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Jakarta Post

Insight: Muhammadiyah and Indonesia'€™s international identity

  • Rizal Sukma

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, August 4, 2015   /  04:17 pm

This week, Muhammadiyah, the oldest and second-largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, will hold its 47th congress in Makassar, South Sulawesi. The congress is significant for at least two reasons.

This will be the first congress it has held since it turned 100 years old. For Muhammadiyah, it also means it needs to discuss the key challenges it is likely to face and what sort of institution-building steps it needs to take in order to overcome these challenges. In other words, during the congress, Muhammadiyah will have to decide what direction it will take over the next 100 years.

During the congress Muhammadiyah will elect new 13 leaders, of which the position of chairman always attracts the most attention. The current chairman, Din Syamsuddin, cannot run again as he has served for two consecutive periods. Finding someone with the same qualifications as Din to lead Muhammadiyah will be a huge challenge. Din has indeed had a huge impact on the organization.

In fact, under Din, Muhammadiyah has played a role beyond its traditional domain of education, health, social welfare and da'€™wah (preaching of Islam). It has expanded its role from a national player to an international actor. That international role has served as an important aspect that has not only shaped Indonesia'€™s international identity but has also defined the country'€™s international standing within the community of nations over the last 10 years.

Indeed, the last decade was a difficult period for Indonesia. In the post-9/11 world, many in the West increasingly saw Islam as the source of the problem. Mutual suspicion ensued. As the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia was faced with a set of complex challenges. The key challenge at that time was how to prevent a '€œclash of civilizations'€ and present Indonesian Islam as a moderate voice seeking to bridge the perception gap between the West and the Muslim world.

The Indonesian government embarked on a foreign policy that sought to project the image of a moderate, tolerant and progressive Muslim country. Together with democracy, then foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda presented moderate Islam as a key asset in Indonesia'€™s foreign policy. The use of public diplomacy has been instrumental in projecting Indonesia as a moderating voice within the Muslim world and between the Muslim world and the West.

Without the support of Muhammadiyah leaders, it would not have been possible for the Indonesian government to achieve such public diplomacy objectives. It was Muhammadiyah leaders, together with other moderate Muslim leaders in other organizations such Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) who played an instrumental role in presenting the moderate face of Indonesian Islam in the international arena. It was Muhammadiyah leaders who traveled around the world, engaged in many interfaith dialogues with various religious communities abroad and explained about Islam.

Muhammadiyah'€™s role in shaping Indonesia'€™s international identity, however, went well beyond active participation in government-sponsored interfaith dialogues. There are two other areas where Muhammadiyah'€™s international engagement has been visible.

First, on its own initiative, Muhammadiyah played an active role in peace-building initiatives in the region. For example, Muhammadiyah is active in contributing to the peace process in Mindanao in the Philippines and in southern Thailand. These sort of activities and involvement abroad have clearly strengthened the image of Indonesian Islam as rahmatan lil alamin (blessing to the world).

Second, since 2005, Muhammadiyah has started to strengthen its capacity in disaster relief and management. Its expertise in this area has improved tremendously since then. Muhammadiyah has been involved in disaster relief efforts outside the country, most recently in Nepal. For Muhammadiyah, helping those in need in a post-disaster environment is a duty. Again, from this kind of work, Muhammadiyah is seen as an embodiment of Indonesia'€™s Islam strongly anchored in the tradition of respecting universal humanitarian values.

Din has been the key mover in these three areas of international engagement. Without his personal interest and engagement '€” with the support of growing numbers of young Muhammadiyah leaders such Hajriyanto Y. Thohari, Abdul Mu'€™ti, Rahma Hussein, Hilman Latief, and Fajar Ul-Haq '€” it would be difficult to imagine how interfaith dialogue, peace-building and disaster relief could have become a new core of Muhammadiyah'€™s contribution to Indonesia and the world.

Chairman Din will soon hand over the leadership of Muhammadiyah to a new leader. We hope the next leader will demonstrate the same passion and vigor to preserve Muhammadiyah'€™s role as the bastion of moderation in Indonesia and the world.

We salute chairman Din and welcome the next new chairman.

The author is executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and head of the international cooperation division of Muhammadiyah'€™s central executive board 2005-2010 and 2010-2015.

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