Muzlimbuzz: Sofiah Jamil- A Green Muslim Talks Environmental Ethics

A green activist with amazing bushy hair, Sofiah Jamil tells us about environmental ethics, how Muslims should be at the forefront of green initiatives and many more. Read on!

Muzlimbuzz: First of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Sofiah Jamil: Professionally, I am an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. I co-lead 2 programmes in the Centre  – Climate change and Environmental Security; and Energy Security. I also volunteer as a Board Member for the Young Association of Muslim Professionals. I will be pursuing a PhD next year inshaAllah at the Australian National University with the topic of muslim environmental initiatives – a case study of Indonesia. Socially, I love walking (FittFlops is the best footwear ever!), dancing, playing squash and badminton, watching rugby and arts performances… amongst other things.

Muzlimbuzz: Have you always been a ‘green’ person? Or was there an ‘a-ha!’ moment while growing up when you thought the Earth needed a bit more attention?

Sofiah: Experiences at various points of my life made me more aware about the environment. In secondary school, I was a girl guide so camping brought me closer to nature. I did my undergraduate studies in Australia, where the environmental movement and consciousness is so much more apparent than in Singapore (some students even walk barefoot to University in the summer!).

In 2009, I had the opportunity to the part of the pioneer batch in the Study of the United States Institute forthe Environment – a 6 week programme in the US to learn about the environmental movement there. The programme was hosted by the East West Center, and we spent time in Hawaii, California and Washington D.C. While learning about the environmental movement in the US, the 20 participants (from Singapore, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji) shared their experiences and knowledge on various disciplines relating to the environment.

I was particularly impressed with the Pacific Islanders, who were so rooted to their land and in tune with Mother Nature. It made me reflect about us in Singapore, where not only have we lost more than 90% of our natural habitat due to urbanisation, but we are  constantly changing the landscape, and in some instances demolishing areas of historical and cultural significance for the sake of certain marks of “economic progress”.

I guess the ‘a-ha!’ moment for me was when I put two of my research interests together – contemporary Muslim World issues and environmental issues. I felt there was gap to fill here. Not only does the Earth need more attention, but it needs more attention from Muslims, because the bulk of us aren’t doing anything about it. I find this so ironic given the fact that Islam has many principles related to the environment, yet most Muslims have not applied them to their own lives.There are some groups of green Muslims around the world doing their part, but we have a long way to go in gaining a critical mass.

Muzlimbuzz: What are the issues that you’re most passionate about?

1) Making environmental concerns relevant to the lay-man person. i.e. ensuring sustainable development while addressing poverty/ meeting “bread and butter” issues.

2) Addressing Careless and Excessive Consumption

3) Transforming inter-faith dialogue to inter-faith action via having various communities working together to save their shared environment.

4) Comparing various environmental issues/solutions across different Muslim communities and regions, and how we learn from one another and  work better as an Ummah.

Muzlimbuzz: Being a Muslim and a green activist, how do you think your faith has actually motivated or assisted you in this field?
Sofiah: Islam provides the fundamentals of environmental ethics. This is contrary to the belief that some might have that the environmental movement is a “western” concept, and hence there’s so much more that Muslims can do in addressing environmental issues. I think being environmentally friendly is not only part of an Islamic way of life, but it will also help address the gross mis-representations of Muslims in recent years. Rather than being insular and inward-looking, addressing environmental issues would demonstrate that Muslims are a progressive lot who are in-tuned with contemporary global concerns.
Source: Project ME: Muslims & The Environment
Muzlimbuzz: What are some of the green initiatives that we can join or implement on our own here in Singapore?

Sofiah: There’s so much out already — from bringing your own bag, mug or bottle, to switching off your electrical appliances when not in use to religiously keeping with the 3Rs principle (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle). I don’t think there is a lack of awareness on this, as its largely been in our face in the media, schools and campaigns. Its just really whether we bother to take it on, and keep with it for the long run.

