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Nahdlatul Ulama Ventures into Mining: Threat to the ‘Green Islam’ in Indonesia?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi’s) recent amendment to government regulations, allowing social or religious organisations to obtain mining licenses, has sparked controversy. The move is seen to be Jokowi’s concession to his political supporters. But the state’s attempt to involve religious organisations in the mining business could undermine their role in responding to environmental issues in Indonesia.

Currently, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Islamic organisation, is at the forefront of proposing mining business licences for religious bodies. The move by NU to venture into the mining business came as a surprise to many. NU’s gratitude to President Jokowi for granting it a mining licence has received much attention from the public and pro-environmental organisations. Given the role of religion, especially Islam, in advocating for a better environment, NU’s move into mining sends a wrong signal for the so-called “green Islam” movement in Indonesia.

Green Islam is an idea that combines Islamic principles with environmental awareness and behaviour. The notion of green Islam in Indonesia was initiated in the 1980s when Indonesian Muslim scholars such as Ali Yafie and Sahal Mahfudz drafted the first environmental fiqh (science of ascertaining the precise terms of the sharia). In the early 2000s, Green Islam later grew into a wider movement. Its main message is to encourage the Muslim community to understand the importance of protecting and caring for the earth as a sacred mandate from God. Although it has limitations in challenging resource extractive activities, this movement has grown in Indonesia, focusing on the eco-theological basis for environmental protection, and small-scale ecological activities.

As reported by the New York Times, the development of green Islam can be seen in “greening” efforts around the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta. These include cleaning up garbage in the river surrounding Istiqlal, the installation of solar panels, ablution water recycling systems and water conserving taps. The mosque has received a green building award from the World Bank.

NU has also had several progressive green Islamic efforts. At the normative level, many decisions of the NU’s Bahtsul Masail Muktamar (Congress on Religious Problem Discussion) reject actions that damage the environment. In 2004,  NU issued the Fiqh of the Environment (Fiqh al-bi’ah), which underlies the spirit of improving the environment among members. Five years ago, the organisation also issued a fiqh on plastic waste management.

NU’s has also undertaken more tangible efforts to implement green Islam. For example, NU strives to increase waste management capacity in their pesantren (Islamic boarding schools). Female students are encouraged to use reusable tampons. These schools are also encouraged to have a system that allows students to recycle waste into organic fertiliser.

Regarding mining, various elements of NU rejected the gold mining operation in Trenggalek, East Java, Indonesia, in 2009. The mining company operating the mine was deemed irresponsible for the detrimental impact on the sustainability of the surrounding environment. In that case, the government also received criticism for issuing permits without paying attention to environmental impact assessments (AMDAL). In 2015, NU even issued haram for mining as a form of exploitation of natural resources.

While historically the grassroots movement of NU has opposed mining activities, the NU elites have taken contrasting stances. When President Jokowi offered mining concessions during the 34th NU Congress in 2021, NU’s central executive boards (PBNU) embraced it eagerly. The primary reason behind this shift is the need for operational funds to support NU’s routine activities, particularly the management costs of running pesantren and madrasah (Islamic schools). Yahya Staquf, the chairman of PBNU, stated plainly that NU needs the money.

However, NU’s decision to join the mining industry appears to be a thorn in the flesh for the growing green Islam movement. NU’s decision to join the mining industry has revived an ongoing debate on the balance between economic prosperity and environmental responsibility.

Ideally, the responsibility to protect the Earthshould not be overlookedin favour of economic gain. In this regard, a recent national survey by the Center for the Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) Jakarta finds that most Indonesians from various religious backgrounds agree that economic activities such as mining and palm oil plantations have led to environmental degradation and climate change. The percentage of respondents who agree is 60.2 per cent, with another 7.0 per cent strongly agreeing (Figure 1). The survey, titled “Religious Environmentalism Action (REACT) in Indonesia”, involved 3,397 respondents aged 16 and above.

Figure 1: Public Opinion on Climate Change and Mining Ownership

However, when the survey asked Muslim respondents (N=3,045) whether pesantren or Islamic organisations should be permitted to run mining or palm oil plantation businesses, the majority of Muslim respondents agreed that such ownership is permissible when there are strong economic justifications. These findings indicate a duality in public opinion: on one hand, respondents recognise that economic activities lead to environmental deprivation, on the other hand, they justify resource exploitation for economic benefits.

NU’s decision to join the mining industry has revived an ongoing debate on the balance between economic prosperity and environmental responsibility.

As the largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia, NU has a moral responsibility to set an example in balancing economic progress with ecological sustainability. The controversy over NU’s involvement in the mining sector demands active participation from various stakeholders to ensure that NU follows its foundational principles (khittah) in managing mining operations. Given that NU lacks prior experience in this industry, the government must ensure that the mining activities undertaken by NU would not lead to environmental destruction and bring harm to the surrounding communities. Should NU fail in this effort, the image of green Islam in Indonesia — and potentially globally — would undoubtedly be tarnished.

Furthermore, green Islam should run in parallel with Indonesia’s transition to renewable energy. Environmental education for religious leaders and Islamic educational institutions should prioritise awareness of environmental sustainability. Introducing critical concepts such as green energy, eco-friendly technology, green finance, and energy transition to the broader public is highly pertinent.

Finally, the struggle to create harmony between development and environmental protection is far from complete. The green Islam movement should not only be considered as “bark with no bite” – it should be able to bring tangible outcomes to the table.


Writer: Iim Halimatusa’diyah dan Endi Aulia Garadian

Published on https://fulcrum.sg/nahdlatul-ulama-ventures-into-mining-threat-to-the-green-islam-in-indonesia/