really want to talk about Islam and environmentalism, if you really want to create green consciousness among the Muslim populations of the earth, then sure the Qur'an helps set up the argument, but first, you've got to make them richer, safer and more prosperous. Leaving aside some of the world's true saints, it seems self evident that spirituality, indeed environmental respect in any form, is pretty hard to come by otherwise.