Monday, February 1, 2010

Tolerance and pluralism in Muhammadiyah remains

The Jakarta Post, [July 30, 2005]

Ahmad Najib Burhani, Jakarta

When debating the future of Muhammadiyah in this newspaper, we seem to always fail to escape from the debate about the "fundamentalists/radicals" and "liberals" within the organization. This discourse, however, is unavoidable as the power of the conservatives was seen to be quite strong during the 45th Congress in Malang, which led to the election of Din Syamsuddin as the new chairman of Indonesia's second largest Muslim organization. There are also less prominent liberals on the organization's new executive board.

Din is an intellectual and politician who used to adhere to the principle of "struggle from within" (as happened when he was with the Golkar Party) and was considered warm to the West (as he was educated in the U.S.) during the heyday of the New Order regime, but who is now increasingly regarded as a "fundamentalist" and as someone with a confrontational attitude toward the West, particularly after the reform movement was launched here, and even more particularly after Sept. 11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

So, the questions are: What will the impact of his election be on the organization in the future? Will the organization abandon the spirit of tolerance and pluralism that has been painfully nurtured by some concerned members? These are not easy questions, and I myself cannot give a definitive answer to them. In fact, my previous article in this paper (July 12) was not attempting to give such an answer, but rather to merely indicate the contemporary propensities of the organization.

It is true that the liberal thinking espoused by dozens of young intellectuals grouped in the JIMM (Muhammadiyah Youth Intellectual Network), has made the conservatives feel uncomfortable. However, have these young people really deviated from Islam? I don't think so. As long as these young people follow the principles of Islam, there is nothing to worry about. After all, differing interpretations are a blessing in Islam, and dialog always has to be promoted to resolve the differences.

It is entirely understandable if Din did not throw his support behind JIMM during his victory speech, as this would have "hurt" the majority conservatives who played a major role in getting him elected. However, neither did he display a hostile attitude to the group. In fact, his relations with members of JIMM have always been warm and supportive. Furthermore, it was Din who founded the PSAP-M (Muhammadiyah Center for Religion and Civilization), a body which often engaged in unorthodox ways of thinking in Islam. Din used this background to fend off accusations that he is a fundamentalist.

Before his election, Din was invited to a religious conference on pluralism in a Western country and made a visit to Australia, while stressing the importance of relations between the two countries. Moreover, with some young activists due to be sent to the UK to further their studies in a collaborative venture between the UK and Indonesia, Din has rightfully stressed that such collaborative ventures should continue. What does this mean? This means that the anxiety that Din is anti-Western, even where his statements have been understandable, for example, his strong statement against the U.S. invasion of Iraq (the Vatican, in fact, gave the same response!), is not wholly justifiable.

And when asked about how Din would try to reconcile the two opposing camps, during an interview with this paper (July 21), Din said, "Here dialog is badly needed ... This should be understood as an exchange of ideas rather than a clash of them. Muhammadiyah should facilitate a culture of tolerance. The touch of leadership is needed to do this."

Asked about the prospects for the application of sharia, he answered, "It is often only interpreted as Islamic law, when it actually implies something broader -- the introduction of a religious character and morality to a country."

Therefore, one should not be excessively pessimistic about the current developments in Muhammadiyah or that the spirit of inclusiveness and pluralism will effectively wither. While we need to be cautions, I myself am of the opinion that it is almost certain, although not entirely so, that any new leadership in a democratic and open society will steadily move towards the "middle way".

This means that in circumstances where the spirit of democracy fully takes root in this country, Din will be left with no choice but to be appropriately accommodative to all forces within the organization; in this case, the conservatives and liberals, irrespective of which group enjoys a majority.

That is why I could not agree more with Imam Cahyono of JIMM, who in this paper (July 23) reminded us about the character of the organization, founded by K.H. Ahmad Dahlan in 1912, which should always be based on amar ma'ruf nahi munkar (campaigning for the performance of good deeds and disavowal of misdeeds). This principle, in my understanding, can only be implemented if we first engage in a process of critical reflection -- not only about other societies, but also about our own.

In his sermon during Friday prayers at the AR Fachruddin mosque after his election, Din emphasized that the jihad that we need is not a physical jihad (lil mu'aradhah), let alone a jihad involving violence and terrorism, but a "competitive" jihad (jidah lil muwajahah). This means we all need to pursue the principle of fastabiqul khairat (constructive competition to perform good deeds), not only among Muslims, but also between Muslims and other believers.

What else does this mean? It means that to effectively carry out this principle, the spirit of pluralism and tolerance of the diversity in Indonesian society, including equally importantly within the Muhammadiyah organization, is something that must be nurtured, and this will involve the voluntary acceptance of the very existence of others.

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

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