From the back of the crowd, perhaps 400 strong, I can barely make out the figure of the young woman who is speaking. She is dressed in colourful Islamic Dupatta and speaks across a sea of Extinction Rebellion (XR) banners. Protestors are interspersed with onlookers from around Oxford Circus, some of whom stop their shopping to listen or take leaflets.
Her name is Sara Zaltash, but she isn’t repeating the latest figures from the IPCC or listing the failures of the UK government to tackle climate change. She is preaching, we might say, to the unconverted. She is teaching us, in her own words and gestures, the meaning of Allah and of the Adhan, the call to prayer, in the context of the climate crisis:
“Allahu ‘akbar…There is nothing greater than oneness…there is no God, no H&M, no Piccadilly, none of that, is greater than oneness…Hayya ‘ala I-falah. Come to sanctuary. Come to success. ‘Cause that’s how important it is to stay safe...Hayya ‘ala s-salah. Which means come celebrate. Come worship. Come pray.”
When she begins to sing the prayer, two things happen. First, several people join in with the words or begin whooping. Second, I realise that the whooping may not only be for her: the police are now moving amongst the crowd and begin arresting people at random. This is day two of the XR protests in London - the event that shut down key sites of the capital for eight days over the Easter break to force the government to “tell the truth” about climate change.
Section 14 is in place, which means that anyone could be asked to leave or arrested for refusing. Zaltash breaks off briefly to chastise the police: “we’re in the middle of prayer!” When she has finished she says, “You are invited to kiss the ground and place your forehead upon it three times, if you wish.” A significant number of people follow her. She finishes with “blessings to you all. You are oneness.”
The juxtaposition of elements in this scene raises important questions about the new appeal of religiosity in protest, as well as the strategy and direction of this new movement. Though there were plenty of scheduled inter-faith talks at the protests this one seemed impromptu, sandwiched between DJ sets, political speeches and updates about police tactics. No-one introduced this session as one for “people of faith” - the invitation was to everyone.
It asked, in the context of all that is happening - climate breakdown, mass extinction and relentless consumerism - what would it mean to evoke religious categories as a new way to understand and engage with the emergency; to consider the meaning of “God” as collectivity or oneness, political action as worship, and the space of protest and debate as one of sanctuary?
XR has no affiliation to, or official association with, faith groups. But the scene I’ve described was not an isolated incident. The presence of religious ‘affinity groups,’ organised talks by religious leaders, and rituals and ceremonies were more prominent in this movement than in any I have previously witnessed. Christian activists had seized the symbolic appositeness of the event’s timing in Holy Week as the time Christians reflect on death, sacrifice, and the journey from despair to hope. Christian Climate Action, who I joined for much of the protests, organised innovative liturgies such as a climate-themed Stations of the Cross between the road blocks at each exit of the occupied Marble Arch site.
On Maundy Thursday, which commemorates Christ washing the feet of his disciples on the eve of his death, the group organised a ceremonial foot washing for protestors around the site to “serve, nurture and bless activists.” There were contributions from the Jewish tradition, for whom celebrations of Pesach or Passover include a Seder meal commemorating the Hebrews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. Jewish members of extinction rebellion hosted a “climate justice Seder” at the protest site in Parliament Square, interpreting its songs, food and drink as symbols of the suffering Earth and a passage to hope.
There were also religious and spiritual ceremonies explicitly aimed at multi- or interfaith participation. A vigil outside St Paul’s cathedral on Palm Sunday, the eve of the protests, combined prayers and songs from Pagan, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and indigenous spiritual traditions. Interfaith prayers were also included in the ‘closing ceremony’ at the conclusion of ten days of protest. In addition to these liturgical and discursive interventions, a number of religious and spiritual practices were visibly present across the protest sites including Buddhist meditation and group prayer.
The rituals I have described were not enacted as a reflective ‘aside’ from the main protests but acts of protest in themselves. For example, the Stations of the Cross concluded its final prayer by sitting in the middle of a road leading away from one of the site’s main blockades where police vehicles were gathered. Asked to clear the road by a police officer, one activist politely asked the same question as the Muslim protestor: “can’t you see we’re praying?”
Others subsequently joined us on the road, and the prayer became a new blockade. Similarly, the Jewish Seder attracted immediate intervention from police officers for beginning its ceremony in the middle of the road, even though the road was already blocked. Though the group decided to move to safer ground (with references to the Exodus!), at least one of its members sought to reinforce the blockade elsewhere and was promptly arrested.
What has facilitated this meeting point of spirituality and rebellion? The role of religion in modern protest movements is nothing new. Historically, churches and other faith groups played pivotal roles in mass political movements of civil disobedience, from civil rights in the USA in the 1960s, through Anti-apartheid in the 1980s, and on to the global anti-nuclear and peace movements of today. Although environmental protest is only relatively recently being endorsed by mainstream faith organisations, many scholars see in its previous narratives and practices expressions of, or sympathies with, land-based indigenous and neo-pagan spiritualities.
What seems different now is that the availability of religious and spiritual resources seems to emerge out of a need within the dynamics of the movement itself, and speaks in new ways to its difficult subject matter. The phrase “existential crisis” is used a lot by climate campaigners in its literal sense to describe a crisis that threatens the existence of all human beings. But I wonder if there is some tacit acknowledgement of its philosophical meaning - as a crisis that reveals profound anxiety about who we are, our mortality and search for meaning in the world.
When speakers at each of the protest sites reminded the protesters about the three demands of the movement, they were often preceded by an opportunity to reflect or meditate in silence on the emotional complexity of what was being considered. XR's facilitation of spiritual and religious modes of reflection perhaps indicates the scale of the problem it attempts to articulate.
Whilst it has concrete political aims, XR is also emerging as a space to express emotions such as anger, grief or longing which might have been side-lined in previous movements. This is a new generation of activists for whom the success of its actions is in no way assured or measurable in the same ways as before. We are beyond the point of halting the sorts of catastrophic scenario against which a previous generation of environmentalists campaigned.
It is no wonder, then, that alongside the movement’s political objectives is the nurturing of the ‘skill’ of brokenheartedness. This requires forms of protest that can also facilitate a kind of witness for which acts of liturgy and prayer could appear, to some, the most appropriate vehicles. This goes not only for grief but also for joy, since the protests are also exuberant acts of celebration through music, dance and theatre, providing a chance to reconnect with others and express gratitude for creation.
In contrast to recent criticism that XR's radicalism will alienate it from potential allies in more traditionally conservative religious contexts, I’d argue that it engages a broad spectrum of creeds and modes of activism, from those preferring to hold silent vigil to those whose faith manifests as nonviolent direct action. Will this breadth also facilitate the much discussed need to broaden class and ethnic representation in the movement, as well as linking more explicitly to climate justice concerns? It’s too early to tell, but international religious networks and faith based organisations surely have a part to play in this respect, with international rebellions in the Global South already arising out of church networks.
As a parish priest and Christian Climate Action member put it to me, the ecological crisis is also a “spiritual crisis.” Certainly it seems to be a crisis that requires and justifies spiritual responses and resources - a coalition of religion, ritual and rebellion.