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Moeslim Abdurrahman: Fighting against religious conservatism
The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Life | Thu, October 05 2006, 9:56 AM
Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta
Muslim scholar and activist Moeslim Abdurrahman cannot hide his anxiety.
Conservatism is allegedly growing within Muhammadiyah, the country's
second-largest Muslim organization, which claims to have 30 million
members in Indonesia.
""I'm worried about the future of
Muhammadiyah, once dubbed a modernist and reformist organization.
Exclusivism and intolerance seem to be growing even stronger now,"" he
told The Jakarta Post at his office in Mampang, South Jakarta.
During Tanwir (a national leadership meeting) in Bali, January 2002,
together with other leaders of Muhammadiyah, Moeslim conceptualized a dakwah kultural
(cultural preaching approach) that was aimed at deconstructing the
monolithic interpretation of Islamic religiosity by accommodating the
cultural and local values that are rich in pluralistic Indonesian
Nevertheless, there was strong resistance from conservative sections of Muhammadiyah, which suspected dakwah kultural as having the potential to accommodate bid'ah
(heresy), regarded as being against the founding ideal of Muhammadiyah,
established in 1912 by K. H. Ahmad Dahlan, to purify Islam from such
As the debate continued, many narrowly interpreted dakwah kultural
as a mere expression of the spread of Islamic teaching through the arts
such as music and songs. During the following Tanwir in Makassar, June
2003, the concept was further distorted to the ""Islamization"" of the
""Bid'ah should be re-interpreted,"" he argued,
adding that although Islam has a universal principle, in practice it has
been translated into ethnolocal Islam such as Nahdlatul Ulama in Java,
Nahdlatul Wathan (Nusa Tenggara Barat), Mathlaul Anwar (Banten) and
Darul Dakwah wal-Irsyad (Makassar).
young members of Muhammadiyah who promote pluralism seem to do it as a
mere defense, while blaming their previous leaders for destroying
locality with their reform movement,"" Moeslim said, pointing that the
effort has lost its substance.
Born Aug 8, 1948 to a
Muhammadiyah family in Lamongan, East Java, after completing elementary
school, he was sent by his parents to Raudlatul Ilmiyah Islamic boarding
school in Kertosono. His parents hoped that he would become a young
But Moeslim insisted on continuing his education.
Registering as a student of the Tarbiyah Program at Muhammadiyah
Surakarta University and soon becoming active in student organizations,
his understanding of Islamic religiosity was gradually transformed from
the normative to the empirical domain, from monolithic to pluralistic
Moeslim later received his Masters and PhD in anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana, U.S.
Continuing as a social activist, he became increasingly assured that
the level of piety of each individual is different, depending on social
and cultural factors that shape their understanding of religious
""But they have the right to claim that they are
close to God,"" he said in between puffs of a cigarette during a
breaking-of-the-fast gathering at his office.
befriended young members of Nahdlatul Ulama such as some of those at the
Institute of the Empowerment of Pesantren and Society (P3M), whom he
considered more progressive than those at Muhammadiyah.
became a member of the Advisory Board of the Centre for Strategic and
International Studies (CSIS), director of the Ma'arif Institute for
Culture and Humanity and director of the Institute of Social Science
He once worked as a civil servant at the
research and development department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs
for 12 years. In the media sector, he was assistant to the
editor-in-chief of Pelita daily and head of research at the Post for two years and one year respectively.
He declined positions as a permanent member of teaching staff, and
instead opted to teach part-time in the graduate program of anthropology
and political science of the University of Indonesia and the graduate
program in anthropology and philosophy at Muhammadiyah Surakarta
He was also extensively involved in social
activism to promote understanding that plurality is a fact of life in
Indonesia, with all its diversity.
In 2000, Muhammadiyah
chairman Ahmad Syafi'i Maarif persuaded him to return to Muhammadiyah.
Moeslim headed the division for the empowerment of laborers, farmers and
fisherman of Muhammadiyah Central Board besides being a director of
al-Ma'un Institute, an organization he formed to realize his idealism.
Asked why what he perceived a growing conservatism and intolerance
were to be found in Muhammadiyah, Moeslim replied, ""Due to feelings of
inferiority. Generally, Muslims particularly those in Muhammadiyah, feel
they have lost the battle in almost every field,"" he said.
""For example, many perceive the growing number of non-Muslim schools in
big cities as a threat -- as rivals that could disturb the existence
and aqidah (religious doctrine) of the Muslim ones,"" he said.
It is because of this that even the celebration of Christmas was
treated as a theological rather than social matter, he said with regret.
He continued that as globalization is irresistible, there
are two possible reactions from society: ""First is anxiety that
everything will be attacked and replaced by new norms and beliefs.
Second, total rejection of change -- toward everything coming from
outside, followed by an exclusivist attitude.""
is a common phenomenon that can be found in any society, any
organization, or any organized religion, but the second is dangerous.
I'm worried -- I hope I'm mistaken -- that Muhammadiyah is showing signs
of the second reaction. If that's the case, Muhammadiyah might end up
as a mere community movement,"" he warned, emphasizing that Muhammadayh
was originally conceived as an urban movement.
45th Muktamar (national congress) of Muhammadiyah in Malang in July
2005, which saw an end to Ahmad Syafi'i Maarif's leadership, Moeslim and
other progressive leaders such as Amin Abdullah and Abdul Munir Mulkhan
were sidelined by the perceived growing number of conservatives in
Muhammadiyah scholar Pradana Boy Zulian
Thobibul Fata, who is currently writing a thesis on the conservative and
liberal forces within Muhammadiyah at the Australian National
University, said many believed that the new leadership had flirted with
powerful conservative wings to ensure their election.
Moeslim is not losing hope. He is surrounded by a number of young and
progressive Muhammadiyah members who, with his help, formed a loose
organization, Muhammadiyah Youth Intellectual Network (JIMM) in 2003.
It consists of liberal-minded members such as Zuly Qodir, Tuty
Alawiah, Piet Khaidir, Ahmad Fuad Fanani, Andar Nubowo and others.
Scholar Pradana Boy said that Moeslim in pinning a lot hope on these
young members to provide Muhammadiyah with a new image -- now or in the
future -- although he urged JIMM to be more independent and to also
reach out to other senior leaders.
""The problem is that JIMM
has difficulty in finding other senior intellectual patrons other than
Moeslim, as Muhammadiyah lacks leaders like him with a high level of
intellectuality but with strong commitment to nurture younger members,""
He added that in spite of this, the battle for minds within Muhammadiyah is unstoppable.