Muslim New Yorkers Lead the Way through Climate Change

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin | April 27, 2022
A man with salt-pepper beard is speaking and gesturing with left hand. He is photographed from low angle and appears to be on a stage.

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. Photo: Danielle Barnum

I write this assuming you are reading it on the subway.

I was born in 1977, the year of a blackout and a blizzard. I was born in the middle of said blizzard. What makes me special is not that the doctor announced, “Tell the Jets help is on the way!” when I came out (God Bless my mother–I was a big baby). What makes me special in my family is that I was the first one born Muslim. My name is Ibrahim Salih Abdul-Matin. It is a very religious name, chosen by my father and mother who converted from their faith, Episcopal Christianity to the Nation of Islam. Just before I was born, my parents joined the masses of Black Americans who became Muslim in what amounted to one of the largest conversions to Islam in modern times. My older brother was born and given my father’s pre-Muslim name. But not me. I have been Ibrahim from day one.

Folks born my year are quite special. We understand one another intrinsically. When we meet there is a deep knowing and a confidence. We know we are good team members, and generally add value to any group effort. Plus, we are the translators between generations – and movements. The same can be said for Muslim New Yorkers – we are authors, Gen Z climate activists, entrepreneurs, progressive elected officials, educators, and we do these things just like other New Yorkers – with train traffic ahead of us. And there is a lot of traffic ahead of us.

Let’s call this traffic jam climate change.

We know that white supremacy, systemic discrimination, slavery, colonization, and militarism have led to over-consumption, oceans at threat, desertification, significant habitat and species loss, and a warming planet with alarming consequences for all places – particularly those on the coasts. In the coming decades we will be confronted with tough choices. New Yorkers will need to be as united as never before to make the best out of this situation.

Let me take a moment to recall the Beloved Community envisioned by the late Dr. Martin Luther King. The concept describes a society built on economic and social inclusivity, absent of poverty, exploitation, and hate, a community in which everyone is cared for. In the spirit of Earth Day, let us add to his vision one of climate resilience. A future in which ecosystems, human labor, and cultures are integrated into a thriving regenerative web of life. I think many of us can get behind both visions.

As a New Yorker and a Muslim, I work to ensure that we are on the right side of this history and doing our best to achieve a beloved and resilient community. After playing football in college (no, I did not make it to the Jets, but I was an All-State linebacker), I have spent my life trying to work towards these positive visions of the future. In 2010, I wrote Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet, in part to understand how the message of my religion aligned with what I understood was an existential crisis affecting us all. Since then, I have come to see that there are many more Muslim New Yorkers doing this work – and that New York City is a crucial backdrop. Fitting. It is the center of the universe. And no, I am not exaggerating.

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The following could only happen here. In 2019, around the time of the UN General Assembly in New York, I was in a conference room of the Natural Resources Defense Council for a board meeting for the International Living Future Institute. The group’s mission is to encourage the creation of a regenerative built environment that would see the natural world returned to its former state. The meeting was serious – even tense – so a ping on my phone from an unfamiliar WhatsApp number was a welcome distraction. I leaned back and peeked under my desk. “Hello, this is _____ from the Republic of Turkey. I am an advisor to Turkish First Lady Emine Erdogan. The First Lady would like to invite you to a meeting with her and members of the Turkish Environmental Ministry…”

I looked up from my desk. Was this a joke? It must be a scam. I texted back, “Peace and Blessings. I am very humbled and honored to receive this message. Please send my blessings to the First Lady. Is it possible for you to call me directly so we can discuss the details?”

It was not a scam. The next day I left the meeting early and hustled across town to the heavily guarded UN area. I repeated all the things I had been told to say and I was met downstairs by various levels of security personnel. They brought me and several other visitors into a small conference room where the First Lady awaited. Each visitor had a chance to say their piece, and I was focused – I had an agenda. You see, Turkey is on the border of the East and West, migrants fleeing all manner of calamity flow through there. Turkey is the only country that does not turn migrants away. As part of their cultural context, informed greatly by Islam, they see taking in guests as a blessing. That does not mean it is not a burden. My agenda was to excite Turkish leaders with the idea of using their borderlands with Syria as an ideal location to build a totally off-the-grid living building complex that would house and support refugees. Only in New York City would I have had this chance opportunity. Forreal. That initial meeting turned into an official visit to Turkey at the First Lady’s invitation to speak at a zero waste conference in Istanbul. While there I began advancing some of my ideas with members of the Turkish Ministry of Environment, Urbanisation and Climate Change – efforts that were only stalled because of the pandemic.

