Thursday, August 13, 2015

Muhammadiyah must better use power of masses

Kim Hyung-jun, Makassar | Opinion | Thu, August 13 2015, 6:12 AM

There were hardly any surprises at Muhammadiyah’s 47th congress in Makassar. The congress went smoothly and some 2,500 delegates enjoyed a well-organized, insightful and delightful reunion of members without any sign of internal intrigues, conflicts and confrontations.

Election of the central board members demonstrated that Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization has maintained its century-long tradition of democracy. Branch representatives voted for 13 central board members from 39 candidates, who had been selected from 82. This way of electing a package of leaders prevents emergence of an authoritative figure and concentration of power in a few hands.

The congress also approved several programs for the next period of 2015-2000 including a novel one entitled “community-based enlightening mission model”.

The program asserts Muhammadiyah’s intention to embrace those who have been placed outside of its concern, such as gay people, prostitutes, the homeless, beggars and street children. The inclusion of those marginalized groups into the objects of its activities is a great leap, given that Muhammadiyah has been famous for its puritanical and exclusive positions and that its previous programs were focused on building schools and hospitals. The new program demonstrates the organization’s wind of change as Muhammadiyah tries hard to make itself more tolerant, altruistic and inclusive.

Wholeheartedly, I welcome the change, which helps to facilitate its tens of millions of followers being involved in making Indonesia more progressive and pluralistic. However, I am a bit skeptical about whether the community-based model can be implemented. The model is likely to be too revolutionary.

From my previous research on Muhammadiyah, I can instantly think about possible constraints on the program’s effectiveness.

First is the distance between leaders and ordinary members, which has become wider in the last few decades. Second is the typical way programs in Muhammadiyah are undertaken successfully, namely a bottom-up approach, not from top to bottom.

For more than a century Muhammadiyah has been the most active in education. It now controls hundreds of tertiary education institutions and tens of thousands of elementary and secondary schools.

Emphasis on educational activities has also facilitated its members to recognize the importance of educating themselves, so that its leaders tend to receive education far above the average citizen. Of the 13 newly elected central board members, 10 have PhD degrees. Of the 39 candidates, 26 had doctoral degrees.

The leaders’ educational background makes it easy to understand why the community-based model could be introduced to the congress. Yet it also prompts us to notice a gap between the center and the periphery, between leaders and ordinary members. The ideas and visions proposed by leaders may not be accepted easily by ordinary members who are responsible for executing the programs.

An example illustrating the danger of this gap is a program called dakwah kultural (mission based on culture), proposed ambitiously by the leaders in the early 2000s. The main idea was to take into account local customs and practices in missionary work at the grassroots level. The program, however, was frequently misunderstood, misinterpreted and even criticized, to the extent that these days it is seldom heard in the discourse of Muhammadiyah.

The second factor is the way programs of Muhammadiyah are actually carried out. A story from a village where I did my research suffices to give a picture of this.

A Muhammadiyah member wished to build a junior high school at my research site. The government school was far from the village, making it impossible for all villagers to send their children to it. The proposal was received enthusiastically by fellow members, but it took almost a year to find a willing donator for the land. Donations for construction materials could not be collected with ease. Nevertheless they started construction, a process remembered to be mysterious and miraculous.

Manpower then came voluntarily from the members as well as from outside Muhammadiyah. Those who had not previously shown interest in it spent their time, money and energy in building the school. Whenever materials were short, there appeared villagers with pieces of bricks, a handful of cement and some iron bars. Food and snacks were provided in turn by villagers who did not what Muhammadiyah was. No assistance came from branches of Muhammadiyah at the subdistrict, district and regional levels, thus the school was purely the result of self-reliance of the members and fellow villagers.

The story suggests that the power of Muhammadiyah lies not just in its members but also in the masses, of which they constitute just a part. Only when the sincerity, spontaneity and enthusiasm of the members were appreciated and received by a wider circle could the programs bear fruit. For the members to hold this praiseworthy attitude, they should be confident of the necessity and benefit that the programs proposed by their leaders will bring to society.

It is a wonder that Muhammadiyah endorsed the community-based enlightening mission model, which highlights the importance of protecting and empowering those on the margins of society. To be effective its leaders should be aware of the widening gap between themselves and ordinary members. Only when their visions can be translated properly to ordinary members, and be appreciated and evoke empathy from them, may we talk about the possibility of success.

When progress is made, Muhammadiyah may free itself from the long-established image, a religious movement to build schools and hospitals, and it can then create a new image of a movement working to improve the life of all Indonesians. This image is closer to the ideals of its founder, Ahmad Dahlan, who, based on his reinterpretation of the Koranic verse Al-Maun, envisioned an Islamic society caring for the poor and the deprived.
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The writer, who attended the Muhammadiyah congress in Makassar, is a professor in cultural anthropology at Kangwon National University, South Korea.

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