Maria Zafar as “Islamic Relief to join global climate strike” for Ecologist

Floods in Pakistan, where Islamic Relief works. / Asian Development Bank

When your average person thinks of a climate activist in this country, they think of a white, middle-class person. Perhaps they have dreadlocks and chain themselves to buildings; perhaps they are less loud with their activism but sign online petitions and only eat locally-sourced vegan food.

Either way, British Muslims and other ethnic minority communities have long been excluded from the narrative.

But there is a shift taking place. More and more Muslims are engaging in the climate justice issues and beginning to see how protecting the living planet is an important part of our faith.

Our values

As Muslims, we have a duty of custodianship over the Earth and its resources. It is said that Allah made the human race his khalif (trustee) of the earth. The Prophet Muhammad said: “The world is green and beautiful and Allah has left you in charge of it, so be careful of how you conduct yourselves”.

At Islamic Relief UK, where I work as campaigns co-ordinator, custodianship is one of our key values and it is integral to how we operate as development and humanitarian practitioners.

Not only do we have custodianship of the Earth, but also of the trust placed in us by our supporters to be accountable and transparent to the communities we serve. We work in countries that are hit hardest by extreme weather events, like Somalia – frequently affected by drought – and Bangladesh – often affected by floods. It would be disingenuous to support these communities in their mitigation and adaptation projects while carrying on business-as-usual in a society largely responsible for the climate crisis.

Many of our supporters among the British Muslim community have relatives in some of these countries and are starting to understand the severity of the climate emergency. For example, there is a clear connection between the way we live in the industrialised world and people’s grandparents back in Bangladesh moving from place to place because of rising water levels.

My own Nana lives in Pakistan and when I look at her life – which would be considered ‘poor’ or ‘deprived’ by many in the West – I think of how much more sustainable it is than my own. She and her family grow all their own vegetables and rear their own livestock. Everything they live on comes from their own land – they don’t rely on out of season food wrapped in plastic and flown in from the other side of the world; or livestock from other continents that could be reared right where they live.

When my parents moved to the UK, they thought they were progressing, but our consumerist lifestyle and our reliance on fossil fuels is creating a crisis that will only force humanity and our life expectancy backwards.

Holy pilgrimage

I have never been on holy pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajjas it is known by our community. But it is a key tenant of the Muslim faith, and every Muslim from the UK to Indonesia is expected to do it at least once in their lifetime, if they are physically and financially able to do so. Like many of my peers, I have spent my life looking forward to taking part.

However, recent research from scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows that due to extreme temperatures, conditions in Mecca are getting more and more dangerous for human health.

Through the analysis of historical climate models and past data, scientists project that should the world’s emissions continue in a business-as-usual scenario, temperatures in Mecca will soon rise to a level that the human body can no longer cope with.

According to the research, summer days in Saudi Arabia could surpass the ‘extreme danger heat-stress threshold’ from as early as next year. When the temperature of our skin reaches this level, and combines with a certain level of humidity in the air, sweat no longer evaporates efficiently, so the body can no longer cool itself and overheats.

But crucially, mitigating climate breakdown through reducing emissions could limit the severity of these temperatures. It is up to us as Muslims to make it as safe as possible for us and future generations to be able to practice Hajj.

That doesn’t mean we’re only interested in tackling climate change so we can fulfil our religious obligations. Not at all. We are interested for the sake of all humanity.

Global strike

In June, Islamic Relief staff and campaigners marched to Parliament to lobby our MPs to take the crisis seriously. On Saturday 14 September, one of our brilliant young activists, Munadiah Aftab, spoke to an audience of two hundred about the link between her faith and the climate at the UK Youth Climate Takeover.

On Friday 20 September, Islamic Relief staff will be getting up from our desks, leaving our offices in London and marching up to Trafalgar Square to join the #FridaysForFuture global climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg and other school strikers across the world. Colleagues in other offices will be joining – from Birmingham to Germany.

This is the first time as an organisation that we have fully backed and are joining a strike.

Persuading people was no doddle. But the news about Hajj was a wake-up call for many and I have already noticed a shift in the way people are talking about the climate crisis and what it means for them and their families.

On 20 September, we will march to Trafalgar Square where we will gather with other faith-based groups from the Faith for Climate network, including Christian Aid and CAFOD, showing  that people of all faiths and none can, and should, work together to tackle climate breakdown – the most pressing issue the world has ever faced.

Net Zero

But what is our aim of the strike, you might ask?

In June, former Prime Minister Theresa May committed to ensuring our greenhouse gas emissions reach Net Zero by 2050. We don’t think this is adequate for the scale of the emergency the world is facing. We want the UK Government to bring this target forward to 2045 and immediately outline the specifics of their plans to achieve Net Zero through legislation.

With increasing political uncertainty in this country, we are asking people to do what they can in their own lives. Making a stand by leaving work and going on strike will hopefully spark a conversation with colleagues about the severity of the climate crisis. But there are other things we can do in our daily lives: reduce car travel and flights; reduce meat and dairy consumption; say no to plastic.

There is nobody on this earth who will escape the impacts of the climate crisis. I am pleased that the British Muslim community is taking action, and we hope that the COP26 summit in Glasgow next year will give us even more opportunity to make our voices heard.

We all have a stake in the climate emergency. There really is no Planet B.