Author - Anas Malik

1
Seeking Civics for Anxious Times
2
Towards Muslim Engagement with Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si
3
The human right to water
4
Our social commons: two climate challenges
5
Interstellar and the Mother of All Collective Challenges: Can We Decarbonize?
6
Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions
7
Against a clash of civilizations: The Common Word

Seeking Civics for Anxious Times

This summer, something unexpected happened to me- I couldn’t stomach another news story. I’ve been a heavy news consumer since middle school so this was unusual. For weeks, I took a break. I wasn’t alone: almost everyone I talked to experienced something similar. The news, which people ordinarily cared about, had become of source of stress to the point that they were tuning out.

An American Psychological Association poll found that most Americans have found the election to be a major source of stress. New York Times columnist David Brooks has called it “an epidemic of worry”. The anxiety goes beyond US borders, given the outsize American role in the world: acquaintances from Canada, Sweden, and Australia have mentioned being worried and transfixed by the American political process.

We are united by our anxiety, even though it has many sources. It goes beyond the election, even as the election has been a focal point.

We worry about personal security amid random violence. Mass shootings remain a reality of American life. Terrorism is a particularly potent anxiety-provoker, infecting us with siege mindsets and triggering more negative judgments about outgroups. The lockdown mentality has trickled down to everyday conversation: I heard a colleague use the phrase “securing the perimeter” in describing a personal interaction (and not in an ironic way).

For many American Muslims like me, the worries are compounded; we are threatened not only by the terrorist violence but also the accompanying negative generalizations about Islam. Intolerant and prejudicial rhetoric is reliably followed by significant rise in hate crimes, while tolerant and inclusive rhetoric appears to put a brake on hate crimes. Even the more favorable voices portray us flatly as pawns in a security game, rather than as full citizens or persons. Dehumanized, we become more vulnerable to having our rights taken away, in our schools, our workplaces, and our communities.

There’s ethnic status anxiety. Demographic changes are spurring a nativist backlash. It’s an ugly echo of past ethnonationalisms, and a saddening retreat from humanism and inclusion. Especially troubling is the rise of religious nationalism- where religion becomes an inherited neo-tribal group identity clashing with outgroups, instead of pursuing the common good, and addressing the higher aspirations of the soul.

There’s class anxiety. Wages have stagnated and income inequality continues to grow. Automation and global competition are threatening jobs. Working people feel that future job prospects are uncertain. It’s not hard to find economically depressed communities around closed industrial plants here in the American Midwest, dotted with glitzy payday lenders offering loans at exorbitant interest rates.

There’s environmental anxiety. Every month in this year has been the hottest ever recorded for that month since measurement began. In 2016, we crossed the symbolic threshold of 400 ppm carbon concentration in the atmosphere, well above the 350 safe zone and approaching the 450 ppm of irreversible runaway effects. Without urgent action, we will lose two thirds of vertebrate wild animals by 2020, compared to 1970 levels. The Great Barrier Reef is under severe stress- an underwater structure so prominent it is visible from space, and about 93 percent is suffering from coral bleaching. People are so on edge that a satirical obituary for the Great Barrier Reef rocketed around social media as though it was real.

This worry list could easily go on- the blatant misogyny, the othering of peoples of color, the fraying of democratic norms and institutions, the coarsening of our public life. We have reasons to be anxious, and that can feed the impulse to withdraw and become insular. Is anxiety undermining our ability to reach and problem-solve with others unlike us?

The stakes are high in this moment. Our social order, even in this strained state, rests on an ecological foundation that is being rapidly depleted and undermined. Unless we act now, the environmental crisis will produce far more conflict, insecurity, economic distress, refugees, and public health problems. On Nov. 4, 2016, the Paris Agreement on climate change officially came into force. All governments that have ratified it- the US, China, India, and EU among them- are now obliged to act to prevent the average global temperature from exceeding 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the point of irreversible and catastrophic climate change.

