‘Green Islam’ Drew a Reporter to Indonesia

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Sometime early last year, I stumbled across an article by two scholars that described the rise of the “Green Islam” movement in Indonesia. One phrase in particular stood out: Muslim environmentalists there saw themselves as “khalifahs,” or guardians, of the earth.

As the Southeast Asia bureau chief for The New York Times, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell. It melded religion and environmentalism — two themes that I wanted to focus on in my coverage of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation and a top greenhouse gas emitter. And in a sea of negative headlines, it was a hopeful story.

With Hasya Nindita, one of The Times’s freelance reporters in Indonesia, I started looking for ways to explain the movement. I am based in Bangkok, and at first, I was not sure whether we had enough for a story. I had learned about several initiatives by Muslim activists to promote environmentalism in Indonesia, but it was difficult to tell how broad their reach was. So we kept gathering information.

Then in early November, we heard that Muhammadiyah Green Cadre, the environmental arm of the second-largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, was co-hosting a seminar about Islam’s attitudes toward climate change. Hasya got in touch with the founder of Green Army, a group of tree-planting volunteers, who told her that even though the group did not push an explicit religious message, they were motivated by Islam.

I decided to travel to Indonesia, knowing there would be more stories to tell.

After obtaining a journalist visa, I traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling capital, in early December. On a Thursday morning, I dropped by the Istiqlal Mosque, which had recently installed solar panels and was the first place of worship to win a green building accolade from the World Bank. But when Hasya and I arrived, the staff told us we could not see the solar panels; we needed to make an appointment first.

“OK,” I replied. “But could we talk to the grand imam?”

A few hours later and I was sitting with Grand Imam Nasaruddin Umar, the leader of the mosque, who told us how shocked he was when he began his job in 2016 and saw trash in the river surrounding the mosque. He said he wanted to help transform 70 percent of Indonesia’s 800,000 mosques into “eco-masjids,” or ecological mosques.

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