Friday, October 06, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, October 5, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman,
Contributor, Jakarta

Muslim scholar and activist Moeslim Abdurrahman cannot hide his anxiety.

Conservatism is allegedly growing within Muhammadiyah, the country's second-largest Muslim organization, which claims to have 30 million members in Indonesia.

"I'm worried about the future of Muhammadiyah, once dubbed a modernist and reformist organization. Exclusivism and intolerance seem to be growing even stronger now," he told The Jakarta Post at his office in Mampang, South Jakarta.

During Tanwir (a national leadership meeting) in Bali, January 2002, together with other leaders of Muhammadiyah, Moeslim conceptualized a dakwah kultural (cultural preaching approach) that was aimed at deconstructing the monolithic interpretation of Islamic religiosity by accommodating the cultural and local values that are rich in pluralistic Indonesian society.

Nevertheless, there was strong resistance from conservative sections of Muhammadiyah, which suspected dakwah kultural as having the potential to accommodate bid'ah (heresy), regarded as being against the founding ideal of Muhammadiyah, established in 1912 by K. H. Ahmad Dahlan, to purify Islam from such belief.

As the debate continued, many narrowly interpreted dakwah kultural as a mere expression of the spread of Islamic teaching through the arts such as music and songs. During the following Tanwir in Makassar, June 2003, the concept was further distorted to the "Islamization" of the arts.

"Bid'ah should be re-interpreted," he argued, adding that although Islam has a universal principle, in practice it has been translated into ethnolocal Islam such as Nahdlatul Ulama in Java, Nahdlatul Wathan (Nusa Tenggara Barat), Mathlaul Anwar (Banten) and Darul Dakwah wal-Irsyad (Makassar).

"Nevertheless, many young members of Muhammadiyah who promote pluralism seem to do it as a mere defense, while blaming their previous leaders for destroying locality with their reform movement," Moeslim said, pointing that the effort has lost its substance.

Born Aug 8, 1948 to a Muhammadiyah family in Lamongan, East Java, after completing elementary school, he was sent by his parents to Raudlatul Ilmiyah Islamic boarding school in Kertosono. His parents hoped that he would become a young cleric.

But Moeslim insisted on continuing his education. Registering as a student of the Tarbiyah Program at Muhammadiyah Surakarta University and soon becoming active in student organizations, his understanding of Islamic religiosity was gradually transformed from the normative to the empirical domain, from monolithic to pluralistic interpretation.

Moeslim later received his Masters and PhD in anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana, U.S.

Continuing as a social activist, he became increasingly assured that the level of piety of each individual is different, depending on social and cultural factors that shape their understanding of religious doctrine.

"But they have the right to claim that they are close to God," he said in between puffs of a cigarette during a breaking-of-the-fast gathering at his office.

Moeslim befriended young members of Nahdlatul Ulama such as some of those at the Institute of the Empowerment of Pesantren and Society (P3M), whom he considered more progressive than those at Muhammadiyah.

He became a member of the Advisory Board of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), director of the Ma'arif Institute for Culture and Humanity and director of the Institute of Social Science Development (LPIS).

He once worked as a civil servant at the research and development department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs for 12 years. In the media sector, he was assistant to the editor-in-chief of Pelita daily and head of research at the Post for two years and one year respectively.

He declined positions as a permanent member of teaching staff, and instead opted to teach part-time in the graduate program of anthropology and political science of the University of Indonesia and the graduate program in anthropology and philosophy at Muhammadiyah Surakarta University.

He was also extensively involved in social activism to promote understanding that plurality is a fact of life in Indonesia, with all its diversity.

In 2000, Muhammadiyah chairman Ahmad Syafi'i Maarif persuaded him to return to Muhammadiyah. Moeslim headed the division for the empowerment of laborers, farmers and fisherman of Muhammadiyah Central Board besides being a director of al-Ma'un Institute, an organization he formed to realize his idealism.

Asked why what he perceived a growing conservatism and intolerance were to be found in Muhammadiyah, Moeslim replied, "Due to feelings of inferiority. Generally, Muslims particularly those in Muhammadiyah, feel they have lost the battle in almost every field," he said.

"For example, many perceive the growing number of non-Muslim schools in big cities as a threat -- as rivals that could disturb the existence and aqidah (religious doctrine) of the Muslim ones," he said.

It is because of this that even the celebration of Christmas was treated as a theological rather than social matter, he said with regret.

He continued that as globalization is irresistible, there are two possible reactions from society: "First is anxiety that everything will be attacked and replaced by new norms and beliefs. Second, total rejection of change -- toward everything coming from outside, followed by an exclusivist attitude."

"The first is a common phenomenon that can be found in any society, any organization, or any organized religion, but the second is dangerous. I'm worried -- I hope I'm mistaken -- that Muhammadiyah is showing signs of the second reaction. If that's the case, Muhammadiyah might end up as a mere community movement," he warned, emphasizing that Muhammadayh was originally conceived as an urban movement.

During the 45th Muktamar (national congress) of Muhammadiyah in Malang in July 2005, which saw an end to Ahmad Syafi'i Maarif's leadership, Moeslim and other progressive leaders such as Amin Abdullah and Abdul Munir Mulkhan were sidelined by the perceived growing number of conservatives in Muhammadiyah.

Muhammadiyah scholar Pradana Boy Zulian Thobibul Fata, who is currently writing a thesis on the conservative and liberal forces within Muhammadiyah at the Australian National University, said many believed that the new leadership had flirted with powerful conservative wings to ensure their election.

But Moeslim is not losing hope. He is surrounded by a number of young and progressive Muhammadiyah members who, with his help, formed a loose organization, Muhammadiyah Youth Intellectual Network (JIMM) in 2003.

It consists of liberal-minded members such as Zuly Qodir, Tuty Alawiah, Piet Khaidir, Ahmad Fuad Fanani, Andar Nubowo and others.

Scholar Pradana Boy said that Moeslim in pinning a lot hope on these young members to provide Muhammadiyah with a new image -- now or in the future -- although he urged JIMM to be more independent and to also reach out to other senior leaders.

"The problem is that JIMM has difficulty in finding other senior intellectual patrons other than Moeslim, as Muhammadiyah lacks leaders like him with a high level of intellectuality but with strong commitment to nurture younger members," he said.

He added that in spite of this, the battle for minds within Muhammadiyah is unstoppable.

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