Sunday, November 18, 2012

Muhammadiyah’s new challenges

The Jakarta Post,
Amika Wardana, Colchester, UK | Opinion | Sun, November 18 2012, 10:35 AM 
Paper Edition | Page: 4
Surviving for 100 years as a non-profit mass organization, as Muhammadiyah has done, is no ordinary achievement. Throughout its history, Muhammadiyah has faced, solved, compromised, avoided or neglected a lot of diverse socio-political, cultural and religious challenges.

As of its centennial, the endurance of this Islamic reformist-puritan movement has been tested by five different regimes: Dutch colonial rule, Japanese occupation, Sukarno’s Old Order, Soeharto’s New Order and the post-1998 democratic transition. Each of those regimes has had different religious policies, either accommodative or repressive, regarding Islamic religious movements and social organizations.

As one of the leading Muslim organizations in the country, Muhammadiyah began to play a crucial role in society in the beginning of the 20th century, when it was imbued with an emerging quest for Islamic religious reform to adapt to modernity and against the backdrop of an anti-colonial movement linked to the Middle-East based Pan-Islam movements.

With its non-political and cooperative, rather than confrontational, strategy and focus on the delivery of public education, healthcare and other social services, Muhammadiyah has survived two colonial governments.

Although the first two Indonesian presidents favored secular and nationalist ideas and tended to limit political Islam, both Sukarno and Soeharto publicly and proudly claimed to be part of Muhammadiyah.

Due to its informal ties, Muhammadiyah was relatively free from intervention, repression and politicization by the two regimes, which otherwise targeted anti-nationalist or radical Muslim groups. Due to its moderate standpoint, Muhammadiyah was a safe haven for Muslim activists from the witch hunts of both regimes.

The popularity of a “modernist” discourse in the 1960s and 1970s, as evinced by Soeharto’s political ideology of development, has a strong link to Muhammadiyah’s idea of the Islamic reform. With political and even financial support from the government, Muhammadiyah has successfully expanded its core social and religious business in education and healthcare. As we can see today, the organization is well known for its thousands of schools and universities and hundreds of hospitals and medical clinics that it manages across the country.

Apart from those achievements, however, the success or failure of Muhammadiyah in sailing through its second century will be determined by completely different socio-political and economic situations, as well as different political religious ideas.

The growing influence of the conservative Islamic political religious ideology (e.g., the Salafis and the Hizb-ut Tahrir) from the Middle East in the last few decades can be perceived as a major ideological challenge. Of course, conservative Islam is actually not new, but its current intensity and penetration across national borders with the advent of social media have had a tremendous impact on its followers.

These conservative ideas are often manifested in two ways: by a popular desire for political Islam (e.g., the implementation of Sharia and the establishment of a transnational Islamic caliphate) and by the growing dominance of orthodox Islamic cultural traditions, e.g., the rejection of religious pluralism.

In the realm of politics, for Muslims at large and especially for Muhammadiyah’s leaders and members, political Islam has raised a classic dilemma determined by old thinking that does not separate religion from politics. Strictly speaking, rejecting political Islam means violating the primary tenets of Islam, but accepting it designates a betrayal of moderate political ideology and hence the religiously plural nature of Indonesia.

Increasingly dominant orthodox Islamic cultural traditions are by no means in line with the puritan ideology of Muhammadiyah. This is related to growing intolerance and attacks of minority religious groups perceived as heretical, such as the Shia and Ahmadis.

It has been beyond the official policy of Muhammadiyah to determine if religious groups are heretical or to condone acts of violence against their followers or other religious groups outside Islam. Muhammadiyah, however, does deem certain ideas and activities as heresies that must be avoided by its members. Unsurprisingly, the policy has been unpopular among Indonesian Muslims, who perceive it as a display of Muhammadiyah’s cowardice, weaknesses and a defiance of its long-held puritan Islamic ideology. As the result, Muhammadiyah is facing a loss of public confidence.

The transitional democracy of Indonesian politics, moreover, has somewhat discredited the political position of Muhammadiyah, which for years has enjoyed political privileges. This has been illustrated by the under-achievement of the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the failed political experiment of the National Sun Party (PMB) in the 2009 legislative election.

In this context, there exists a classic dilemma for political Islam in the wake of democracy. By accepting democracy, political Islamists tend to exert democracy to gain power and thus push for the Islamization of government policies. For politically moderate Muslims, the acceptance of democracy affirms Muhammadiyah’s recognition of liberal democratic principles, including gender equality, freedom of speech, religious pluralism and, to a certain degree, structural secularization. The latter choice has the potential detrimental effect of Muhammadiyah being isolated by other Muslim political activists.

These challenges do not mean that Muhammadiyah will be dismantled or lose its social and political credibility within Indonesian Muslim society. But, of course, Muhammadiyah requires more confidence in its political and religious policies and persuasive dissemination to the public, although it may lead Muhammadiyah into a head-on collision with conservative Islamic groups.

Muhammadiyah also needs to focus more on its core social projects in education and health care to prove its contribution to the state and the people.

The writer is member of the Muhammadiyah Young Intellectuals Network (JIMM).

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