VIEW: Bollywood Khans, Islam and environmentalism —Saleem H Ali
As for irrigation, which is by far the largest consumer of water, we might want to learn some lessons from drip irrigation technologies in Israel and Jordan where a small amount of water can produce the same quality of crops that conventional irrigation produces. Similarly, energy conservation programmes that mandate switching to low-energy light bulbs or efficient transmission systems should be our first course of action
Environmentalism often has little in common with India’s film industry but recently two of its most popular Muslim film stars have been in the limelight for divergent views on the environment. Several months ago, Salman Khan was prosecuted for hunting down an endangered antelope species. His actions violated India’s emerging environmental laws. Despite an appeal, he was given a five-year jail sentence in April and many watchers of Hindu-Muslim relations commented that this was a case of selective enforcement against a highly successful Muslim-Indian icon.
Others differed by stating that Mr Khan’s lascivious lifestyle had made him more of a pariah than an icon in Muslim circles, and this was a much-needed case of environmental enforcement against a celebrity.
Soon thereafter, the far more Pakistan-friendly Aamir Khan came under major criticism from some communities in Gujarat for his public condemnation of the compensation arrangements for the much-maligned Narmada dam project. In contrast with Salman Khan’s case, Aamir Khan was portrayed as an ardent environmental and human rights activist who had overstepped his bounds. The situation was exacerbated when the Gujarat government and the BJP refused to screen his latest film, Fanaa, in the province and asked for an apology.
Aamir Khan has rightly refused to apologise for his position when even the World Bank (a supporter of many large dams including Tarbela and Mangla) has held that the Narmada project is poorly planned and hence declined to fund it. Again there was talk of how Hindu fundamentalists were playing the religious card against a Muslim celebrity. Counter-arguments were also heard: a few years ago another celebrity had been chastised similarly, even imprisoned for her protests. Award-winning novelist Arundathi Roy is certainly not a Muslim.
There are lessons for Pakistan in both these cases as we often tend to dilute the importance of environmental causes by inferring other causal links. For endangered species’ protection, Islam is often invoked as a religion of carnivores. Any attempt to promote vegetarianism is trivialised on numerous accounts that it would negate qurbani or lead to physical weakness. If there is anything Muslims might learn from Hindus, it is that balanced vegetarianism does not make us weak or diminish virility.
Historically, a collective repugnance for animal fat brought Muslims and Hindus together during the war of 1857 against the British when cartridges lined with beef and pork fat were rejected by members of both faiths. Yet, many Hindu-Muslim riots in India continue to be triggered by incidents of Muslim beef consumption that may ignite Hindu zealotry.
In a recent televised debate on vegetarianism with a Hindu academic, held in Mumbai, Islamic scholar and physician, Dr Zakir Naik, attempted to provide some balance to the rhetoric. He admitted that vegetarianism was perhaps a healthier lifestyle but insisted that meat consumption must be considered acceptable in India. While meat consumption in moderation may well be fine, considering such consumption as a mark of prestige similar to a hunted trophy animal is problematic. Dr Naik also said Islamic doctrines prohibit consumption of hormone-injected livestock and any other animals that are fed non-vegetable products.
Following these guidelines would be similar to what most environmentalists argue for in terms of responsible meat consumption. But Muslim cultures have regrettably become so carnivorous that government intervention has been necessitated in some cases with proverbial “meatless days” to reduce our consumption of animals. As for hunting animals, it may be considered a preferable way of meat consumption since the hunter has to exert effort to get the game rather than being served a factory-farmed product. However, most hunts continue to be recreational and that is where thrill-seekers such as Salman Khan might lead us astray.
Now let us turn to some potential lessons for Pakistan from Aamir Khan’s principled resistance to the Narmada project’s compensation regimen. During the past year, the Pakistani government has been ardently advocating several dam projects with good cause given the energy and water shortages. However, the scale and location of these projects should be considered with particular reference to geological faults as well as human settlements.
Small-scale dams should be encouraged rather than larger impoundments since the former have minimal impact on communities and can also be managed far more effectively for flood control, irrigation and energy generation. The World Commission on Dams concluded in its report five years ago that the age of large dams should largely be over and the focus should be on small and medium-scale hydroelectric generation. The costs of large dams in terms of displacement of livelihoods, ecological disturbance and project life does not merit the scale of required investment.
Further, water and energy conservation programmes should be the first course of action before large dams are ordained. As a comparative example, when water resource engineers considered the causes of water shortages in Mexico City several years ago they discovered that one-third of the city’s water was lost due to leaking pipes. I wonder how many of the water supply pipes in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi leak.
As for irrigation, which is by far the largest consumer of water, we might want to learn some lessons from drip irrigation technologies in Israel and Jordan where a small amount of water can produce the same quality of crops that conventional irrigation produces. Similarly, energy conservation programmes that mandate switching to low-energy light bulbs or efficient transmission systems that reduce loss of power in transit should be our first course of action. Indeed, conservation before construction has also been the Islamic approach in developing water delivery systems in historic settings such as in Iraq.
Wastage of resources is considered sinful in most religious traditions including Islam and Hinduism. Considering such common conservation ethics might be a way for our faith communities to find common ground. As for the Bollywood Khans, we hope that they will use their celebrity status to work towards environmental and religious concord regardless of controversy.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org