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Muslim activists say Islam missing from debate over climate change and the environment

At Friday prayers in Qatar's most popular mosque, the imam discussed the civil war in Syria, the unrest in Egypt and the U.N. endorsement of an independent state of Palestine.

Not a word about climate change, even though the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar is hosting a U.N. conference where nearly 200 countries are trying to forge a joint plan to fight global warming, which climate activists say is the greatest modern challenge to mankind.

"Unfortunately the Arab and Islamic countries have political and economic problems," said Adham Hassan, a worshipper from Jordan streaming out of the al-Khatabb mosque in Doha. "Islam calls for the protection of the environment, but the Muslim countries are mostly poor and they didn't cause pollution and aren't affected by climate change."

Of six mosques contacted by The Associated Press in the Qatari capital, only one included an environmental message in the Friday prayers, telling those in attendance to plant trees, shun extravagance and conserve water and electricity.

The Quran, Islam's holy book, is filled with more than 1,500 verses to nature and Earth. Yet the voice of Islamic leaders is missing from the global dialogue on warming.

That disappoints Muslim environmental activists, who believe the powerful pull of Islam could be the ideal way to change behavior in both poor countries, where many people's main source of information is the mosque, and in some wealthy countries like Qatar where Islam remains important even as rapid growth has made it the world's top per capita emitter of carbon dioxide.

"It's absolutely frustrating," said Fazlun Khalid, founder of the U.K.-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, which oversees projects around the world that use Islamic teachings to combat problems ranging from deforestation to overfishing.

"We get very little support from Muslims," he said. "They don't connect. We have to wake them up to the fact their existence is threatened by their own behavior. Modernity and the economic development paradigm is about dominating nature. Islam, as you are aware, is submission to the will of the creator. We need to remind ourselves that we have to submit."

As the annual U.N. climate conference neared its halfway point in Doha, the usual splits opened up between rich and poor nations over how to divide the burden — and financial cost — of protecting the world from overheating.

U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres lamented that she didn't see "much public interest, support, for governments to take on more ambitious and more courageous decisions."

"Each one of us needs to assume responsibility. It's not just about domestic governments," she said.

The talks are aimed at limiting the level of warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 F), compared to temperatures before the industrial revolution. So the main focus is to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases that a vast majority of climate scientists say is to blame for the rising temperatures.

That goal gets more difficult to reach ever year. Temperatures have already risen about 0.8 degrees C (1.4 degrees F), according to the latest report by the U.N.'s scientific panel on climate change. And a series of reports before and during the conference warned that global emissions are still increasing, primarily driven by the rapid growth of emerging economies such as China and India.

World religions are seeking a more active role in climate change and sustainability issues. The Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change project — endorsed by Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism — was a regular presence at the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, while the Dalai Lama has repeatedly called on governments to take climate change more seriously. Religious leaders in the United States have launched a movement known as "green religion" or "eco-theology, with groups like the Evangelical Environmental Network endorsing clean energy and calling on people to consume less.

Muslims are also slowly heeding the call.

Egypt's government-appointed Muslim Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, also known at the green mufti, has been outspoken on pollution and climate change, calling them greater threats than war, according to the consultancy Green Compass Research. The holy month of Ramadan has taken on a greener theme, with Muslims across the Middle East and the United States using it to touch on food waste and sustainability. Small-scale campaigns using Islam including one aimed at turtle conservation in Malaysia and illegal mining in Indonesia have been rolled out.

"It's becoming a more important part of Islamic discourse, a more holistic approach to what it means to be a responsible Muslim in the world today," said Tamara Sonn, a humanities professor at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. "There are greater levels of education and overall global awareness of the importance of environmental concerns facilitated by advances in communication, the Internet."

But Muslim environmental activists say more could be done.

Too often, they complain, discussions of the role of Islam and the environment are limited to conferences. They say religious leaders could issue fatwas on the environment, and governments could introduce curriculums in schools highlighting themes found in the Quran such as the importance of nature, treating animals compassionately and the prohibition on wastefulness.

"The majority of Muslim scholars, leaders, and activists whose major concerns are ritualistic and the legalistic aspects of Islam, themselves have not seen the environmental issues and problems as their immediate concern," Muhamad Ali, assistant professor Islamic Studies University of California, Riverside, said in an email. "While they focus on the purity and validity of a ritual act, they lack understanding and awareness of the immediacy and cruciality of the environment crisis as a common problem. Besides, like other monotheists in general, they see human beings as superior over the natural world."

Khalid has seen firsthand how Islam can persuade Muslims to change their ways on sustainability issues. He once went to Zanzibar after conservation groups failed to persuade fishermen to stop using dynamite on coral reefs. After leading several workshops that leaned heavily on Quranic teachings, he said the fishermen never again used destructive practices.

"They stopped dynamiting coral reefs in 24 hours," said Khalid, who has similar successes in Nigeria and Pakistan with forest protection. "It had a profound impact on the local fishermen. One of the fishermen told me that we can disobey the laws of the government but we can't disobey the laws of the creator."

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Casey reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Abdullah Rebhy contributed to this report from Doha, Qatar.

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Michael Casey can be reached at twitter.com/mcasey1 and Karl Ritter can be reached at www.twitter.com/karl_ritter