Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Syafii Maarif, Moderation and the Future of Muhammadiyah

The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Fri, 05/06/2005 4:23 PM | Opinion

Hilman Latief, Kalamazoo, Michigan

At the next Muhammadiyah Congress from July 3-8 in Malang, East Java, the issue of the organization's leadership will feature prominently.

Ahmad Syafii Maarif has already confirmed he will not be standing for the Muhammadiyah post of chairman, creating a power vacuum that will have to be filled.

Although the Muhammadiyah's leadership has been described as ""collegial"", if Syafii's tenure as head is anything to go by, the group's future leader will be extremely important in shaping the future role of the organization.

Born in Sumpurkudus, West Sumatra, on May 31, 1935, Syafii has been involved in this organization since he was trained in the Mualimin Muhammadiyah Boarding School in Sumatra and Yogyakarta. After sharpening his intellectual powers at the FKIP Cokroaminoto of Surakarta (1964) and the FKIS IKIP of Yogyakarta (1968), he furthered his studies at Ohio University. In 1982, he earned a Doctorate from the University of Chicago.

Syafii has been a decisive figure in Muhammadiyah. After several years serving the organization, he was appointed in 1999 as caretaker to the Central Board of Muhammadiyah as soon as the Muhammadiyah chairman at the time, M. Amien Rais, established the National Mandate Party (PAN). Less than a year later in 2000, the group's congress appointed him the new chairman.

Syafii has a unique leadership style that has influenced and moderated many of the more extreme movements in the organization. By the time he was appointed to lead this organization, the social and political conditions in the country were in a period of transition after the fall of Soeharto in 1998. Following this political reform, Indonesian society in general, and the religious community, in particular, were enthusiastic for radical changes socially, politically and religiously. Such conditions were a big challenge for Syafii in his first years as leader keeping the Muhammadiyah organization constantly in a religiously ""moderate"" zone.

It helped that he was in tune with the majority of Indonesian Muslims, who are generally considered religious moderates by observers.

These days Muhammadiyah and its main competition, Nahdlatul Ulama, are seen as the two main groups that represent a general cross-section of Indonesian Islam, with scholars such as Robert Hefner, Martin van Bruinessen and Andrie Feillard labeling them the two ""pillars of Indonesian civil society.""

It was not always so. For three decades, scholars like Deliar Noer (1973) and later Mitsuo Nakamura (1993) had branded this organization in more radical terms, as a modernist (used here to mean Islamic modernism, which embraced new fundamentalist teachings from Iran and Saudi Arabia) and a reformist group.

These days, however, under Syafii's leadership, Muhammadiyah is seen as more moderate in line with the emergence of newer, neo-conservative movements.

Syafii has long sought to define Muhammadiyah moderately and apolitically, in terms of religion and not politics. While a number of Muhammadiyah members voiced their intentions to support various political parties, the Muhammadiyah leadership gave no particular endorsements. Instead, Muhammadiyah let its members freely affiliate with political parties they desired. In this way, Syafii and other Muhammadiyah leaders realized that the their organization's members had different social and political backgrounds.

At this time, in the age of extreme radicals like Osama bin Ladin and cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, demands from the more fanatical fringes surfaced. Taking the middle road between extreme conservatives and radical reformers, many of whom explicitly wanted the party to move in a political direction, Syafii played a significant roles in easing tensions and neutralizing the tendencies of political Islamization.

One can say Syafii is a moderate since he has not been inclined either to support secular-liberal, modernist or conservative Muslims in any clear-cut statement. He is not anti-conservative and neither does he agree with what the modernist Muslims struggle for, such as the formalization of Islam in the Indonesian Constitution. He often insists, ""why should we hang our hopes on sharia (law) on the government? Are we (Muslims) such a weak people that we expect that the sharia must be ruled by the state?"" (Interview, Republika, Oct. 23, 2000).

In regards to political Islam, Syafii strongly advocates the ""spiritualization"" of Muslim life by taking the grand principles or the substance of the Koran and Hadith, which does not necessarily mean either the formalization of sharia or the secularization of Islam. Syafii, for instance, frequently mentions, in terms of political Islam, the necessity of adhering to a ""salt-water philosophy"" (""colorless but tasty"") instead of the ""lipstick philosophy"" (""colorful but tasteless"").

The moderate attitudes of his leadership are a strategic achievement and make sense in view of the fact that the constituencies of the Muhammadiyah are culturally, socially and politically disparate. While many constituencies support a more liberal stance, there are also others that lean toward an Islamist view.

To keep the party cohesive and to preserve the developing democracy in Indonesia he has taken ""a clear stand against the recent attempts"" (Van Bruinessen: 2003; Saeful Muzani & William Liddle, 2004) to push the party toward ""formalization"" or ""secularization."" This middle-road leadership has also been taken by Nahdlatul Ulama.

With the religious, social and political points of view of the Muhammadiyah members remaining diverse, Syafii has sought to reconcile differences. His actions show he probably believes that promoting education, social welfare, and moderate political-religious behavior is more important than accusing certain factions of Muhammadiyah members of betraying the core values of the party.

As an intellectual and national figure in Indonesia, Syafii is very much concerned with crucial issues this nation faces. Sometime his statements about the future of this country seem to be a little pessimistic. That is actually the way he expresses ideas and the method he uses to criticize and spotlight a number of acute problems in this country, such as the systematic economic corruption, poverty, and political injustice. He also has a strong sense of commitment to the universal values of humanity. Therefore, it should not be surprising if he often criticizes the unfair policies and unjust treatment of superpower states, like the U.S., to several Muslim countries.

Some prominent figures who have different social, political, and academic backgrounds have been nominated for the upcoming Muhammadiyah Congress.

Whoever will lead this organization, the political and religious moderation of the Muhammadiyah must be consistently preserved. Although each period of the Muhammadiyah leadership its own style and separate challenges, Syafii's humility humble personality, integrity and moral and social commitments should be an outstanding example for future leadership.

The writer, is a lecturer at the Muhammadiyah University of Yogyakarta. Currently, he is a Fulbright student at the Department of Comparative Religion at the University of Western Michigan. He can be reached at

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