These were the main premises and objectives of the Second International Seminar on Environment, Culture, and Religion held in Tehran in 2016. In Part 2 Bron Taylor reports on the event and reflects on the Iranian government’s position on religion and environmental issues, particularly focusing on the introductory speech by the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Words of Hasan Rouhani, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran
The initial morning of the seminar provided a fascinating blend of pageantry and politics. The session began with a recitation of the Holy Qur’an, the Iranian National Anthem, and included remarks from the Executive Director of UNEP and the deputy Director General of UNESCO. Most striking was the importance high Iranian officials placed on (expressing) their commitment to environmental protection and the UN’s sustainable development goals. Masoumeh Ebtekar, the first female Vice President of Iran and the head of the country’s Department of the Environment, for example, was present throughout the conference, expressing on several occasions her understanding that Islam demands environmental protection.[i]
Most significantly, the keynote speaker that morning was the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hasan Rouhani.[ii] After beginning with the customary invocation of Allah the merciful, he stated that religion is an important foundation for all values as well as for environmental goals, and that protecting the environment is an obligation for all humanity. He discussed how economic growth puts pressure on nature, even precipitating the current “war on the environment.” He stressed that proper planning is needed to meet sustainability goals and asserted his government’s intention to be “the environmental government.” Turning his focus again to religion, he noted “We are part of the earth, we are from the dust of the earth.” He quoted passages from the Qur’an that he understood and interpreted to be about resourcefulness, and suggested that human immorality leads to the corruption of the earth. He then asserted that all divine religions (specifically mentioning Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism) suggest we are indebted to “Mother Nature,” and that we should be grateful to—and are responsible for—planet earth, which comes from our creator. He stated that although patient, nature, if harmed repeatedly, will “retaliate terribly” and declared that “the law of nature is the law of God.”
After stressing his pride in his culture, which has been central to “the dialogue of civilizations” for millennia, he argued that “without peace and moderation we cannot get to sustainability.” Rouhani also defended Iran’s support of the Assad regime in Syria asserting that this is one of the ways that Iran is a bulwark opposing “terrorism and extremism.” On a more optimistic note, after acknowledging that, although influential, religions have not been strong in the environmental arena, he proposed that pursuing environmental goals can promote unity among the religions.
Rouhani’s message was warmly received by the audience of some 300 people, which was at least twice as large as during the rest of the seminar, no doubt because of his appearance. Given my time before the conference, however, I knew Iranian activists were highly skeptical about the professed environmental priorities of the Iranian government. Nevertheless, whether sincere or motivated by broader geopolitical objectives (or both), the expression of such intentions provides the country’s activists at least modest social space that would not otherwise be available, to advocate for pollution reduction, wildlife protection, and other environmental objectives.
On 19 May 2017, Rouhani was voted into his second term as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His re-election suggests that, at least for the time being, the social space that has been created for environmental activists via his expressions of commitment to environmental protection will continue, and may even expand significantly, as he promised during the campaign.
On Promoting Religious Environmentalism
Whatever the fate of environmental action in Iran will be, the international actors assembled at the seminar clearly intended to promote religious environmentalism in their home countries and internationally. Indeed, most of the rest of the seminar involved officials affiliated with one or another of the United Nations affiliated agencies, and religious leaders and scholars of religion, discussing the ways religious traditions, when properly understood, value and support environmental protection. This narrative was indeed echoed in the official description published after the seminar, which explicitly urged religious leaders and organizations to mobilize and “actively engage in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] in their communities.” Moreover, it stated, “Interfaith religious scholars should continue to engage in dialogue with the scientific community to progressively evolve religious thinking and scientific discovery.” Such stances have been increasingly common at events sponsored by the United Nations and its affiliated institutions. They also parallel how some morally concerned and politically active scholars see their own role as promoting religious environmentalism (see, for example, The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature).
Among other points regarding religious views on nonhumans and the environment, the UN report states that, although humans maintain a unique position in the world, they share some continuity with other lifeforms and are not morally independent, that the natural world has value in itself and does not exist solely to serve human needs, and that the dependence of human life on the natural world can, and should, be acknowledged. Concurring with this general tone, in most of the presentations religion was put on a pedestal as an important moral resource that, properly understood, could inspire action toward environmental protection, peace, and social justice.
Although the accompanying narrative argued that “religious traditions agree, to a greater or lesser extent” on these principles, in fact, many of these points would be rejected by some religionists. Indeed, religions are not typically known for advancing notions of the intrinsic value of nature, using ritual to express gratitude toward nature (for some this would be idolatrous), or recognizing continuity between human and other organisms (which some would understandably see as reflecting an atheistic, evolutionary cosmogony). From a critical scholarly perspective, therefore, such statements are problematic. But from a perspective devoted to turning religions into strong pro-environmental and pro-social sources, these statements can be seen as strategic overstatement—a kind of prefigurative religious politics, a means of nudging religious traditions in a direction now considered by some to be morally, ecologically, and politically imperative. Those who contend that all religions, when properly understood, promote ecological health and harmony, could thus be considered to be following a kind of “strategic essentialism”—in a way similar to those who aver that indigenous cultures are innately pro-environmental—but know there is at least some overgeneralization involved in such assertions.[iii]
My own presentation at the seminar both challenged rosy views that the world’s predominant religions were coming, or might come, to the environmental rescue, and suggested that the weight of evidence indicates that environmental mobilization is emerging most strongly outside of these religious traditions. I also suggested that these sorts of events—if they are to be serious about analyzing the role of religion in environmental behaviors—need to directly involve more social scientists who study such dynamics. What is clear is that most of the participants shared a perception that religions are important to the quest for environmental sustainability and even social justice. What remains to be seen is whether the hope for a dramatic upwelling of religious environmental action and social justice activism will emerge, and if so, if it will result in effective, global, and positive political and environmental change.[iv]
[i] Earlier in her life, Ebtekar spent six years in the U.S. where her father was teaching at a university. Then, in 1979, in part because she spoke perfect English, she became the spokeswoman for those who took hostages at the U.S. embassy during the Iranian revolution.
[ii] Rouhani spoke in Persian; my notes are from the simultaneous translation.
[iii] Postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak coined the expression “strategic essentialism” for when a group (to her, “subaltern” groups such as women and indigenous people), is represented for some political purpose as having, essentially or naturally, some particular trait—even though the given representation may promote an inaccurate stereotype or some overgeneralization (Gayatri, Landry & MacLean 1996).
[iv] For in-depth analyses of the role of religion, spirituality, emotion, and ethics in environmental behavior, see Bron Taylor, “The Greening of Religion Hypothesis (Part One): From Lynn White, Jr. and Claims That Religions Can Promote Environmentally Destructive Attitudes and Behaviors to Assertions They Are Becoming Environmentally Friendly,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 10, no 3 (2016): 268–305 and in the same issue: Bron Taylor, Gretel Van Wieren, and Bernard Daley Zaleha, “The Greening of Religion Hypothesis (Part Two): Assessing the Data from Lynn White, Jr., to Pope Francis,” 306–78; both are available at www.brontaylor.com.