The Paris Agreement is an important signal of global concern, and the recent Kigali Amendment on HFC greenhouse gases is another step in the right direction. But existing national pledges alone are not going to keep us below the danger zone. More change and momentum is needed from the ground up to reduce our carbon emissions. These high-level summit agreements should spur us to act, taking civic initiatives to generate local changes, support advocacy coalitions, and overcome the social dilemmas needed to address our compound collective action problems.

The environmental crisis thus presents a civic opportunity. As artisans combine different materials to form something needed, so civic artisans combine diverse social elements to form rules to address common problems. Engaging in civic artisanship reduces isolation and the sense of anxiety- and it also helps solve the underlying problems.

Fighting for our environmental commons could spark a virtuous spiral, building our social commons. But it needs a kickstart. We who understand this must redouble our efforts and not disengage. We must live and pursue civics in our anxious times.

Towards Muslim Engagement with Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si

Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, Latin for “Praise Be”, was released Thursday, June 18, which was also the first day of Ramadan for many Muslims. Ramadan is a month of fasting that fosters growth in God-consciousness and compassion for the needy. While fasting for Ramadan, I have been devoting time to reading Laudato Si, and find much there that fills me with great hope. Although Pope Francis leads the world’s Roman Catholics, his message is meant for all; while the trends in ecological destruction are grim, the document resounds with a positive ethic of compassion, justice, and spiritual awakening. Our unsustainable course towards catastrophic climate change demands urgent individual and collective changes in consciousness and behavior. As the highest profile religious appeal for addressing the greatest collective action challenge of our time, Laudato Si is a potentially game-changing step.

Important themes of Laudato Si will resonate with many Muslims. Praise is central to how nature and the cosmos are presented in the Islamic tradition, with humanity as part of nature’s fabric, in a position of stewardship. As Joseph Lumbard has described in “An Islamic Response to Pope Francis’ Encyclical”:

“Among the world scriptures, the Quran provides a unique resource for building a new ecological paradigm. Grounded in the Abrahamic tradition, it presents a harmonious view of nature reminiscent of the Far East. In the Quran, “whatsoever is the heavens and on the earth glorifies God” (59:1; 61:1; 62:1; 64:1). “The stars and the trees prostrate” (55:6), “the thunder hymns His praise” (13:13), and “unto God prostrates whosoever is in the heavens and whosoever is on the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the beasts” (22:18). In these and many other verses, the whole of creation is presented as a Divine symphony, for “there is no thing, save that it hymns His praise, though you do not understand their praise. Truly He is Clement, Forgiving” (Q 17:44).”.

Love is mentioned over 70 times in Laudato Si. Highlighting love is more likely to inspire change than an approach focused purely on cost benefit calculations. A Common Word Between Us, the path-breaking, authoritative Islamic teaching to promote cooperation between Muslims and Christians for the common good, centers on the commandments of love of God and love of neighbor. Together, these affirmations can support significant civic initiatives for environmental protection across religious and community lines.

This much-needed positive motivation does not mean that we can ignore the costs of inaction. As the Common Word document also asserts, a failure to work together threatens our worldly well-being. Laudato Si points boldly and clearly to the human sources of climate change. This captures an emerging moral consensus that the status quo is a path to disaster. Averting collective catastrophe and thus serving the common good requires collective action at many levels.

Laudato Si emphasizes acute sensitivity to debt, inequality, and poverty, and suggests differentiated responsibilities based on wealth and ability. Compassion and justice require voice for the most vulnerable and marginalized- those often left voiceless, who stand to suffer the most from climate change, while having contributed the least to the problem. The social and environmental dimensions cannot be considered in isolation, but should be treated integrally as a complex joint crisis. These social justice concerns will surely find many receptive Muslim audiences.

Laudato Si also questions consumerism, and challenges us to imagine a different way of living. Driven by human consumption and production, we face staggering loss of biodiversity – the rate of extinction in the 20th century was up to 100 times higher than it would have been without man’s impact, and pollination by bees could be lost within three human generations. Aside from the ethical problem that we are the species causing the loss of so many other species, we are also undermining our own well-being by “sawing off the limb we are sitting on”.

