Defying Saudis and Iran, Muslim thinkers call for action on climate change at Istanbul conference

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.


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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission