x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Ecological activists see duty as 'sacred'

A growing trend in the US to combine religion and environmental activism has aroused interest in the UAE following the screening of a documentary about the concept.

DUBAI // A growing trend in the US to combine religion and environmental activism has aroused interest in the UAE following the screening of a documentary about the concept here. Last week, a private screening of The Renewal Project was held for a select group of invitees to gauge local interest in the idea.

The documentary produced by Martin Ostrow, an American writer, director and producer of environmental films, features stories of a church in Vermont that has installed solar panels, a Jewish summer camp that helps children appreciate nature, a Buddhist tree preservation campaign in California and a Muslim business that is breaking new ground by selling organic halal meat and poultry. What these and many similar projects by people of different faiths have in common is that their backers see environmentalism not just as a moral commitment but as a "sacred" duty.

Rama Chakaki, organiser of the event and co-founder of Baraka, a Dubai company that invests in socially responsible new businesses, said audience members reacted strongly to the stories. "There was a lot of interest in the audience," she said. "They got excited and talked about how they can do similar projects here." She now plans to show The Renewal Project in public venues around the city once the rights have been negotiated.

Brennan Berry, who works in business development for a Dubai hotel and was one of the dozen or so guests at the screening, said the film showed how taking small steps could make a big difference. "Especially living in a city like Dubai, which has some of the highest water consumption and energy use in the world, it's important for us residents to be conscious of our daily impact on the local environment," he said.

The movement behind the film, Green Zabiha, was founded in Washington, DC, by Yasir Syeed and his wife Karima Shamma. Among its projects is the promotion and distribution of halal meat and poultry raised on organic and so-called compassionate farms. For Mr Syeed and his wife, this is about more than a wholesome lifestyle. "It's about restoring sacredness to food," he said in a telephone interview.

Before making The Renewal Project, Mr Ostrow had nagging questions about how industrialised countries treated the environment. He was frustrated with the available documentaries, which, he said, tended to explore the struggles of one particular species - say a type of owl - from a "techno-science perspective". "But what is our deep connection to all of that? What is our sacred bond to all of that?" he said, also in a telephone interview.

He said that when he met some like-minded people at conferences that discussed world religions and ecology, it sparked an idea. "I thought, 'Could I make a film of this?' How would we make such a film? Would we just get theologians talking and then cut to a scene of nature?" he said. His research and collaboration with other filmmakers led him to uncover many examples of a fledgling movement of religion and environmental activism.

"And we found it is a global story, but if we wanted to film around the world we never would have found the funding," he said. "So we decided to focus on the US." The Muslim story in The Renewal Project features a now-defunct company similar to Green Zabiha. Zabiha is Arabic for halal slaughter. Mr Syeed noted there were many non-Muslims among his customers, including secular people. Over the past decade, the role of Islam in the environmental movement has been raised from time to time, usually in the upper echelons of religious scholarship.

However, worshippers do hear about their role in conserving the environment. In the UAE, where the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowment issues the weekly sermon, worshippers are reminded to conserve water and respect the environment. relass@thenational.ae