We have just experienced the warmest May on record, after the warmest start to a year on record, and we are headed towards making 2015 the warmest year on record. This March, we reached the 400 parts per million mark of carbon concentration in the atmosphere; 350 ppm is considered safe and 450ppm dangerous. Climate change exacerbates water crises, further straining water-stressed societies in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere, placing many people at serious risk. To the ethical and spiritual motivations for changing course, we can add pragmatic worldly self-interest: we are all downstream.

The upcoming international climate summit is one avenue for seeking change. But the problem cannot be treated as a matter for the top-level negotiators only. Without getting into specific policy debates, even if the summit succeeds in binding commitments to decarbonize, civic monitoring and action will still be needed to fulfill those commitments. Irrespective of the outcome of the summit, local initiatives will matter, particularly when linked by information networks and the trust that others are taking responsibility. The complex and changing problems favor a multi-scale approach, which encourages experimental efforts at multiple levels, and helps to assess the costs and benefits of particular strategies.

While technological innovations hold important promise- and investment in renewable energy is needed as part of progressive elimination of fossil fuels- there remains a need for institutions to ensure appropriate use. Diverse social ecological contexts require diverse institutional arrangements. Laudato Si also references the principle of subsidiarity, which promotes local autonomy appropriate to capabilities. Together, these factors suggest that collective actions are needed at many levels to generate the institutions for sustaining our commons.

Muslims can and should engage substantively with Laudato Si. In keeping with stewardship, it is time to make positive changes where possible, to redouble our efforts as civic artisans in our communities, and to build broad solidarity for meaningful national and global commitments for the collective good.

The human right to water

Nearly 5 years ago, the UN General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation, and asserted that these are essential prerequisites to the realization of all other rights. March 22 is World Water Day. Consider that 2.6 billion people today do not have access to basic sanitation, and 884 million do not have access to safe drinking water. Without major collective actions,  increasing scarcity in coming years threatens increased violence, disease, poverty, and hunger, according to this AP article on the new World Water Development Report:

“Many underground water reserves are already running low, while rainfall patterns are predicted to become more erratic with climate change. As the world’s population grows to an expected 9 billion by 2050, more groundwater will be needed for farming, industry and personal consumption.

The report predicts global water demand will increase 55 percent by 2050, while reserves dwindle. If current usage trends don’t change, the world will have only 60 percent of the water it needs in 2030, it said.

Having less available water risks catastrophe on many fronts: crops could fail, ecosystems could break down, industries could collapse, disease and poverty could worsen, and violent conflicts over access to water could become more frequent.

“Unless the balance between demand and finite supplies is restored, the world will face an increasingly severe global water deficit,” the annual World Water Development Report said, noting that more efficient use could guarantee enough supply in the future.

The report, released in New Delhi two days before World Water Day, calls on policymakers and communities to rethink water policies, urging more conservation as well as recycling of wastewater as is done in Singapore. Countries may also want to consider raising prices for water, as well as searching for ways to make water-intensive sectors more efficient and less polluting, it said.”

Our social commons: two climate challenges

The growing crises in ecological sustainability and identity politics are straining our social commons. As part of responding to both climate challenges, protect and invest in our social commons.

The doomsday clock has been moved to 3 minutes to midnight. Climate change, fed by carbon emissions, is expected to push us above the 2 degree temperature increase threshold in 30 years, based on current trends in usage of our carbon budget. This manmade crisis creates far-reaching issues of justice. Those best positioned to act unilaterally to protect themselves from climate change harm- in the near term- are the wealthy, who have also been the biggest contributors to the problem. Those most likely to suffer from it are the poor, who did the least to create the problem. Mitigation demands collective action in numerous arenas and at different levels. The scale, complexity, and number of related problems stretch our institutional capacities for addressing them collectively.

Meanwhile, our global identity-politics tensions are heating up, largely but not exclusively from the clash of civilizations narrative and various nationalisms. This latter form of climate change wears and rips at our social fabric, ultimately threatening to widen and escalate conflicts into humanity-encompassing mutual destruction. Public opinion in Europe and the US, particularly after the traumatic Paris attacks in January, has gravitated further towards a clash of civilizations mentality. Identity politics- my side, right or wrong- can be contrasted to principled deliberation about principles. Without redoubled efforts to provide meaningful avenues for addressing injustices, and to counter the identity clash story, a self-fulfilling prophecy will result.

