Coverage of the fight against climate change in the U.S. often ignores the efforts of Muslim activists, for whom caring for the environment is a religious obligation. However, Muslims have been among those urgently calling for greater conservation efforts and more sustainable policies, both nationally and within their own communities. Most recently, this commitment to environmental justice has been reflected by Muslims’ involvement in the Anishinaabe-led efforts to protest the construction of Line 3 (L3), a massive pipeline project in Northern Minnesota by Canadian oil giant Enbridge Energy.
Muslims have joined Indigenous-led protest efforts like tree-sitting and locking themselves into construction equipment to prevent and slow pipeline construction. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, an environmental justice advocate who identifies as a Muslim and has roots in Minnesota as a congressmember, has also passionately opposed Line 3. While protests against the pipeline have attracted media attention, there’s been little to no mention of Muslims’ involvement or why Muslim activists see defending Indigenous land rights and a commitment to environmentalism as natural extensions of their faith.
“Human beings have been charged with trust, that is the just and effective administration of all that has been placed under our control and use in our multifaceted role as vicegerants,” said Imam Saffet Catovic, quoting passages 33:72 and 6:165 from the Quran about the call for Muslims to be active stewards of the environment. Catovic leads divestment campaigns to stop financing of current and future pipelines and joins other interfaith members who want their religious communities to make environmental justice a personal issue.
Indigenous activists see the pipeline as a “double-barreled threat”: not only is it a carbon-producing fossil fuel project in the midst of increasingly severe climate change, it also risks polluting lands in the headwaters of the Mississippi River and contaminating land in Anishinaabe territories. Additionally, pipeline construction has brought in thousands of workers from out of state despite the ongoing pandemic, raising concerns about spreading the virus further.
Activists see the pipeline as another example of how concerns about the pandemic, the health and safety of workers, environmental damage, and continued disregard for the land rights of Indigenous nations are always superseded by capitalism and profits. For Tasnim Mellouli, the pipeline directly violates several Islamic tenets regarding stewardship of the natural world and the sanctity of upholding one’s agreements. This perspective inspired Muslims like Mellouli to travel from out of state to join the protests.
“In the end, my spiritual connection to nature as a Muslim and my responsibility as a Muslim to fight for justice compelled me to join the front lines and seek to protect the environment, communities, and uphold the law of the land,” said Mellouli, who comes from Florida and has worked with groups such as Organize Florida and the Sierra Club.
Protecting the land and respecting treaties
When the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) issued water crossing permits in November 2020, a majority of the MPCA’s Environmental Justice Advisory Group resigned in protest over the permitting decision, saying in a letter to MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop that “we cannot continue to legitimize and provide cover for the MPCA’s war on Black and brown people.” This resonated with Muslims, who come from a diverse range of backgrounds but are all too familiar with racist and xenophobic U.S. laws and policies that put them at risk.
Enbridge has a history of pipeline spills, which activists point to as proof that L3 poses an unacceptable risk, especially to the Anishinaabe peoples. For example, Enbridge had its biggest oil spill on record in 2010, poisoning the air with volatile hydrocarbons that forced hundreds of homes and businesses to evacuate; roughly 150 families needed to move away permanently. L3 would cross 200 bodies of water, including the Mississippi River twice. The expansion would transport more than three-quarters of a million barrels of tar sands every day by destroying wetlands and threatening vital areas that grow wild rice, a centerpiece and staple for the Anishinaabe peoples and its territories. Even if there are no spills with L3, it’s still a major investment in fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when climate change is accelerating and the need for cleaner, more renewable energy sources is increasing.
The pipeline also violates several treaties that established the right of the Anishinaabe to hunt, fish, and gather along the proposed route. Upholding treaties is a major component within Islam and any violations of those treaties demands that Muslims take action to correct those wrongs. For Nana Firman, senior ambassador for GreenFaith, a nonprofit aimed to build a worldwide, multi-faith climate and environmental movement, living in America means that Muslims are bound to honor treaty agreements between the U.S. government and Indigenous Tribal Nations, and to speak up when those treaties are broken by the state.
“I have an ethical obligation to come to terms with the fact that by being on this Turtle Island, I have entered into treaty relationships with the Indigenous peoples of this land,” said Firman. “These relationships come with responsibilities, including knowing the truth about the history of settler-indigenous relationships, and working to incorporate acts of long-term reconciliation into our everyday lives.”
Environmentalism is a religious obligation
Throughout the protests, Catovic has encouraged attendees at his mosque to participate in Anishinaabe-led efforts and does outreach via email lists to garner support beyond local Muslim communities. In June, Muslims joined more than a thousand people who marched, occupied, and held a prayer ceremony on Enbridge’s drilling site on the Mississippi River. There is now an indefinite encampment of protesters at the L3 site, temporarily foiling Enbridge’s plans to drill under the river. Currently, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz is letting the legal process play out as advocates urge President Biden to act.
“We need a lot of work to inform and educate Muslims about these critical existential matters and then mobilize them to act on what they know,” Catovic said.
For Muslim environmental activists calling for greater conservation and investment in clean, sustainable energy, there’s a sense of urgency underlying the protests as they take place against the larger backdrop of increasing climate change. Passages in the Quran emphasize the importance of maintaining ecological balance, biodiversity, and sustainability as a way of caring for the Earth. The pipeline stands in direct opposition to that duty, threatening to contribute the equivalent of 50 coal plants-worth of carbon pollution to the atmosphere. Additionally, its carbon footprint would exceed that of the entire state of Minnesota and extend the economic viability of an ultra-polluting energy source.
Muslim environmental activists are hoping to engage more of their community members with environmental activism, whether that’s encouraging protest against L3 or advocating for clean energy in their own communities. Firman points to how pushing governments and financial institutions to end investment in new fossil fuel infrastructure and cease tropical deforestation is part of how she defines what it means to be a Muslim. Supporting initiatives like universal access to clean and affordable energy, green jobs training, and health care and wage support to see workers through the transition to a sustainable energy industry reflect commitments in the Islamic faith to adl (justice) and rahma (compassion), Firman said.
“As a Muslim eco-justice activist, understanding the truth and working toward justice are lifelong commitments,” said Firman. “Sometimes it can feel impossible knowing where to start, but the point is to begin somewhere, and to remain consistent in educating myself.”
This reporting was supported through the Kozik Environmental Justice Reporting Grant and both the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.