Monday, June 27, 2011

Ahmad Syafi'i Ma'arif: Muhammadiyah is like a big tent

AsiaViews, Edition: 28/II/July/2005
Category: Interview
UNDER the leadership of Ahmad Syafi?i Ma?arif, Muhammadiyah?s image as a puritanical and inflexible Islamic movement slowly began to erode. This Islamic organization, which claims to have 30 million followers, is now actively fighting ?social and moral decadence,? together with the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the organization of ulama (religious leaders) which it is often at odds with over the issue of prayers. The Syafi?i Ma?arif and Hasyim Muzadi team appears to be united in carrying out the national anti-corruption campaign. He is equally hard on cleaning up the organization he leads. The Muhammadiyah leadership, he says, must have a strong character, one that would not be easily influenced by economic and political temptations.

There have been more of these ?economic temptations? since Muhammadiyah?s success in setting up thousands of schools, from the kindergarten level up to high school, hundreds of universities, hospitals, orphanages and places of worship around the country. This is the organization led by KH Ahmad Dahlan and currently led Ahmad Syafi?i Ma?arif.

Perhaps, engrossed in all of these varied operations, Muhammadiyah has been criticized for not spending enough time on developing Islamic spiritual discourse. Furthermore, in this age of reform, when the tendency is to side with a particular political party, Muhammadiyah has been accused of changing its scope to practical politics.

Those accusations have been refuted by Syafi?i? Ma?arif. He points to the fact that the 25-year-old organization never lacks for controversial ideas, particularly among its activists, like the Muhammadiyah Student Association, the Muhammadiyah Youth Group and the Muhammadiyah Youth, which is being accused of compromising on the liberal Islam issue, in opposition to Tabligh Council and the Muhammadiyah Special Council, well-known for their preference towards fundamentalist Islam. The debate between liberal Islamic groups and JIMM (Muhammadiyah Intellectual Youth Network) and PSAP (Center for Religious and Civilization Studies), which often meets on the third floor of Muhammadiyah headquarters, has been quite heated.

Will this conflict of ideas continue after Ahmad Syafi?i Ma?arif handed over the leadership to Din Syamsuddin during the 45th congress in Malang, East Java, last week? Muslim intellectuals who were invited to dialog with President George Bush hope this will be the case. At least, that is the impression that emerged from Ma?arif?s interview with Tempo reporters Syaiful Amin and Heru C. Nugroho, which took place in his home in Yogyakarta, before he attended the Muhammadiyah Congress two weeks ago. The discussion with Ma?arif was resumed by Bibin Bintariadi, Tempo reporter in Malang, who spoke with him in the midst of the congress. Excerpts:

What is different about this 45th congress compared to the previous ones?

Previous congresses didn?t amend the organization?s constitution. This one did. We needed to have it changed to go with the times. Basically, Muhammadiyah wants to revitalize all its sectors, including where discourse and thinking are concerned. This will not be easy. All this time, Muhammadiyah has been rather inward looking. So, we didn?t look outwards too much. Since the time Amien Rais led Muhammadiyah, this organization begun entering into the mainstream. That was Amien?s achievement, which I continued. Amien went into politics while I tried more to go into the cultural aspects, but also into the mainstream.

During the previous congress, we also responded to criticisms that Muhammadiyah withdrew intellectually by accommodating the Tarjih Council. The Council went on to be renamed the Tarjih Council and Islamic Discourse.

Lately, Muhammadiyah does not seem to attract followers, even though it is known as a reformist organization. Why is that?

Yes, perhaps it?s not selling as well as when it first emerged on the scene. This is probably because there are many people imitating Muhammadiyah.

Is it because of the progressive Islamic group which is advocating change?

That is relative. What is the parameter for progressiveness? Muhammadiyah has its Intellectual Youth Network (JIMM), and the activities of the youth are exceptional, even if they meet with opposition from within. Indeed, Muhammadiyah university students have been ineffective for the past 20 years. In fact, at one point, there were two persons heading the Muhammadiyah Student Association (IMM). That problem has now been overcome.

What about accusations that Islamic discourse in Muhammadiyah is not being developed?

I absolutely deny that. Islamic discourse has been developed by our creative young people. Every week their name appears in the media. From the point of view of discourse, there is great potential for the future. Although some people may say we have gone too far, too liberal, in my view, let them think that way. We can always ask them to sit down with us and talk it over. If necessary, let?s exchange literature and reading material, so we don?t remain narrow-minded.

