Muhammadiyah must boost
While some figures from other Islamic organizations joined teams supporting specific candidates, central board members preferred to remain neutral.
Board members also did not complain when no Muhammadiyah cadres were included in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s Cabinet. Certainly, disappointment was expressed, particularly by Muhammadiyah’s youth wing.
However, Muhammadiyah leaders and its members generally accepted the Cabinet formation as the prerogative of the President.
The neutrality indicates that Muhammadiyah is consistent in staying out of politics, preferring to join campaigns concerning clean governance, accountability and social justice. As former chairman Syafii Ma’arif (1998-2005) stated, if Muhammadiyah voiced public support for a candidate it would be based on strictly moral considerations.
The success of Muhammadiyah in the post-New Order era is not measured by how many cadres are appointed as ministers, but by the extent to which the movement campaigns for principle values of humanity, freedom, peace and good governance.
Muhammadiyah has played an important role in fighting for those values, both institutionally and interpersonally.
The current political situation requires Muhammadiyah to think more seriously about how to make Islam a means of strengthening democracy, human rights and national identity. Claims that Muhammadiyah figures represent modernist Islamic thought are false if the organization ignores crucial issues arising in the post-New Order era that threaten religious plurality, religious freedom and freedom of expression.
In the past decade, Indonesia has witnessed the rise of “public religion” — a term which scholars refer to as religions that seek to interfere in the public sphere. After the collapse of the New Order, many new Islamic organizations were established. Many of them saw democracy as a new opportunity for Islamizing state and society.
Many of these public religions and their representative organizations threatened principles of democracy. There have been many instances of public religions seeking to punish groups perceived to have deviated from, for example, “true” Islam.
For instance, from 2008 to 2012, the persecution of Ahmadiyah followers increased. The punishment was not only done by attacks on mosques, but also by chasing Ahmadiyah away from their homes.
This period also witnessed stronger campaigning against freedom in interpreting Islam. Interpretations that differed from certain understandings of Islam began to be regarded as heretical.
As a result, Islamic liberal thinkers have experienced physical and psychological intimidation. Restrictions on Christians establishing churches have also been imposed.
The most recent case is the negative campaigning against a non-Muslim, acting Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, against his upcoming installment as Jakarta governor. Sectarian issues dominate the discourse of these public religions.
The emergence of public religions is acceptable as long as they support and strengthen principles of democracy and the nation-state. They should enhance, or at least not disrupt, religious freedom, freedom of expression and religious plurality. It is better if public religions empower and enlighten society and help ensure government accountability.
Therefore, as one of the two biggest Islamic organizations, along with the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Muhammadiyah should move to counter these sectarian voices in the public sphere.
The main point addressed here concerns who is regarded as having an authoritative voice for Islam. If Muhammadiyah does not actively argue against those public religions’ views, Muslims and non-Muslims alike will think they have the most authoritative voice for Islam.
This does not mean that Muhammadiyah has not played a public role. One significant example came in 2000 — 2002 when it rejected efforts to amend the preamble of the Constitution to include a clause mandating that Muslims follow sharia.
Another instance was its campaign for clean governance and against “rotten” politicians. Using a religious approach, Muhammadiyah helped socialize anti-corruption spirit among Muslims.
Muhammadiyah encouraged its Friday sermon preachers and other religious leaders to deliver the message of clean governance.
However, escalating sectarian discourse in the public sphere requires Muhammadiyah to work harder. Its leaders and activists must be more systematic in transforming the movement, and other Islamic movements, into “civil religions” — that is, those that do not fight for religious identity or sectarian issues, but for the common good.
This civil religion enables Muslims to help transform religious teachings into values applicable to society at large.
A civil religion, as the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau noted, is a “secularized religion” concerned with improving modern social and political life. In this light, instead of strengthening sectarian identities, religions should encourage adherents to appreciate diversity and strengthen national identity.
Such a concept of civil religion does not weaken or undermine Muslims’ devotion to their religion. Instead, the civil religion enables Muslims to imbue religion with new meaning in a modern context.
The writer is PhD student in religious studies at the University of Leeds in the UK and a lecturer of Islamic studies at the University of Muhammadiyah Jakarta (UMJ).
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