Berkan Ozyer

Turkish journalist based in Istanbul

25 June 2015

water Q&A

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On Communicating Water
25 June 2015
Berkan Ozyer | Turkish journalist based in Istanbul

water Q&A by RevolveTeam

An interview by Berkan Ozyer with Professor Odeh al-Jayyousi on how the teachings of Islam can form the basis for a new model of sustainability. Professor al-Jayyousi is the author of Islam and Sustainable Development: New Worldviews.

  • You give lectures to imams about climate change and sustainability. Why do imams need to know about such topics?

    First of all to increase knowledge and capacity among religious leaders: few imams have a suitable educational background to address issues like water scarcity. Imams are not equipped with the right communication skills to articulate and frame the issues facing us in the 21st century. The education system follows a very standard model of teaching, which inhibits innovation, critical thinking and literal thinking. As a result the discourse is very traditional, conventional and simplistic. Today, in our globalized economy and with debates on issues such as climate change, imams need to know not only about religion, but also about biology, natural sciences and social theory. They need to develop what I call “smart discourse”. You cannot talk about questions of religion without addressing environmental realities like climate change and economic realities like rising oil prices. Islam also teaches the idea of stewardship: man is a guardian of nature and of humanity, which implies continuity and reminds us that Islam is not a new religion, it is a continuation of other religions. We are all part of humanity, we share the same origin and the same destiny. This idea of shared responsibility implies that we need to take our responsibility towards environment, towards the state of the planet.

  • So where do imams fit in this scheme?

    I believe imams can contribute to shaping the policy discourse by translating scientific discourse into political and policy discourse. The question is how to enable imams to understand the scientific discourse, political realities, climate change, pollution, water conservation issues, and to articulate them through media and education into policies.

  • Do you have an answer for this problem?

    Absolutely. Islam talks about unity, tawhid. But at the moment we are faced with a fragmentation of knowledge. We borrowed the Western model of education and development; we thought that modernization comes from the West. But our social values cannot cope with this model of modernization and that is why we have lost our social DNA. We need to reintroduce the idea of unity. Being a Muslim means you have a mandate to unify disciplines – social sciences and natural sciences. And I believe imams can contribute to this unification.

  • How can imams and other religious leaders be introduced to these ideas?

    They need a form of enlightened capacity-building based not just on religious discourse, but also on the insights of an outsider. You need a person who can bridge both worlds, someone with a scientific background who also understands Islam.

  • But the education system also has a responsibility?

    Absolutely. The education system needs to be reformed in order to give students a solid scientific base. Science was the vehicle for the Enlightenment, the Reformation and the Renaissance in Europe. We need to develop the scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills of the younger generation so that we can reach our renaissance, enlightenment and reformation. We are not at this stage yet.

  • How do government representatives respond when you share your ideas?

    They are excited. Yesterday I had a meeting with imams. First they thought I would be only talking about physics and engineering, because I am an engineer. But then I spoke to them in their language and they were surprised. They said they didn’t realize that one can link religion and science in such a way. I quote the story from the Quran where Moses chose 12 springs and told each tribe to go to one spring. This is an example decentralized water management. The Quran says that those who are more fearful of Allah will be those who know science (Fatir 35:28). It also discusses geology, anthropology and genetics.

  • What else do you discuss in your workshops?

    I discuss the need for local initiatives in mosques to reuse grey water. Also we need to apply and implement the idea of waqf (trust fund) for water. The first waqf was in Medina. The Prophet Mohammed asked Osman to buy a well and make it a public good so it would be accessible to the poor. We need to link this waqf with sustainability. Instead of giving carpets or money to mosques, you can install a solar panel, which will bring down electricity bills. Or you can drill a well. Moreover, the idea of giving recognition to imams is very important. They are marginalized, they are voiceless. And they feel neglected. Imams are very poorly paid. Many imams cannot even pay their kids’ school fees.

  • How can this be addressed?

    Education and health are the cornerstones of society. Poor investment in those two sectors threatens the stability of society. People study medicine, engineering or accounting because of the salary. But imams play a crucial role as influencers in society. If they are poorly paid and nobody cares about them, it’s risky. They need recognition. You cannot expect them to hold a beautiful discourse if they are hungry.

  • Do you suggest ways for imams to convince people of using water more efficiently?

    Yes of course, we talk about how to develop a smart khutbeh or smart discourse. And I try to mix in English, because I tell to them they need to speak more than one language. Arabic is not enough. We talk about how to articulate ideas and talk in a very structured manner. We discuss how you can develop focused, result-based, action-oriented discourse that has impact. But it takes time. People will not respect an imam who just talks about simplistic things. You need to link it to current issues. When you talk about the financial crisis, people need to understand the basics of supply and demand and income elasticity. When you talk about sustainability, they need to know the basics of CO2 emissions.

  • So what else to be done to address the problem of water scarcity other than raising awareness concept in Jordan?

    There is no single solution to water scarcity. The problem is actually linked to our development model. We have not been able to produce our own development model. It’s a problem of education reform, a problem of understanding the realities around us, understanding our shared responsibility. You need to invest in human capital and dignity, ensuring democracy, freedom of speech, and access to information. All basic things need to be addressed.

  • How should Jordan’s development plan be?

    Jordan is a country of moderation, balance and modernity. So we try to balance the old and the new, past and current. But the key message is to try to balance idea of faith, reason and empathy. Empathy towards other people and nature, reason is about logical thinking. Faith is about understanding.

  • What do people feel about neighboring countries on water issues?

    The problem is that we were part of Ottoman Empire just 70 years ago. The fragmentation of Arab world led to nation states. Those are artificial states created after the Skyes-Picot Agreement. So we end up with countries that have shared water resources. A significant amount of Jordan’s water resources are shared with neighboring countries, which put national security at risk. This makes the issue more complex.

  • Do people blame neighboring countries about water problems?

    Not really. First of all we need to blame ourselves; we need to use water more efficiently. Some people complain about Israel diverting water from the Jordan River, and Syria and Saudi Arabia using more than their share of shared water. But blaming others does not help, you need to be pragmatic and realistic and take action. Jordan is trying to implement small-scale projects on water conservation awareness but also several mega-projects. There is a combination of supply-driven projects and demand-driven projects to address the water issue at all levels. We need consider all options; we have no choice.

  • Have perceptions of the water crisis changed since the Syrian refugee crisis?

    I have a different perspective on refugees. I don’t see refugees as a problem. In fact, I believe a country’s prosperity depends on refugees. As a human being, it is inconceivable for me that a Syrian who crosses an invisible border becomes a refugee. One hundred years ago, this was one country. The concept of political boundaries is fictitious. We created them. We share the same destiny. In our culture we believe that you are more blessed if you share resources with the poor and needy. In Islam you cannot be a good believer if you are well fed and your neighbor is hungry. You need to share your resources. So it’s not an issue. The issue is how to translate this challenge into opportunity and how to channel funding from international donors so that people can realize their potential.

  • There are many quotes from the Quran about water saving. Is there any difference between those teachings and people’s everyday practice in terms of water use?

    I usually cite the example of my neighbor: he is a heart surgeon but he smokes… So there is a disconnect between knowledge and practice, and that’s a problem. Sometimes we act irrationally. We know it hurts us, but still we do it. The same goes for the teachings of Islam. People act irrationally: they know what is right, yet they don’t abide by it.