up the torn paw of a Javanese leaf-monkey, with the help of an
Indonesian vet, might seem an untried and unexpected form of interfaith
dialogue, but it proved very productive for me. This particular
encounter took place in a wildlife rescue center, ProFauna Indonesia, in
the hill country of East Java, where I recently served as a volunteer.
Rosek Nursahid, an
Indonesian Muslim biologist and the founder of ProFauna, established the
nongovernmental organization in 1994 to counter the illegal trafficking
in wildlife that has increased as the logging industry reduces the
available woodland habitat in Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan (Indonesian
Borneo) and West Papua (the Indonesian part of New Guinea). The rate of
deforestation in Indonesia has accelerated as foreign markets for wood
products have expanded, including China's demand for construction
materials to prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Many people are aware of
illegal logging in Indonesia , but few have heard about the consequent
damage suffered by local wildlife. From Indonesia's vast forests,
poachers—who find their access facilitated by roads carved through the
jungle by the bulldozers of logging corporations—net thousands of
members of endangered animal species, from pangolins to orangutans.
Some of these captive animals are sold as pets to Indonesian households.
Others are trafficked all over the world. Under Rosek Nursahid's
leadership, ProFauna has fought to stop the trade.
Nursahid's approach is
twofold: activism (rescuing animals, spurring the government to enact
and enforce Indonesian environmental laws and—when necessary—confronting
animal traffickers) and education (holding classes and workshops at the
camp for students, teachers, government officials and other members of
the Indonesian public). He considers particularly important the ecology
camps ProFauna runs for Indonesian children. "By educating them in
environmental awareness and respect for animals," he told me, "we are
investing in the next generation."
As a volunteer, I was
integrated into a daily round of chores linked to the care and
rehabilitation of the animals at the ProFauna center: preparing food,
cleaning out cages and habitats and dealing directly with the animals
inside their habitats. Aside from learning in this immediate and direct
way what ProFauna does to help rehabilitate animals and prepare them for
re-entry into the wild, I benefited from the opportunity to interact
with dozens of ProFauna staff members of diverse backgrounds. I learned
from Muslims, Hindus and Christians what it means to be a person of
faith who is also committed to environmental custodianship. And as the
only foreigner and the only American in the camp, I drew plenty of
attention and had my share of questions to answer.
Going to Market
One of the most emotionally
challenging tasks involved visits to
pasar burung (bird markets,
where in fact all kinds of animals are sold) in Denpasar and the port of
Surabaya . In these cities, as elsewhere throughout the Indonesian
archipelago, traffickers sell members of protected species to the
highest bidder. Working with ProFauna members who wished to expose such
dealers, I presented myself as a foreign buyer.
helps to have a strong stomach in such markets. Thousands of animals are
crammed into cages in hot airless sheds. One enclosure held sparrows
that had been spray-painted with metallic hard-gloss purples and
reds—"to draw customers," I was told. Another enclosure held a
magnificent serpent-eagle confined to a cage so small it could neither
stand nor flex its wings. A dealer amused himself by trying to force a
banana down its throat. The bird refused with a fierce, unyielding toss
of its head.
Nearby, a dozen monkeys—each chained by the neck—watched as we passed.
Their eyes commanded attention: plain to see were all-too-recognizable
emotions—dejection, anger, despair. "Mereka
sesungguhnya menderita," said the ProFauna staffer at my
side, "They really do suffer."
The Interfaith Dialogue
This experience stayed with me as I sorted my notes for a lecture back
at the ProFauna rescue center. Rosek had arranged for me to lead a
workshop and discussion on perspectives offered by world religions on
wildlife and environmental issues. ProFauna staff and officials from the
Indonesian Department of Forestry attended and members of the local
Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian communities were invited to
Representatives of each community responded to the points I presented;
then we engaged in a general discussion on how each faith can contribute
insights to environmental issues. Among the topics we discussed was the
morally problematic sense of overlordship and entitlement that
Christians and Muslims have often derived from the reading of their
scriptures. A point of agreement among all those present was the need
for religious educators to emphasize humanity's responsibility for
noted that in recent years some Muslim writers, notably the Iranian
scholar Kaveh Afrasiabi and the Malaysian human rights activist Farish
Ahmad Noor, have urged members of their faith to embrace
environmentalism as both a global and an Islamic issue that should
concern Muslims. Noor acknowledges that many Muslim thinkers have been
preoccupied by an agenda of collective identity and a defensive
mentality; these have precluded interfaith cooperation on global crises.
