Monday, May 28, 2012

Muhammadiyah and The Making of “Progressive Islam” in Indonesia

This is a random excerpt taken from: Alexander R. Arifianto's "Faith, Moral Authority, and Politics: The Making of “Progressive Islam” in Indonesia and Turkey", paper presented at the 2012 Western Political Science Association (WPSA) Annual Meeting, Portland, OR, March 22-24, 2012

Muhammadiyah is a modernist Islamic organization that at times have expressed some revivalist and fundamentalist tendencies as well. It has expressed much less tolerance toward non-canonical Islamic teachings that are not prescribed in the Qur'an and the Hadith, as well as toward local religious customs and traditions that had predated the Islamic period in Indonesia. Muhammadiyah's leadership is based primarily on rational-legal authority, where individual leaders rose through the rank of the organization and gained influence largely based on their talents and achievements rather than through family connections or patronage. Because it is a rational-legal organization, Muhammadiyah's decision-making structure is also more hierarchical than NU, with the central leadership board able to design and enforce most major policy decisions within the organization and individual Muhammadiyah members at the grassroots level have little/no power to shape the formulation of these policies or to change them once they have been approved by the central board.

Given the strong support among the modernist Islamic intelligentsia of this period over these progressive ideas, many were expecting that the ideas would in time gain the support of key modernist Islamic groups in Indonesia, especially within the Muhammadiyah. However, the dominance of revivalist theology among the ranks of Muhammadiyah leaders and activists created a strong oppositional discourse among the revivalist who opposed these reforms, which is sustained through a strong internal culture within the organization to oppose alternative theological ideas that are contradictory to revivalist and Salafist theological teachings. Together, these have prevented progressive theological ideas from being implemented by the organization.

Despite his popular appeals among reform activists, Syafii Ma'arif (unlike his NU counterpart Abdurrahman Wahid) does not possess the charismatic as well as persuasive appeals that would have convinced rank-and-file Muhammadiyah members to change their positions about the reforms that were promoted by the progressive activists. The prevalence of literal interpretations of the Koran and the Sunnah among revivalist groups within the organization, and the prevalence of revivalist-oriented leaders in the organization's central leadership board that serve as counterweight to the voice of Ma‟arif and other progressive reformers within the Muhammadiyah. The prevalence of revivalists within the organization and the lack of a charismatic figure within the organization who could have served as counterweight to the revivalist's resistance, has served as another stumbling block for progressive reformers to successfully implement and institutionalize their reforms within the organization.

Muhammadiyah's reformers failure to successfully enact their reforms is also attributable to their failure to spread their reformist message beyond the relatively small amount of supporters who support these reforms in the first place. Unlike their NU counterparts, who tried to popularize their messages to the rank-and-file members (through Wahid's numerous popular sermons), their counterpart among the modernist and Muhammadiyah community tend to promote the reforms among a small group of activists who were educated at Islamic universities where progressive Islamic thought are promoted.

As a result, the attempt of progressive Muhammadiyah activists to engage in “reasoned reflection” activities to persuade the organization to adopt their reformist theology have encountered fierce resistance from their puritanist/revivalist rivals from within the organization, who already dominate the internal culture and the leadership rank within Muhammadiyah. Revivalists (represented by activists such as Yunahar Ilyas, Dahlan Rais (brother of former Muhammadiyah Chairman Amien Rais), and Mustafa Kamal Pasha) argue that organizations such as the Network of Young Muhammadiyah Intellectuals (Jaringan Intelektual Muda Muhammadiyah – JIMM), which became the vehicle for their efforts to introduce progressive Islamic thought within the Muhammadiyah, are trying to promote ideas that are not identical and are violating the organization's theological principles. Specifically, they do not share the positions taken by organizations such as JIMM that argue for equal citizenship rights irrespective of religious belief, human rights, religious tolerance and pluralism, and gender equality.

Revivalist critics of the reform argue that these positions represent liberal secularist principles, which sought to separate religion and the state realm, something revivalists argue should be rejected by Muslims who believe that there can be no separation between the two realms. Revivalists also reject the concept of religious pluralism, by arguing that pluralism advocates for the validity of truth for all religions. This is something many revivalists considered as a heresy (bid’ah), since for the revivalists, there is only one religion that represents God's ultimate truth for all humans, and it is Islam (Budiyanto 2009: 122-123, Boy 2009: 168-169). In their view, pluralist supporters only weaken the faith of young Muslims, which would threaten their salvation in the afterlife (Asyari 2007: 33). Revivalists also believe that local cultures and traditions could not be integrated into Muhammadiyah, since so there are too many heretical and superstitious (tahyul) elements within them that would only weakened the faith of pious Muslims (Asyari 2007: 28, fn. 16). Lastly, they criticize progressive activists for receiving financial assistance from international donors and foundations, which for the revivalists, prove that their agendas constituted Westerners' effort to weaken and replace Islam in Indonesia. In their mind,

I argue that the outcome of progressive theological reforms within the Muhammadiyah and its traditionalist counterpart, the NU, differs from one another because of several distinctive characteristics within these organizations. First, the internal culture of the NU, which has a long history of tolerating syncretic religious customs and theological thoughts borrowed from other Islamic sects (e.g, Sufism and Shiite traditions), are more receptive towards the reform advocated by progressive reformers within the organization in the area of democracy, human rights, and religious pluralism. Revivalist theology and the practice of purifying of non-canonical Islamic customs and traditions, are an integral part of Muhammadiyah's internal culture for the past century and this would not be amenable to a rapid ideational change, either from the inside or from the outside, anytime soon. And since revivalist theology tend to prevail among Muhammadiyah activists and leadership, they have significant resources to counter the efforts of the progressives to implement their reforms from within the organization and in the end, are able to marginalize the reformers by excluding them from the organization's key leadership positions.

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