As Muslims, we can perhaps make the following resolutions for the Hijrah new year (1433H). Youth would be the most exposed and wired to environmental issues and initiatives. However, translating this awareness effectively into action requires more effort, particularly at the household level. It would come to naught for youth to come home, bursting at their seams with ideas of how to be more eco-friendly, but unable to have the active support of their family to do so. Parents can do more by increasing their own knowledge on the significance of environmental practices – both secular and Islamic perspectives – and thereby encourage their children to put their ideas into action. Many things can be done at the household level, and  but can only be successful if everyone makes the effort and serve to constantly remind each other of how simple acts can make a difference. Here are some tips:-

  • Ensure that your thrash is separated for recycling, and making sure those items go to the appropriate recycling bins or “karanguni” man.
  • Make healthier choices when grocery shopping and buy local (or regional) where possible.
  • Cook healthier and make your kids love their veggies!
  • Have a family outing in a park or nature reserve rather than in a shopping mall.
  • Investing in energy and water saving appliances
  • What can also be implemented at the individual level is to consciously make the effort to minimize the use of water when we take our ablution before prayers. This is inherently a practice that has been documented in Hadith/Sunnah (where you should only use what you need even if taking water from a flowing river). This would make a big difference in water consumption of the community as a whole.

Its great to see the numerous weekly activities hosted by Singapore’s Muslim community organisations, which facilitate personal and community development. And the events often increase in the lead up to religious festivities and thereby enhance community bonds.  However,one of the things that bugs me when I go for a seminar/talk organised by community organisations (usually on Saturdays or weekday evenings) is that more often than not, the reception always uses styrofoam and plastic utensils. That’s A LOT of non-biodegradable thrash containing harmful chemicals to the environment.

As a community, we can make the first step by making more informed choices when planning events. There are caterers that have recognised the adverse environmental impacts of such disposable utensils and thus offer the option of using biodegradable utensils. It is good for consumers to ask for this option, if it is not stated. While some caterers might charge an extra couple of dollars per pax for using biodegradable options, this is a small price to pay to avoid the high costs of environmental degradation.

Muslim community organisations can lead the way by adopting this and other environmental practices in their activities and work processes. The Singapore Environmental Council has provided a range of ways of doing this with its “Eco-Office” campaign – http://www.ecooffice.com.sg/

Muzlimbuzz: For someone who has never been introduced to or heard of the green movement, how would you summarise what it is all about?

Contrary to popular belief, the green movement is not made up of tree huggers. Its a movement that embraces everyone who cares about social responsibility and how our actions, especially in terms of consumption, has an impact on the environment. We appreciate the intrinsic and long-term value of what nature offers to us, way beyond any monetary/economic measurement.

Muzlimbuzz: A lot of the ‘complaints’ that people make with regards to having a green lifestyle is the fact that it’s expensive, or too difficult to implement in our society? Is that a myth? What would you say to that?
Sofiah: I have a few points to make on the perception that its “expensive”.
Firstly, with the rise of capitalism and consumerism, we have for the longest time grossly under-priced the good and services that we enjoy. For every relatively cheap t-shirt we buy, it’s possible that someone  in a developing country nearby is working long hours with little pay to produce it. The system has externalised the costs of production, so that consumers will buy more at lower costs. The question is, do we really need to buy more than what we need, just because it is cheap?

Secondly, yes, some “green” products may seem to be a bit more expensive, but that’s because consumers are not demanding for it enough. Going green, does take some effort because it changes the way we do certain things that we have taken for granted. To go back to the example of using biodegradable utensils during events, if all events adopted this practice, caterers would have no use for styrofoam utensils anymore, even though its the cheapest option for them. If we demand for more environmentally ethical products (and healthier food options), producers will meet them, because the customer is always right 🙂 Don’t want to pay for biodegradable cups? Then use old fashioned glasses, loh! 😉
On the issue of food, what items in the market are expensive? Meat. Because producing meat requires immense resources – water to produce the grain to feed the cattle, transport costs and sanitation measures, etc… ( and not to mention high carbon emissions — in the form of methane). Reducing meat consumption in our diet would be one way of making it inexpensive, and thus goes back to the role that mothers and wives play at the household level in making informed choices when deciding on meals. I’m not saying don’t eat meat at all, but just reducing it and substituting with other healthier options. These small steps can over time make a difference.

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