Rizky Alif Alvian – As the threat of climate change intensifies in Indonesia, radical activists are weaponising the climate crisis to gain support for their cause.
The former activists of pan-Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) have devised a climate narrative that legitimises the global caliphate – a transnational state governed by Sharia Law – as an alternative to the global state system. Indonesia's state and civil society will need to adjust their counternarrative strategies to combat further climate-related radical narratives.
The Indonesian government disbanded HTI in 2017 for opposing the state ideology of religious pluralism. The decision, which follows a worrying trend of growing autocracy in the region, was criticised by activists as harmful to democracy and human rights. The former HTI activists managed to continue their activities by dissociating their publications from the HTI brand and key organisational figures. They use several channels, including the monthly magazine Al-Waie, to spread the view that Muslims are obliged to establish a global caliphate.
The climate crisis has been gradually incorporated into the activists' propaganda. This development is characteristic of HTI's practice of targeting young, educated Indonesians. The majority of Indonesian youths consider climate change to be a crucial problem, so devising a climate crisis narrative is an effective strategy for improving the ideological appeal of HTI.
By closely reading Al-Waie publications, four climate change narratives emerge. The activists acknowledge that climate change is real. They argue that the climate has been affected by uncontrolled carbon emissions caused by extensive industrialisation, deforestation and the use of fossil fuels. They especially affirm that climate change is responsible for the rising sea levels threatening Jakarta.
The activists maintain that the secular capitalist ideology of the West enables climate change. This human-centric ideology is seen to emphasise trade liberalisation and globalisation, animating capitalism. Capitalism justifies the accumulation of profit at the expense of environmental degradation. The excessive use of fossil fuels is a convincing example to would-be recruits because, despite contributing to climate change, they remain widespread since the international economic system prioritises profit.
The activists argue that the fight against climate change will be unsuccessful so long as secular capitalism persists. If international institutions are left unchallenged, they will be hijacked by capitalist interests to facilitate the more profitable and effective exploitation of nature.
The global caliphate is advanced as an alternative to the current style of state governance. It claims to improve on the secular capitalism that puts humans at the 'centre of everything'. In line with the Islamic concept of rahmatan lil alamin (giving mercy to all creatures), supporters claim the caliphate would preserve nature from the greed of individual interests. To achieve this, Muslims are encouraged to fight for the establishment of a global caliphate and resist those who are hostile to the concept – especially Western governments.
Climate change amplifies the threat of religious radicalism in Indonesia. Former HTI activists exploit grievances caused or aggravated by climate change to delegitimise the existing modes of political and economic organisation. Rising sea levels, deforestation and the rise in global temperature are used to demonstrate the failure of the prevailing climate mitigation regime. Members believe that the global caliphate will preserve the future of the earth, justifying public support for the cause.
Efforts to counter these narratives need to become more sophisticated. In Indonesia, dominant state-sponsored counternarratives are ill-equipped to handle radical climate-related narratives. To weaken the appeal of radical movements, counternarratives spun by the authorities tend to label them as unpatriotic or as misinterpreting the teachings of Islam. But these counternarratives are relatively silent on the issue of climate change.
The state and civil society need to collaborate to develop counternarratives that can defuse the appeal of radical climate-related narratives. This is especially important ahead of Indonesia's 2024 elections. The climate crisis is legitimate political discourse, so these counternarratives need not totally negate HTI's narrative – only discredit the connection between the caliphate and climate mitigation.
They should instead focus on weakening claims that legitimise replacing the global state system with the caliphate. To do so, two crucial claims must be debunked. They are that 'secular' capitalism is solely responsible for climate change and that stopping the climate crisis requires the global caliphate.
Moderate Muslim organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah have made steps in the right direction. At the July 2022 Islamic Congress for a Sustainable Indonesia, these organisations signed a declaration pushing for Muslims to have a greater role in addressing the climate crisis. The declaration demands that Islamic institutions, such as mosques and Islamic boarding schools, contribute to the preservation of nature. This is a valuable initiative that shows how Islam can help address climate change without resorting to extreme measures.
Muslims already have the power to affect meaningful environmental change. By capitalising on this idea, the state and civil society can undermine radical climate-related narratives in Indonesia.
[Rizky Alif Alvian is a lecturer in the Department of International Relations, Gadjah Mada University.]