Friday, December 31, 2010

The Borderline between Muslim Fundamentalism and Muslim Modernism: An Indonesian Example

Herman L. Beck (Tilburg Faculty of Theology)

Beck, Herman L. 2001. "The Borderline between Muslim Fundamentalism and Muslim Modernism: An Indonesian Example." in Anton Houtepen and Jan Willem van Henten. 2001. Religious identity and the invention of tradition. Assen, the Netherlands: Royal Van Gorcum. pp. 279-291.

Throughout the turbulent times surrounding Suharto's stepping down as President of Indonesia in May 1998, the Muhammadiyah movement was often mentioned thanks to the actions of its then chairman, Amien Rais (b. 1944). In the Western news coverage of the events, two aspects were always emphasized. The Muhammadiyah was called a modernist movement and its members were numbered around twenty million, making it a potentially powerful force which had to be taken into account by the main figures in the struggle for power. Sometimes, it was added that the Muhammadiyah movement was outnumbered only by the thirty-five million members of the Nahdlatul Ulama, which was invariably called a traditionalist Muslim organization.

In conversations about the contemporary political situation in Indonesia, I have noticed that, unconsciously, most Western people seem to prefer the modernist Muslim organization to the traditionalist one. Apparently, regarding the future of Indonesia, they have higher hopes for Muslim modernism than they have for Muslim traditionalism. They associate probably Muslim modernism in some way or another with Western modernism. However, studying the history of the Muhammadiyah movement, one discovers that, since its establishment in 1912, several labels have been put on the organization to characterize it, labels varying from a "modernist" movement to, quite recently, an "Islamis," and "a large, well-organized Islamic fundamentalist movement." Would people still prefer the Muhammadiyah movement, if it was called a Muslim fundamentalist movement, to a Mslim traditionalist organization?

If one and the same Muslim movement can be called both a modernist and a fundamentalist one, does this imply that these Western terms are not appropriate to be used in an Indonesian Muslim context, especially, because of the fact that anti-modernism is, generally, considered to be one of the most important characteristics of all kinds of fundamentalism? Are the terms modernism and fundamentalism to be replaced by other, less contaminated or comprehensive terms? I do not think this will be useful, because, although these terms can create erroneous impressions, they have become too current to be easily replaced. Moreover, the multifaced character of the Muhammadiyah movement may easily cause confusion, because certain aspects of its character are considered to fall roughly into the broad Western category of modern modernism, while other aspects are rated among the features of the broad Western category of religious fundamentalism.

Although one of the tasks of the Western scholar of the history of religions and comparative religion is to characterize his object of study on the basis of data available to him by using labels understandable to his Western readers, it is also his task continually to stress the fact that phenomena of the Muslim world are rarely adequately covered by Western labels. Therefore, to solve the question of whether the Muhammadiyah is a modernist or fundamentalist movement the first section of this contribution will be dedicated to a discussion of the term religious modernism when applied to the Muhammadiyah movement. In the second section, some general features of religious fundamentalism(s) will be given. The third section will focus on some elements the Muhammadiyah movement and Muslim fundamentalism to have in common. Finally by pointing out some significant differences between the Muhammadiyah movement and Muslim fundamentalism, it will become clear in the concluding section that, in my view, the Muhammadiyah cannot be considered a religious fundamentalist movement, although it shares some aspects with what is commonly called Muslim fundamentalism...

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