Thursday, January 05, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, January 5, 2005


Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta

During one sermon, the founder of Muhammadiyah, Ahmad Dahlan, elaborated on the Koranic chapter of al-Ma'un (concerning moral decay and lack of care for others), which, to the bewilderment of the audience, had been repeated during several sermons.

"Why are you repeating this?" asked one man in the audience.

"Do you really understood this chapter?" asked Ahmad Dahlan. "Yes, Kyai."

"Have you practiced it?"

"Yes, Kyai, every time we pray."

"That means you haven't practiced it in everyday life," Ahmad Dahlan admonished, while urging the audience to look around them for the very poor, take them home, give them decent clothes, food, and a room to stay.

The modest, but powerful responsibility greatly inspired some Muhammadiyah members to reach out to society and meet needs, which was later developed on a large scale -- covering schools, orphanages and hospitals. Not only that, the organization set up the distribution of zakat (the obligatory tax that Muslim must give), which was vital for the poverty eradication at that time. Furthermore, societies were advised to depart from irrational practices such as visiting tombs to ask for blessing, and to deconstruct people's extreme idolization of spiritual leaders. Islamic scholars were not part of the official government bureaucracy, but still secured prominent positions within societies.

With the spirit of Islam, Muhammadiyah schools tactfully adopted modern curricula, proved to have significantly contributed to the empowerment of people, who had been grossly marginalized both socially and economically during Dutch colonial rule. At a time when patriarchy was so pervasive, Muhammadiyah decisively addressed gender issues by establishing the autonomous Nasyi'atul Aisyiyah.

Steadily, Muhammadiyah alumni took over public positions such as physicians, teachers, bureaucrats and village chiefs, which had previously been dominated by Dutch-educated people. Its educational activities significantly functioned as agents of social change within societies.

Furthermore, Muhammadiyah promoted democratic values by emphasizing collective leadership, not individual, and pushing for egalitarian discussions on social issues.

Likewise, Ahmad Dahlan was successful in spreading the tolerant side of Islam by displaying humility and nurturing warm relationships with leaders of Christian missionary groups in Yogyakarta, such as Reverend Baker and others.
This was clear evidence of Ahmad Dahlan's commitment to building a pluralistic society.

At present, Muhammadiyah has evolved into the second largest Muslim organization in Indonesia with a huge number of universities, schools, orphanages and hospitals spread throughout the archipelago. Its grassroots members and alumni have spread out and become prominent and active in both government and non-governmental organizations.
Such a historical perspective makes it clear that Muhammadiyah was never established to be directly "involved" in real politics, was not, until the collapse of the Soeharto regime in 1998. During the euphoria of that time, its outspoken leader -- who was also a prominent reformasi figure -- Amien Rais, established a "Muhammadiyah political party" called the National Mandate Party (PAN), which was formally based on a pluralistic platform.

Although it is not structurally under Muhammadiyah, the party became a political vehicle for Muhammadiyah's members to channel their political ambitions. Regrettably, Amien Rais never succeeded in becoming the country's president. Later, Muhammadiyah members became disappointed as many non-members of Muhammadiyah used PAN to advance their political aspirations. Worse still, PAN was attacked from many sides for having an ambiguous ideology -- secularists accused PAN of being too religious, while Islamists said too secular.

There are therefore several points to be considered. First, the "political failure" of Muhammadiyah proved that Muhammadiyah is not a political mass organization where the political leaders could sway the members to blindly follow them. It is the result of decades of educational activities where irrational worship towards spiritual leaders had been deconstructed and replaced by a rational way of thinking. The enlightened middle classes who were socially active in muamalah tradition proved to be more "social capital", rather than "political capital".

Second, it is also the nature of Muhammadiyah, whose members have also become active in other societal or political organizations. Uniting them in one political party proved to be unsuccessful and instead weakened the powerful benefits of spreading its members into other societal groups. Indeed, before and right after independence, many Muhammadiyah figures had been politically active, but their relationships were based more on middle-class networks -- traders or government bureaucrats.

Third, a political party can gradually undermine the social nature of the organization. During the heyday of PAN, for example, many academics from Muhammadiyah universities "abandoned" teaching and joined the party to become politicians and inevitably got involved in "cheap" power struggles among fellow members. If this trend continues, it could eventually annihilate the educational nature of the organization.

Fourth, as there are always ongoing debates in any organization, a political party can instead polarize Muhammadiyah members. Some might manipulate the debates to amplify their political standing in public, dashing the hopes to have justifiable solutions. For example, the recent showdown between the "puritans" and "inclusivists/liberals" can be unnecessarily dragged into the political arena and threaten the cohesion of the organization.

In conclusion, small sections within Muhammadiyah, who were so "hungry" to form a new political party after being disappointed with PAN, should think seriously before implementing the idea. History tells us that Muhammadiyah was able to evolve into a commanding organization only when it distanced itself from practical politics. The noble agendas laid down by Ahmad Dahlan of enhancing social empowerment through education and promoting democratic virtues of tolerance, pluralism and egalitarianism might never be achieved if politics is mixed in. In the long run, making Muhammadiyah more socially inclusive, not politically exclusive, is far more beneficial.

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