Monday, November 23, 2009

Muhammadiyah's new chairman and the future of its liberalism

The Jakarta Post, July 12, 2005

Ahmad Najib Burhani, Jakarta

No surprise! These were the words spoken by observers after the naming of Din Syamsuddin, Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) secretary-general, as the new chairman of Muhammadiyah for the 2005-2010 period, replacing outgoing chairman Ahmad Syafii Maarif. Undoubtedly, Din has a good reputation among Muhammadiyah's members. He is well-known for visiting Muhammadiyah branches and people, even in very remote areas. He is also a popular figure at the national level and has a broad international network.

One of the most surprising and interesting developments in the 45th Muhammadiyah Congress in Malang from July 3 through July 8, 2005, however, was the elimination of M Amin Abdullah, the current rector of UIN Yogyakarta and Abdul Munir Mulkhan, a professor at UIN Yogyakarta from the central board. In the last term (2000-2005), both were members of the 13-strong central board of executives. What does this indicate?

The exclusion of these two scholars can be said to be a sign of the defeat of the liberal and moderate front of Muhammadiyah and the victory of the radical front; changing the very face of the second largest organization in Indonesia. It is well-known that Amin and Munir are among the few leaders of Muhammadiyah who seriously and openly support liberal ideas.

They also uphold the promotion of such ideas in Muhammadiyah through the Network of Young Intellectuals of Muhammadiyah (JIMM). Besides Moeslim Abdurrahman, these two are the mentors and patrons of Muhammadiyah's youth in their struggle to change this organization into a new social movement.

It has been predicted for a long time that the conservative and fundamentalist front of Muhammadiyah would get the majority vote. The congress has confirmed that this long-held prediction was accurate. The names of the 13 elected executives would come as a shock to anyone who believes that militant Islam is nonexistent in this modernist movement.

This phenomenon shows that radical Islam is strong and is growing in Muhammadiyah. Besides Din Syamsuddin, Yunahar Ilyas and Dahlan Rais, who are known to be Muhammadiyah hard-liners, took the fifth and seventh place among the 13 elected executives.

The leaders of Muhammadiyah for the 2000-2005 period, particularly Ahmad Syafii Maarif, have always strived to demonstrate that Muhammadiyah represents the peaceful, tolerant and smiling face of Islam. To reassure people who are fearful of radical Islam, the existence of huge number of radical Muslims at the grassroots level of Muhammadiyah is often veiled, obscured, or hidden. It is said that they only exist at the periphery. Indonesian and foreigner observers often say that radical Muslims in Indonesia are outspoken, but are actually few in number.
Syafii Maarif once said that as long as he is chairman of Muhammadiyah, he guarantees that this movement would not endorse the implementation of sharia in Indonesia. Now his leadership is over, as is his pledge. Under the new leadership of Muhammadiyah, we are still waiting for a new guarantee.

During the meeting it was proposed that Muhammadiyah should issue a decree supporting the implementation of sharia. That is why, nowadays, the former chairman of Muhammadiyah, Syafii Maarif, looks pale and tormented.

In a similar vein, the idea to obstruct liberalism within the movement was also prevalent in this congress. In the draft decree there was a proposal to dissolve JIMM and dismiss its members, or at the very least, to ask JIMM to delete the M for Muhammadiyah from its name. Just like sharia, it is not a new demand. Some radical members of Muhammadiyah consider JIMM a rebellious child. Tabligh magazine, owned by the department of propagation of Muhammadiyah, even called JIMM demonic.

In the past, the hard-liners in Muhammadiyah, such as Ali Imran, Amrozi, Ja'far Umar Thalib and Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, had no place in the movement. They then left the organization and established new movements or joined radical movements which already existed in Indonesia, such as Hizbut Tahrir, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) and Lasykar Jihad, or even joined foreign movements.

They regarded this movement's attitude toward puritanism as inconsequential and superficial, making it too slow and soft in enforcing the 'puritan' agenda. They felt that their interests were no longer catered to under Muhammadiyah's programs. As a result, it can be noted that numerous people in radical movements in Indonesia were originally members of Muhammadiyah.

It is true that it is too early to judge the future of Muhammadiyah. However, the 45th congress can be seen as an indication of a new era for Muhammadiyah.

The writer is a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), and a member of Pemuda Muhammadiyah. He can be reached at

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