A man wearing loose yellow button-down shirt has hands in pocket and smiles at camera. He is outdoors standing in front of a wall of blue-painted bricks

Queens Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani. Photo: Kara McCurdy

New York City and State are hubs for a resurgent climate justice movement. Community activists like the late Cecil Corbin Mark (one of my mentors and heroes) have been at this for a long time, making sure our climate legislation is among the most forward-thinking in the nation. A recent success is the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which calls for a 40% reduction in New York State’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and a reduction by at least 85% by 2030. That progress is now bolstered by badass young Muslim elected officials like Queens Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani and newly elected Brooklyn Council Member Shahana Hanif, who are pushing forward important decarbonization bills that will benefit our city and state.

On man and four women stand in front of a shop and post for photo

New York City Councilmember Shahana Hanif (center in pale peach clothing) in an image taken for her 2021 campaign for office.

Others are doing their part. The Islamic Center of New York University, whose slogan is “What Community Should Feel Like,” has gone from offering meals in Styrofoam containers with plastic cutlery to zero-waste dinners during Ramadan. Co-founder and current leader Imam Khalid Latif started a halal/organic meat butcher called Honest Chops in partnership with famed film director Bassam Tariq. Their latest venture is a halal burger joint on MacDougal Street in the West Village. Both shops are thriving with Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Event at The Islamic Center at NYU, with its executive director, Imam Khalid Latif, standing in center. Photo courtesy The Islamic Center at NYU.

I was raised by black Muslim hippies – there’s really no other way to describe us. We ate tofu and raw broccoli when it wasn’t even remotely popular. We attended cultural events like the venerable African Street Festival (now in its 51st year!), and we were surrounded by traditions and lifestyles that were not quite like ours but which we supported and honored. We lived in crack-era Prospect Heights. My mom didn’t let us kids go outside by ourselves unless we were going to the Brooklyn Museum or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where I spent countless hours away from the crack vials and dog mess to fall asleep in the Cherry Esplanade, reading books I’d borrowed from the Brooklyn Public Library. The Garden was the first place where I took my shoes off and felt the grass touch my toes, where the sun drenched my face as I drifted off reading the latest Marvel Comics.

These days I teach at Baruch College’s Marxe School of International and Public Affairs. I love my Baruch life. I got my MPA there, my dad got his BA there, and my mother’s mother took business classes there. Baruch students are strivers. My Muslim public affairs students are savvy, smart, and super concerned about climate issues. They give me hope for the future. They also reinforce my feeling that New York City is a special place, still producing people devoted to change in a setting very different from the one where I grew up.

Faithfully Sustainable co-founders Kadjahtou Balde (L) and Zainab Koli (R).

Personally, I have been inspired by what I call, “the kids.” These are Gen Z Muslim climate activists, specifically a group of young women from all five boroughs who have created a platform called Faithfully Sustainable (FS). They describe it as an environmental justice community and resource hub led by young black and brown Muslims. Founders Kadjahtou Balde and Zainab Koli met in their senior year of college as SUNY Chancellor’s Award recipients. Balde asked Koli to join her in creating a sustainable collective rooted in Islam – this was in 2019. Their idea took root during the pandemic. They created a campaign targeting overconsumption. Eid al Fitr is the holiday marking the end of the month of Ramadan. It is usually celebrated with families and friends coming together, eating, and sharing small gifts. The FS team encouraged Muslims to #ReduceEidShopping. They also raised thousands of dollars to support working people’s efforts to redistribute money and resources so that everyone has what they need in difficult times (otherwise known as “mutual aid”). In the process they have developed an excellent reputation and built a growing global community of more than 5,000 members. I am super excited to see what they have coming up next!

NYC is fertile ground for environmentalists like these from across generations, who share the vision of a resilient and Beloved Community. We walk. We talk to our neighbors. We deal with one another. In New York, when something bad happens, like Superstorm Sandy or the Blackout, or even 9/11, we stop and want to help one another. We have each other’s backs. Those impulses are crucial for creating a regenerative and sustainable future.

This Earth Month I am honoring my fellow Muslim New Yorkers. We are a special bunch. Forget what you’ve heard, we are as fresh as other New Yorkers, we know which end of the subway car to enter to get to our preferred exit – without looking at our phones, or asking for help. We have also been shaped by the very city we are helping to prepare and make resilient for the coming onslaught of global climate change that is already underway.

Now if you will excuse me, I am going to take this opportunity, while the train is stuck in the tunnel, to get completely engrossed in this book I am reading and act like there is nothing else in the universe worth even paying attention to. Don’t worry, I won’t miss my stop, and I know you won’t either.

The WNET Group’s Community Connections column, developed by Community Engagement in partnership with Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, lifts up the communities and icons behind national observances, including Earth Day in April. Learn more about Ibrahim Abdul-Matin on his official site.