Too often Muslim scholars—like some of their Abrahamic kin in the
Christian community—have regarded the environment in terms of a
simplistic formula: that submission to God entitles the faithful to
exploitative mastery over the earth. Taken to its extreme, such
triumphalism results in an adversarial and manipulative attitude toward
Though often overlooked,
there are resources within the Islamic tradition for countering such
trends, especially in Sufism, the Islamic mystical tradition. The
contemporary Iranian-American scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr argues that
"Nature in Islamic spirituality is…not the adversary but the friend of
the traveler upon the spiritual path." He sees in nature an invitation
to meditate and behold the "signs of Allah" in the created world.
Nasr uses this as a basis for proposing an
Islamic theology of environmental stewardship. His imagery of the
spiritual traveler fits well with the longstanding Christian conception
of humans as pilgrims, who should take a contemplative rather than
exploitative approach to the world through which they sojourn.
pointed out some other issues on which Christian and other faiths
diverge. I discussed Abraham Joshua Heschel's Jewish theology of the
"divine pathos" and how the shekhina
(God's presence, manifested among us on earth)
voluntarily experienced exodus and exile along with the Israelites.
Jürgen Moltmann Christianized this theology using the concept of a
"crucified God." Moltmann's theology emphasizes the divine quality of
empathetic suffering, a suffering entered into freely by a God who
desires ardently to experience a loving solidarity with the world he
brought into being.
Heschel and Moltmann's thought has been applied in recent years to
environmental concerns. The theologian Mark Wallace argues that just as
Christ's crucifixion constituted a "terrifying event of loss and
suffering within the inner life of God-self," so too does God continue
today to suffer in the Trinitarian person of the Holy Spirit. "The
Spirit is Christlike or cruciform," says Wallace, "because she suffers
the same violent fate as did Jesus—but now a suffering not confined to
the one-time event of the cross, insofar as the Spirit experiences daily
the continual degradation of the earth and its inhabitants."
The Javanese Buddhists in my audience had no problem with any of these
ways of thinking. They responded with tales from the
Jatakas (stories of the Buddha's earlier incarnations):
how a prince was so moved with pity for a starving tigress and its cubs
that he offered his own body as food; how the Buddha in various cycles
of existence took the form of wild animals who sacrificed their lives to
ease the suffering of others.
Some Muslims at the workshop expressed discomfort with the notion of
divine vulnerability. After all, the Koran characterizes Allah as "the
Mighty," "the Conqueror" and "He who is free from any wants or
needs"—names that are far from Christian incarnational notions of a
wounded Spirit or crucified God.
overcame our theological differences in our shared work at the camp,
with the forest animals that had been rescued from the poachers and
smugglers' markets. For several days I helped Dr. Wulan, a skilled
veterinarian and a devout Muslim, who always wore her hair carefully
covered in a head scarf as she worked in the infirmary. One day we
treated a Sumatran gibbon whose skin was infested with parasites; the
next we sutured a leaf-monkey's torn foot. (Within 48 hours the sutures
tore open, forcing us to stitch the wound again, so this was one
monkey's paw with which I became well acquainted.)
was impressed by the care Dr. Wulan took in reassuring these creatures,
stroking their fur, talking to them gently and doing what she could to
ease their readily evident fear. Her actions reminded me of hadiths
(sayings attributed to Muhammad) in which the prophet of Islam
encouraged Muslims to lessen the suffering of animals.
Allah, after all, is also known as compassionate and merciful. These are
attributes of God on which both Muslims and Christians can agree.
is an associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University
and a member of ProFauna Indonesia's advisory board. He is also the
author of Notes From the
Fortune-Telling Parrot: Islam and the Struggle for Religious Pluralism
in Pakistan (Equinox Press).