Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Civil Society in Indonesia: The Potential and Limits of Muhammadiyah

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Civil Society in Indonesia: The Potential and Limits of Muhammadiyah

Article excerpt

Muhammadiyah is an Indonesian Islamic social organization well known for providing education and health services. It views these activities as the best way for propagating Islam, empowering the ummah and improving the social conditions of Muslims. (1) Muhammadiyah was established in Jogjakarta in 1912, in the decade that saw the emergence of civil associations and political organizations in Indonesia on a national scale. Some observers have seen the decade, therefore, as the first flowering of civil society in Indonesia and the beginning of the nationalist movement in Indonesia (Abdullah 1999, pp. 4-6). (2)

The mushrooming of civil organizations followed the influx of ideas from both the West and the East. From the West, the fledgling Indonesian intellectual community learned about new political ideas and modern science; from the East, especially the Middle East, they learned about the Islamic reformist movement and its ideas about how to free Islam from the shackles of both ancient tradition and colonial rule (Maarif 1985, pp. 52-79; Noer 1980, pp. 37-179). A central issue was whether to fight colonialism through confrontational political struggle or through cultural struggle. In Indonesia, the intellectuals grouped themselves into different ideological groups: those who liked to apply Western ideas on Indonesian soil; those who liked to combine Western and native ideas; those who liked to combine Western and Islamic ideas; and those who preferred to maintain the existing combination of Islam and native tradition (Scherer 1985). Intellectuals also debated the appropriate strategies for dealing with colonialism.

These contending ideas constituted the ideological context in which Ahmad Dahlan founded Muhammadiyah. Ideologically, Dahlan was one of those who opted for a combination of Western and Islamic reformist ideas as a basis for his activities. His concern with the poverty and backwardness of the people of the Netherlands East Indies, the majority of whom belonged to the Islamic ummah, led him to the fields of education and health. Within the politically restrictive colonial environment, Dahlan adopted a by-and-large co-operative, though not wholly uncritical, attitude towards the colonial government (Suminto 1985, pp. 36-37, 193-98). This co-operative attitude became the basic policy for Muhammadiyah throughout its history.

Reflecting the movement's objective of drawing from Western and Islamic reformist ideas, Muhammadiyah schools and hospitals combine modern methods with the teaching of religious subjects. These Muhammadiyah institutions spread throughout the major islands of Indonesia. Today, Muhammadiyah's mission is still the same but despite substantial improvements, facilities in its schools, hospitals, and clinics are far from adequate.

Six years after its formal establishment, Muhammadiyah started its first modernist school; the first health clinic came in 1923 about a decade after the founding of the movement. (3) Today thousands of schools, including twenty-eight four-year colleges, and twenty-two hospitals around the country, operate under its name. (4) These rough statistics suggest the breadth and depth of Muhammadiyah's reach into the fabric of Indonesian society. Its problems and possibilities would reflect the problems and possibilities of civil society in Indonesia.

To assess Muhammadiyah's contribution to civil society, this paper looks at how the movement's internal dynamic works as a driving force as well as how it negotiates with the state bureaucracy in overcoming obstacles to its educational and health programmes. Muhammadiyah's relation with other social organizations also figures in these activities. This paper is based on interviews with people ranging from members of the Muhammadiyah's national office to those who have established and run a kindergarten, an elementary school, and a hospital at grassroots level. …

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