Indonesian Muslim Body Celebrates 100 Years, Stays True to Moderate Roots
Zakir Hussain – Straits Times
Jakarta. Indonesia’s oldest nationwide Muslim organization celebrated its 100th anniversary on Sunday with marching bands, dancers and a hip-hop performance for an audience of 50,000 at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.
It was the second time that Muhammadiyah celebrated its centenary; the first was three years ago, following the Islamic calendar.
This knack for making the most of both worlds is typical of the organization started in Yogyakarta in 1912 by court official and Islamic scholar Ahmad Dahlan to counter Christian evangelical activity by the Dutch.
Since then, the group has become a force in education and social services, with 30 million members and a network of over 5,500 primary, middle and high schools, 172 tertiary institutions, 457 clinics and hospitals, and over 6,000 mosques.
Now, it is seeking to reinvigorate its appeal by championing the welfare of Indonesians at a time when many feel the country should have greater control over its natural resources, and it hopes this activist stance will lift its image.
“Muhammadiyah is no longer the key player it was since independence,” chairman Din Syamsuddin told reporters last Friday.
Even as the organization keeps its distance from party politics, its chairman has been vocal in opposing various government policies.
It recently mobilized several like-minded groups and individuals to petition the Constitutional Court for judicial review of a 2001 oil and gas law, among others, on grounds that upstream oil and gas regulator BPMigas had violated the national interest and let foreign companies profit heavily from the sector.
Last week, in a ruling Din described as a “birthday present,” the court ruled in favor of the petitioners, and declared BPMigas unconstitutional — although the government says little will change in practice.
The Muhammadiyah chief wants to continue reviewing “unfair” laws as part of a “constitutional jihad” — a struggle to reform laws so they help the poor.
“We are not just a sociocultural organization… we must voice out more on behalf of marginalized groups,” he said.
“The laws of this country are primarily for Indonesians, and they must improve the welfare of Indonesians over foreigners.”
His remarks come at a time of rising economic nationalism and sentiment that a greater share of the country’s natural resources should directly benefit its citizens.
Academic Nur Munir, who teaches religion and Islamic law at President University in Cikarang, told The Straits Times: “They will try to seize the momentum from the anniversary to link their struggle in 1912 with what is taking place today, such as the continuing colonialism of the Indonesian economy by big foreign players.”
This push also comes as Indonesia’s opening up sees a shrill minority of Muslims who view both Muhammadiyah and the other large Muslim organisation — Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), founded in 1926 — as too broad-based and liberal, and join extreme groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), or Hizbut Tahrir.
Others view them as too conservative, and opt not to be affiliated with them.
As a result, although Muhammadiyah and NU still command the middle ground, they have to grapple with staying true to their moderate roots even as they work to retain their support.
And while both say an Islamic state is never called for, Nur Munir says Muhammadiyah does want a more Islamic-minded or Islam-oriented state, where greater recognition is given to Muslim practices like halal regulations.
Professor Mitsuo Nakamura of Japan’s Chiba University, a long-time scholar of Muhammadiyah, said Muhammadiyah’s strengths remain in education and social services, areas in which newer, more hardline groups cannot compete.
“The same is true in everyday life in villages, small cities and offices,” he added.
He feels Muhammadiyah can build on this, and help enhance a sense of national solidarity among Indonesians, as ethnic and religious conflict and regional egotism in some areas rear their ugly heads.
For one thing, in recent years, it has actively encouraged inter-religious dialogues.
This emphasis on key ideals like multiculturalism could also renew its appeal among the young, leaders say.
Muhammadiyah student leader Benny Pramula, 26, told The Straits Times that while the group has branches in almost every campus, it can do better.
“Many feel those who join the movement have political motivations, and stay away,” he said.
“But the majority of us are genuinely committed to community work.”
A Nation With Two ‘Majority Religions’
Many joke that Indonesia has not one, but two, majority religions: Muhammadiyah and its main rival Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), which has 40 million members today.
Muhammadiyah generally shuns traditional practices deeply rooted in local culture, such as visiting graves and venerating saints, and is seen as an umbrella group for modernist Muslims who have a more rational interpretation of scripture.
It also tends to have wider support among urban and middle-class Muslims and on university campuses. Former presidents Sukarno and Suharto were members.
Historian Taufik Abdullah said Muhammadiyah has contributed to the Islamization of Indonesia, with an emphasis on a moderate and tolerant faith.
NU, which is more traditionalist, was formed by religious leaders in response to growing puritanism, including among some early Muhammadiyah followers.
It commands wide support in rural areas and the Javanese heartland.
But followers of both groups come from all social classes and age groups.
Leaders of both groups get along today, as do many followers, and can be found in various political parties.
Former Muhammadiyah chief Amien Rais set up the National Mandate Party (PAN), but current chief Din Syamsuddin says the group must stay above the fray to be a moral force in society.
Former NU chief Abdurrahman Wahid was elected president in 1999. NU members also figure prominently in several parties.
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times