Our social commons— the community space in which we meet and engage with the other to devise answers to our shared problems— is under strain. The best responses to both types of climate change start with invigorating our social commons to generate participatory answers. This means nurturing a more responsible global civics: acknowledging and affirming the humanity of the other through an ethic for mutual obligation, such as the Golden Rule; including religion, not solely for the pragmatics and semantics, but also for the consciousness of the intrinsic worth of nature; appreciating that diverse scales and social ecological settings require a polycentric approach, while supporting the critical functions of central government; and maintaining vigilance against the vigilantes on all sides, cooling identity-based conflict escalations and promoting cooperation for the common good.

Interstellar and the Mother of All Collective Challenges: Can We Decarbonize?

Our planet is losing its ability to sustain human life. That’s the premise of Christopher Nolan’s recently released Interstellar. Amid blight, dust, and skepticism about science and technology, a secret effort launches something even more improbable than a proverbial moon shot. Without getting into more detail and giving away the movie, what if we entered the story much earlier, and knew what we needed to know to prevent collective catastrophe- would we be able to make the needed changes?

 

This is about where we find ourselves now. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the system is blinking red. In the most important  assessment of global climate change yet- a report based on 30,000 scientific papers- the panel has warned of “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” unless carbon emissions are cut rapidly. At present rates we will use up our global “carbon budget” in 30 years, pushing us over the 2 degrees centigrade rise in average temperatures- a threshold beyond which severe impacts are far more likely.

 

We need to decarbonize now to avert a tragedy of our climate commons. It’s the mother of all collective action problems: no single group or individual can solve it. Some individuals will have an incentive to seek a “free ride” by continuing to pollute while others cut back- hoping that others’ cutbacks will suffice to avoid catastrophe. Left uncurtailed, free-riding will undermine collective action.

 

Late in 2015 in Paris, the world will see the next round of global climate talks. We can each take tangible steps to make a difference. Raise awareness. Cut back on red meat consumption. Switch to LED bulbs. Adjust our modes of transport. Work for alternative energy in local communities. Lobby politicians. And yet top-level summits and individual actions are unlikely to succeed on their own.  We need a shift in consciousness to support multilevel cooperation in the push to cut carbon emissions. What ethical foundation might promote such collaboration?

 

One possibility is the Golden Rule: to want for others what you want for yourself.  Both sacred and secular, shared by many religious and humanist traditions, the Golden Rule can support diverse covenants- agreements on the obligation to work together to tackle shared problems, fostering trust and reciprocity, contributing to a collection of globally consequential interventions from many places. This may appear idealistic- and yet, in many cases where a tragedy of the commons was predicted, communities figured out mechanisms and rules to govern their behavior and sustain their shared commons resource. Can we, in differing steps and scales, do this for our global climate commons?

 

To the extent that the Golden Rule helps bridge divisions to build community and address difficult collective challenges, it is more urgent to affirm now than ever. That way we might be able to go Interstellar not from desperation, but choice

Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions

ISIL claims to be Islamic. Now, a letter signed by over 100 highly respected Muslim scholars has decisively condemned ISIL’s rhetoric and behavior, and urged the ISIL leader to desist and repent. The signatories describe their views as representative of the “overwhelming majority of Sunni scholars over the course of Islamic history”. Given that ISIL draws some recruits from Sunni Muslims in its fight with Shii Muslims, this letter has the potential to dissuade some recruits, provided that media outlets and social networks help publicize it.

The letter makes 24 points on ISIL’s assertions and activities. Taking a traditional jurisprudential approach, the document cites religious reasoning forbidding virtually all the abhorrent acts feeding ISIL’s notoriety, such as mutilation, killing emissaries, enslavement, torture, desecration of graves and shrines, and ill treatment of women, children, and other religious groups (especially Christians and Yazidis). In these alone, the letter is noteworthy.

