Weekly Insights and Analysis

In Indonesia: Islamic Organizations Go Green

June 3, 2009

By By John Brownlee

In Indonesia, Muslim organizations have long been a force for social and political change, and have been cited by many researchers as playing a leading role in Indonesia’s democratization and in social issues such as gender equality and human rights. In recent years, Muslim organizations have also become involved in efforts to improve the responsiveness of local governments to the needs of the poor and the marginalized. Now, in a world that increasingly recognizes the importance of global warming and other environmental concerns to people’s lives and well-being, it is interesting to take a look at the ways in which Muslim organizations are becoming more involved in environmental protection and their potential for future efforts.

The influence of Islamic organizations comes largely from their size. The two largest mass-based Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, claim a combined following of over 70 million Indonesians, with local branches throughout the country, down to the village level. In various opinion polls through the years, Indonesian citizens have consistently ranked Muslim organizations at the top of institutions they most trust and find to be the most legitimate. Although their primary mandate is religious, the thousands of schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other institutions they have established attest to their enormous social role as well.

Although Islamic views toward the environment are not widely known or discussed, scholars have pointed out that the theological underpinnings for environmental responsibility are strong. Individual verses extolling the virtues of nature and commanding humans to act as the earth’s stewards abound in the holy texts.

“Surely the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of man; but most people know not,” reads one verse from the Qur’an [40:57]. Indeed, the concept of the oneness of God (tawhid), a central tenet of Islamic belief, is often seen as embodying an attitude of reverence toward all of God’s creations.

On a practical level, what sorts of roles can Islamic organizations play in Indonesia to apply this environmental ethic?

Both NU and Muhammadiyah have shown themselves to be concerned about environmental issues. Their discourse on environmental protection goes back to the 1990s, and both organizations have, in recent years, established bodies dedicated to the environment. Both organizations have, on the local and national level, shown an upward trend in conducting eco-friendly activities. NU has even been working directly with the Ministry of Forestry on protecting and rehabilitating national forests.

Looking toward the future, it seems that the potential of mass-based organizations lies in their ability to link larger, sometimes abstract issues like climate change to the daily lives of ordinary citizens. This was recently confirmed for me in a conversation I had with Imam Pituduh, the Secretariat for NU’s National Movement for Forests and the Environment (GNKL PBNU).

According to Pituduh, raising awareness is only effective when paired with showing how environmental change impacts people’s lives and livelihoods. Most local-level pollution problems need practical local solutions rather than discourse on carbon emissions or recycling (with just under half of Indonesia’s population living on under US$2 a day, recycling and low carbon emissions are mostly a necessary part of life).

When it comes to the larger issues such as climate change, the focus should likewise start with adaptation rather than prevention. The effects of climate change are already being felt in the growing cycles of certain crops, and these effects will accelerate over time. Organizations like NU and Muhammadiyah can play a key role in helping citizens and local government to understand these changes and prepare for them.

A model for NU and Muhammdiyah’s involvement already exists. In their current work on local governance, both organizations have established various centers, forums, and other venues that help connect government planning and budgeting with the needs of citizens. They are effective because of the combination of their grass-roots base and political heft, and their sophistication in analyzing budgets and policies from a pro-poor, gender-responsive perspective, which continues to grow.

The environment, likewise, is ultimately a governance issue, and one that is closely tied to poverty alleviation and gender equality as women and the poor are usually affected most by environmental degradation. Governments have the responsibility of not only ensuring access to basic services such as clean water and garbage disposal, but also of informing the public of its role and responsibilities. Thus, by expanding their governance efforts already in progress to include environmental issues, NU and Muhammadiyah could connect the dots between global concerns, local needs, and good governance. Also, while climate change is global, effects are local and can vary widely from place to place. Through simple monitoring methods, Islamic organizations can help to detect local trends in climate that will help farmers, fishermen, and others prepare for changing conditions. And this is already starting to happen. At a recent community forum I attended held by a Muhammadiyah organization in Bojonegoro, East Java, one of the main concerns expressed by community members was the repeated flooding in the area and the effect that it had on local infrastructure.

It is a shame that in a post 9-11 world, one of the more important stories about Islam in Indonesia has been buried beneath concerns about terrorism and radicalization. That story is the story of the central role that Islamic organizations have played, and continue to play, in Indonesia’s economic and social development. Looking at their record of providing social services – and advancing democratization, human rights, and gender equality – there is every reason to believe Muslim organizations will also play a key role in strengthening environmental governance in Indonesia going forward.

John Brownlee is The Asia Foundation’s Director of Islam and Development program in Indonesia. He can be reached at

Related locations: Indonesia
Related programs: Environmental Resilience


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