Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A century of helping shape a moderate Muslim democracy, Tue, Jan 31, 2012

This year is the 100th year of one of the largest, most accomplished and least known Muslim organizations in the world - and one that has played and can play a critical role in peaceful leadership transitions.

Muhammadiyah reports 30 million members, mainly located in Indonesia, the nation with the largest Muslim population. Muhammadiyah was founded in 1912. In its 100 years it has accomplished an astounding range of work. It has established dozens of universities, 12,000 schools with over 50,000 teachers and over a million students, 47 hospitals, 217 clinics, 300 orphanages and other civic or community organizations. Its large and powerful women's organization, Aisyiyah, has created over 500 microcredit cooperatives engaged in community work. Aisyiyah empowers women.

Despite its size, accomplishments and importance, Muhammadiyah is little known, probably because, unlike radical and militant organizations featured in the media, it has not emphasized violence. Instead, it has worked importantly to prevent violence.

A notable example stands in stark comparison to the recent uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. In Indonesia in 1998 General Suharto, who resembled Mubarak in a long and somewhat autocratic reign (since 1965), did what Mubarak, Gadhafi and others did not; he voluntarily resigned, thus avoiding the violent uprisings of Egypt, Libya and Syria.

A key reason Suharto resigned was the diplomacy of the then-chair of Muhammadiyah, Amien Rais. Here a strong Muslim leader deployed a Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, as a catalyst to a peaceful transition toward a relatively democratic government.

What are prospects for Muhammadiyah's global role?
It has published an extensive vision and plan for its future. The plan assesses the global situation in relation to the place of Islam (China, it suggests, has replaced USA as the major power to consider). It discusses the environment, the economy, democratic government - of which Indonesia is one of the notable examples in a predominantly Muslim population. It addresses the role and status of women, especially in relation to Aisyiyah, which is pressing for stronger leadership role in the organization and in Islam.

Muhammadiyah envisions itself as a crucial bridge between Islam and non-Islamic populations or nations. In the global system, Muhammadiyah occupies a mediating position because it is Muslim yet not militant. In fact, it is moderate in most of its social and political values. Also it has accomplished much in educational, cultural and community work while adhering firmly to a Muslim identity. Some potential for a mediating role is reflected in conferences on peace held by Muhammadiyah and in the vision for 2010-2015.

This year we should learn about and perhaps engage with Muhammadiyah in an effort to work peaceably and productively with the hugely important Muslims who are at once moderate and vigorous in seeking peace and progress.
James Peacock is Kenan professor in the Department of Anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill and is the author of "Grounded Globalism." Eunsook Jung is assistant professor of politics at Fairfield University in Connecticut. The writers have participated in and observed Muhammadiyah activities from 1970 to the present. 
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