Yet this document does more: it addresses the extraordinarily consequential question of who can interpret Islam, and what assertions count as religiously authoritative interpretations. To better explain this, consider that Islam in general, and Sunni tradition in particular, is decentralized in religious authority structures: there is little in the way of a clerical hierarchy. Social conflicts and new communications technologies have added to the crowded field of self-proclaimed religious voices.

Decentralization means that it is hard to mobilize an authoritative response to misguided religious claims. However, decentralization does not necessarily mean interpretative anarchy. There are established norms governing religious interpretation. The first point made by the signatories is that fatwas (religious legal opinions) cannot be offered without the necessary learning requirements, and must be grounded in Islamic legal theory. From this follow points about specific prerequisites for religious legal interpretation, such as mastery of language and refraining from “cherry-picking” sacred texts, and several points related to ISIL’s wrong assertions about jihad.

Religious vigilantes are those with rudimentary Islamic education who arrogate to themselves to the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. Religious vigilantes like ISIL deviate from the norms that guide traditional religious deliberation.  By condemning ISIL’s behavior, this document condemns vigilante brutality in the name of Islam. By affirming the prerequisites of religious interpretation, this document demands a more elevated religious deliberative community.

In one religious ideal, a non-coercive setting would permit the coexistence of different religious interpretations, with people effectively agreeing to disagree. This would allow for thoughtful public deliberation where diverse views are aired and carefully examined. The reality is that some refuse the ground rules, and disputes can turn into shouting matches, where the biggest megaphones and fists prevail. To work for long-term peace, the wider community should breathe life into norms of public deliberation, opening avenues for the redress of grievances, and ensuring that all injustices are held to account.

Against a clash of civilizations: The Common Word

Some commenters reject the attempts to distinguish ISIL from Islam more broadly. Their underlying belief seems to be that Islam is at war with the Judeo-Christian West. And it is a fact that self-described Islamic political actors have been fighting the West. The “clash of civilizations” story is alive and well. Yet there is a danger in the story: if people act as if the story is true, they risk turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Westerners will target Muslims, Muslims will target Westerners, and the conflict will escalate into all domains where Islam and West potentially collide. Wider still is what would happen if the story of civilizations at war extended to all Muslims and Christians–together, they make up over half the world’s population.

Other stories exist, yet haven’t reached many Muslims and Westerners. A crucial one is the path-breaking initiative in Muslim Christian relations known as “A Common Word Between Us”. This authoritative statement has been signed by diverse Muslim authorities from around the globe. The initiative seeks to affirm the two greatest commandments- to love God above all, and to love for one’s neighbor what one love’s for oneself- as the basis for relations between Muslims and Christians. It invites Christians to work with Muslims on this basis, and says that to do otherwise would be to risk not only our worldly well-being, but our very souls. The Common Word initiative provides principles for a constitutional reset in Muslim-Christian relations. As I have recently argued, institutional design founded on these principles can promote cooperation between Muslims and Christians.

Unlike the Catholic context, where the teaching of Nostra Aetate could be spread among Catholics within a generation through the structure of bishops, the Muslim world is decentralized. Religious instruction is not dominated by an ordained clergy, but by a less hierarchical community. Traditionally, well-trained scholars and spiritual masters were pre-eminent Muslim religious instructors. Consensus was difficult to achieve. In our age, traditional authority has further eroded, making consensus even harder. It is all the more remarkable that the initiative has been endorsed by such a wide geographic and theological range of Muslim scholars, including figures with tremendous reputations in different communities. The teaching thus has the status of an authoritative claim about how Muslims are to relate to Christians.

Despite an initial wave of publicity, the document is still not commonly known. To make the Common Word a widespread reality, creative emulation and reciprocation through networks and institutions are needed. This is not impossible. It demands transnational entrepreneurship, awareness-raising, and civic artisanship. Particularly valuable would be the demonstration that the initiative has provided meaningful avenues for the redress of grievances. This would help stem the turn to violent alternatives. Tangible results of cooperation can further change the clash story. And that possibility depends on what Muslims and Christians do now.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.