Saturday, November 7, 2009

Anticipating Indonesian landscape changing of Muslims

We can say that Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah are mainstream or mainline because their members constitute a large majority of Muslims in Indonesia. By this numerical figure one would be optimistic of the prospect of the moderate character of this
nation. However this character is not permanent. It should not be mistaken that such a stance did not occur until few years after the declaration of independence when nationalist leaders convinced Muslim leaders to give up the demand for an Islamic state to save the common agenda of establishing an independent state. Earlier Muslim leaders including those from the two major organizations shared the demand for a special position of Islam, as a majority religion, in the constitution.

It is unfortunate that the generosity of the mainstream to maintain this moderate character does not run parallel with their economic situation. Only by the fact that Muslims constitute 85 percent of total population would those unfamiliar with Indonesian Islam expect Islam to play a prominent role in public life.

But this is not the case. Despite the increasing representation of Islamic activities and symbols in daily life and media, an unprecedented share of economy is not sufficiently distributed to members of the mainstream Islam. The large majority constituent of the two mainstream organizations are economically left behind, especially those of Nahdlatul Ulama background who continue to live underdeveloped in both rural and urban areas.

I do not mean to echo the Islamist argument of a systemic effort of economic marginalization of Muslim. This is a natural effect of the concentration of resource distribution among few elites and major companies; many of them are unfortunately Muslim by faith. The majority naturally are prone to fall victim to this problem of economic distribution.

Compared to Malaysia, this is a contrast. With the total Muslim population accounting for no more than 60 percent, Islam is the only official religion and more importantly Malay Muslims control significant, if not dominant, portions of economic and political resources.

The underdevelopment of mainstream Muslims is a result of long-term marginalization of Islam during the Soeharto era whose fear of Islamic revivalism forced him to allow the control of resources by capital owners many of whom were coincidentally non-Muslims.

It was not until 1990s when Soeharto started to realize the important of Muslim political support he started to distribute resources to Muslims. But in the short period toward the end of his power, Soeharto's Muslim-friendly policy was not enough to reverse the unequal distribution of resources. Now Indonesia has become a market of ideas. Everybody has an equal right to propagate their ideas including those promoting a larger role of Islam in public and even a change of constitution.

At this point the demand of many Muslim groups is symbolical in the form of advocacy for the implementation of sharia. However, if the situation is unchanged, it can strengthen the aspiration for a broader representation of Islam in public life through sharia application advocated by those outside the mainstream circle.

So far this sharia advocacy has been mainly seen as a threat to state ideology and national integrity. But the unchanged situation of the economic fate of the mainstream Muslims may advise them that a radical policy is needed to change the course.

It is at this point that some of those in the mainstream circle would see a common ground with sharia advocacy propagated by the marginal Islamist groups. In the eyes of the underdeveloped, the sharia advocacy can appear as no longer a threat to state ideology or national integrity, but as an option to improve a larger accommodation of Islam that will strengthen their economic situation.

In this situation a changing of Muslim landscape should be anticipated. The direction seems to move toward the strengthening of a more politicized understanding of Islam; that is being a Muslim that demands a larger role of Islam in public life.
Recently I encountered local leaders of Nahdatul Ulama who were complaining of a weakening commitment of constituent (jama'ah) to the organization (jam'iyah). This is shown by the declining charity for the organization's activities. An NU leader gave an illustrative comparison: "In the past people came to NU office to give charity; now people come to the NU office only when they can expect to receive charity." It is logical that when the mainstream organizations lost social roles, especially in empowering the economy of their constituents, they will lose authority.

Unless there is a dramatic policy that will strengthen the economic fate of the mainstream as well as empowering the social roles of the mainstream Muslim organizations, it is likely that politically minded Muslims will grow toward a majority position that encompasses those affiliated with the mainline organizations. By membership or affiliation, the mainline groups may still hold the majority, but by political view those with aspiration for a broader political role of Islam can take over the current hold of the moderates.

By Mohammad Iqbal Ahnaf, Wellington, New Zealand The writer works at the Centre for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), Universitas Gadjah Mada, and is a PhD student at the School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington, New

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