I was honored last night to be asked to attend the Town Square Meeting at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Center City Philadelphia. The meeting was presented by Philadelphia Green and was about the merging of faith-based organizations and the stewardship of those religious groups and how they are or can be engaged in environmental activities. It quickly came to my attention that Muslims at least in this area have been woefully absent. Absent either due to ignorance of such activities or because it’s simply not on the radar. For the concerns of this post, I will address the latter.
Like so many topics and events today, Muslims seem to either be swept along by the zeitgeist of the day or bypassed all together. This is an issue that we as a Muslim community need to address more seriously if we wish to have our voice taken seriously – otherwise, it will be taken away. By zeitgeist I am referring to the trend that many Muslims allow popular consensus or dominant voices dictate to us what is or is not important. One example that comes to mind is a conversation I had with a Muslim brother who said we needed to take a tougher stance towards homosexuality. When I inquired as to what he meant, he was referring to the unions of gay couples and homosexual marriages. He was quite passionate about the topic and felt that Islam was somehow being eroded by this lapse in what he saw as social immorality. I calmly reminded the brother to consider the following: homosexuality is not permissible in Islam. God has made this readily apparent and therefore he should take comfort in this incontrovertible truth. In other words, the question has been answered by the Highest Authority, therefore why approach the topic as if it could be reopened for discussion [and ultimately, permissibility].
Secondly, I asked him to consider why it was so important to him? What was informing his concern? Were there members of his congregation that were openly calling for the permissibility of homosexuality in Islam? He replied in the negative. Upon examining his sources it became apparent to both of us that he was coerced, in a sense, by the dominant hype in the media. That most of the conversation was being driven my Christian groups who were dealing with an internal struggle within Christianity as to the permissibility or lack thereof concerning homosexuality. And ultimately it was the government that was being lobbied on the part of these Christian groups to enact this ban. He conceded that he had not truly formulated his opinion on his own but was rather influenced from the outset. Mind you, none of this compromised his or Islam’s position on the impermissibility of homosexuality. But as a caveat I asked him what he thought of the governments ban on polygamous marriages. The government also placed a ban on that as well, which, according to Muslim tradition, is permissible.
Our conversation led to a common ground of analyzing that in the end, perhaps it was the government that he ought to take to task on intervening in marriages and unions – something that I believe they ought not to be in the business of administrating. The right to union is a right from God and therefore the state should not seek to overturn the rights granted by God. And as for homosexual unions or marriages, if they’re coming to the mosque to do so then Muslims would have every right to nullify or abstain from consecrating any such unions but there would be nothing to stop them from doing them under their own authority [which is to a great extent, what the whole gay marriage issue boils down to]. Ironically, Muslims and homosexuals [as well as other groups] may have common ground on petitioning the state/government to get out of the business of administering marriage. Their sole role should be to recognize the said parties once the union is formed, leaving the respective parties to administer their own unions.
My point in all of this is that Muslims should discipline themselves to ensure that when they are critiquing, that they are doing so on their own terms and are not simply being led around by the nose. Are there social ills that should concern us as Muslims? Absolutely. But we must construct those concerns and critiques in our own language to guarantee that when we are speaking out that we’re doing so with the proper conviction and not serving someone else’s agenda.
To return to my point of Zeitgeist and being passed by, Muslims should develop their own definitive voice on approaching the environment and other “green” causes. As I pointed out during the talk, much of the greening has taken on the form of an elitist rhetoric, whether intentional or not. In discussions with other environmentalists, they often fail to realize that aside from access to the materials and information, economics is often a turn off to small economically challenged groups who may not have the start-up costs to implement these greening methods, especially on the time table and scale of the environmentalists. This has in turn caused a shunning of many low income groups who may see environmental causes as another feel good social stunt for the entitled. Nonetheless, given the overwhelming evidence of the various planet-wide disasters we are facing, Muslims should indeed be lending their voices, their human capital and their expertise based on our scriptural imperatives.
As for the actual presentation, it was invigorating to hear the works that other religious groups were doing. Many spoke of the unexpected gains that they had in lobbying governmental agencies on environmental issues. Rabbi Lawrence Troster from GreenFaith, located in New Brunswich, New Jersey, said that in fact many state legislators were “blind-sided by religious groups advocating for environmental reforms”?. To paraphrase the rabbi, these law makers simply didn’t see this as an expected act from religious groups, who are more typically associated with social justice issues and not environmental ones. And given the great potential for networking and communicating between religious groups and interfaith organizations, they were seeing substantive results. Up until tonight, there had not been a significant Muslim presence in these meetings [many pointed to myself being the one and only thus far] and were eager to welcome the participation of Muslims in these efforts.
Given the many challenges that Muslims are now facing in the public square, opportunities such as these should not be allowed to pass us by. And indeed, if we are to seek a way to articulate an Islam that is not solely reactionary nor appeasing to the dominant culture then we must seize any and all such opportunities and define them with our own voice. We are already seeing the consequences when we let the “experts”? speak for us. And for a city that has so many Muslims – Philadelphia’s Muslim population is enormous [you can see Muslims here in all parts of the city no matter where you go], why do we not have a more active, engaged voice in the affairs that affect us all? I for one am optimistic that we can actively participate in such environmental ventures starting with looking at how green our mosques are. And I’m sure that there are already masajid participating in such activities. I only hope we can do a bit more outreach.
And God knows best.