What is the Muhammadiyah leaders? view about such discourse?

Well, it?s to protect everyone. The Muhammadiyah leadership is like a big tent. So, as long as they still believe in God, in religion and the Prophet Mohammad, and they still pray and fast, we will protect them. The parameters are very simple. I see no problem in that. From that point of view, Muhammadiyah is very liberal. It is not quick to judge and punish, even though we do have some members who like to punish (laughing).

Let them grow. They just need to know how to manage change, to sit together and discuss issues. If necessary, they must exchange reading material so they feel comfortable with each other. I think that?s something we haven?t done much of.

Wouldn?t such opposition become a threat to Muhammadiyah?

We have a holy book. As long as that holy book is not violated, not rejected, there should be no problem. In fact, that would just add to our dynamics.

There is an impression that Muhammadiyah is only active in the education and health sectors lately.

It may look that way on the surface, but it?s more than that. I?ve already made my statement about the issue of Islamic discourse. The emergence of our active young members is evidence of that. It is true that education, health and social welfare has become our trademark. That goes with economic issues, even though we have not quite succeeded yet.

Do you have any corrections to be made towards Muhammadiyah?

Muhammadiyah moves slowly. That?s because we have quite a burden to carry. We have 14,000 schools, excluding higher learning institutions and hospitals. That usually comes with problems. From the human resources point of view, there has been an upgrade in quality. The problem is, when Muhammadiyah people enter politics, they become confused and feel this is not their world. This is a shortcoming among Muhammadiyah members, yet also a strength.

In politics, Muhammadiyah is seen to be functioning under the National Awakening Party (PAN). Is this true?

Muhammadiyah cannot function under PAN. That is only a public perception. One reference is the 1971 congress in Ujung Pandang, which declared that Muhammadiyah would keep its distance from all political parties. In the past it was a special member of Masyumi.

The case of PAN is special because it was established in Semarang and its figure then was Amien Rais, the former Muhammadiyah chairman. But Muhammadiyah and the decision making process within, still maintained its distance from all political forces. We were quite liberal with political aspirations, so long as members did not create chaos or bring the mission of Muhammadiyah. They still need to carry the moral mission. That is our main request, even though many violate this anyway.

Even though in practice, many Muhammadiyah members become PAN cadres?

That is because of Amien Rais. In Muhammadiyah, Amien Rais has deep roots. Indeed, the two cannot be separated. But in terms of formal structure, the two must be clearly separated.

In the last presidential election, Muhammadiyah officially backed Amien...

That was a special case, and it was done by consensus at a meeting of executives which was extended to local area heads of Muhammadiyah. There has been a lot of criticism about Muhammadiyah being involved in practical politics. There is some truth in that. But that was a special case and must be seen in that light because the figure in question is Amien Rais, and the decision was made by consensus in Denpasar. This has been a bitter but valuable experience for us.

What do you mean by bitter?

It is bitter because Amien lost.

But this can be atoned in 2009?

We will see later. We cannot say much about such things right now. Politics change all the time.

There is internal pressure for Muhammadiyah to become a political party. What do you think?

Ah, that is insignificant pressure. We already made our views known in Bali, some time ago. If it becomes a party, for sure Muhammadiyah will have no new followers.

Do you feel you succeeded as leader of Muhammadiyah?

Let other people judge me. But I feel that on issues of religion, ethnicity, there has been a lot progress. It?s that way too as far as relations with the outside world initiated by Amien Rais are concerned.

What remains a problem under your leadership of Muhammadiyah?

The anti-corruption movement we initiated only managed to push officials into action. We haven?t been able to do more, except to build command posts in the provinces and report cases to officials. But if they do nothing, we can?t do anything but shout. So far, it has only been small cases of corruption, the BLBI scandal involving trillions of rupiah has not been touched at all. Officials are not serious enough.

Chasing after the corruptors must be continued. The problem is that the pursuers and the pursued seem to be colluding. It?s a mental problem. Like corruption inside the Religious Affairs Department, for instance, I have long been screaming for some action. This is problematic because the department is seen as the guardian of people?s morals. It should have set a good example and not be part of this nation?s destruction. So, let them take action against those officials. I think Religious Affairs Minister Basyuni has been courageous in allowing the investigation to continue. I salute him.

What about the problem of Bank Persyarikatan?

It is now in the process of being settled. Vice President Jusuf Kalla has really been a help in the matter of Bank Persyarikatan. I don?t know the latest development, but two weeks ago, we had another meeting, in which the investors? commitment was further clarified. Hopefully, the problem will soon be settled.

This was a mistake. I know nothing about banks, so I put my faith in a person who knows about banking. That was my shortcoming, to have placed my faith just like that. That was our stupidity, because as their commander, I was stupid.

About Bank Persyarikatan, how will you present your accountability at the congress?

We will give them all the facts.

How do you see the NU-Muhammadiyah relationship today?

It is still going sweetly, even though during the last general elections, when Hasyim Muzadi was running for vice president, our relations soured a bit, in particular where religion was concerned, because Hasyim Muzadi, came after all, from the NU. But on a personal level, relations are good, and overall, the two organizations are becoming closer. I hope that the new Muhammadiyah leadership can continue with this.

How, in your opinion, should an ideal Muhammadiyah leader be?

Clearly, he should be able to carry the Muhammadiyah mission to embrace the people. In other words, one enemy is one too many, and a thousand friends is too little. As for followers, there must be more friends and the approach to gaining more friends is to embrace and unite people, not split them. That is why the national vision must be strong, aside from establishing good relations widely with all groups. One should not worry too much regarding intellectualism and religious issues, because the leadership in Muhammadiyah is collective. Ideally, Muhammadiyah should be led by an intellectual kiai (spiritual leader).

Who can fill such criteria?

We can search for one. But since I still hold that position, I cannot mention his name (the interview was done before the election of the new Muhammadiyah Chairman?Ed.). It?s not ethical. I might be accused of favoring him.

Some groups still want you to lead. Why are you rejecting this?

As one who criticized Pak Harto for ruling the country too long, I must be consistent. I have been in the Muhammadiyah leadership for too long, 15 years. Besides, my age is 70 years and 28 days. So, it?s best that this chance be given to someone else.

Many hope that Muhammadiyah will be led by a moderate and independent figure like you. If you refuse this job, who would be the most appropriate?

Don?t be pessimistic. The congress will not be selecting one person, but 13 people. Even if among the 13 nominees one will get more votes than the others, he may not necessarily end up as chairman. The determining factor will be those 13 people. If there are problems, perhaps a vote will be taken. And that is valid in Muhammadiyah. Even the venue of the congress was determined by voting. Democracy in Muhammadiyah is alive and well.

Even after he has not been Chairman of Muhammadiyah?

That will depend on the decision of the congress. There is now a council of advisors. If the 13 people selected appoint me as an advisor, perhaps yes. For sure, I will not apply for the job. But if I am asked, and I am needed, perhaps I will consider it. (Newly elected Muhammadiyah Chairman Din Syamsuddin has already asked Syafi?i Ma?arif to sit in the Muhammadiyah council of advisors?Ed.)

Since when has there been a council of advisors?

It was decided with the amendments to the organization?s constitution. Hopefully, it will be accepted by all. Before, during the period before A.R. Fakhruddin, there was one case. But it died. Let?s see what happens later. When the new leaders are elected, and they can accept advice, perhaps I will join in. But if the new leader cannot accept advice, why should I join?

As an Islamic figure, you are often approached by the Americans. How does the West see Islam in relation to terrorism?

They only see a small group of radicals, and not the majority. The radicals, in my view, are a group of people who are incapable of dealing with reality. They are people who lost faith because they can?t deal with reality. This modernity, full of secularism and atheism, to them has become a big threat. They cannot face this predicament except by those methods [by terrorism]. So, they usurp the word of God for their own interests. This is very political. And that is never effective, in fact, suicidal. Can they really think they can beat the United States, even though this country is arrogant? A bazooka-carrying enemy is opposed with water pistols, how can they win? That is why Muslims must be smart. So the education factor is very decisive in the future of the Islamic community.

What should be done against this group?

Just have a dialog with them, even though this may be difficult, because they have their parameters. But it must still be attempted and the dialog must be carried out regularly. Those who are proven to have committed acts of violence must face the legal consequences.

What should Muhammadiyah do for the future?

To improve the morals of this nation, comprehensive improvement on all dimensions of people?s lives. At times, we are forced to choose, but officially, we must be above all groups.

Tempo No.45/V/July 12-18, 2005 (Accessed 6/27/2011)

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