Conversation about Muhammadiyah: A Personal Notes
Dr. Kevin W. Fogg
My experience of Muhammadiyah extends across over two decades of my own life, but much more of the history of the organization. That is because, as a historian, I have encountered Muhammadiyah in the archives and in libraries, almost as much as I have witnessed the organization in action. In “Geheim” (Rahasia) political reports from the 1920s and 1930s in the Netherlands’ archive, I read about colonial officials concerned about the nationalist opinions of the organization but impressed by Muhammadiyah’s ability to organize schools and social action. In Muhammadiyah’s own papers from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s (both at the National Archives in Jakarta but also in regional collections like Makassar), I read about how the organization navigated independence and the chaotic politics that followed.
I was struck by how Muhammadiyah in the archives was often more political than the organization acknowledges today, for example, kicking out members who joined non-Islamic political parties leading up to the 1955 elections. Consistently, what I experienced in the archives of Muhammadiyah was women and men seeking the guidance of God for how to do good in the world—although often right path forward was disputed between members and with the rest of society.
I have also experienced Muhammadiyah in the classroom. This includes both when I have visited Indonesia and when teaching about Indonesia in the United Kingdom and the United States. Perhaps the most memorable experience in teaching about Muhammadiyah was when I was a lecturer at Oxford University in England, and we had a visit from Prof. Yunahar Ilyas (Deputy Chairman of Muhammadiyah) to speak on campus about Islam in Indonesia. At the end of the session, I asked him “What are the special characteristics of Islam in Indonesia, and why do people from other Muslim countries see Indonesia as unique?” Very confidently, he said that Indonesians have the same core faith as Muslims around the world, but “Indonesian Islam is able to laugh and smile.” This got a fantastic reaction out of the students and other scholars in attendance, and I have often thought about this since then when trying to explain to others my experience of Indonesia.
In my experiences in Muhammadiyah classrooms (both visiting local schools and speaking at Muhammadiyah universities), I am most excited by the questions that students have for me.It is clear that the younger generation of Muhammadiyah sees a role for the organization not only in uplifting Indonesia, but also connecting with the world. Connecting internationally may change some aspects of how Muhammadiyah operates (will major international concerns, like environmental protection, be brought back to Indonesia? will Indonesian best practices, like the fantastically clean administration of religious life, be copied by the world?), but I believe that the mass organization has much to share with other countries and other societies.
Perhaps my favorite experiences of Muhammadiyah have happened over tea. Some of this has been part of my research, like interviewing a former leader in his home in the South Sumatra mountain town of Pagar Alam, to hear about how a local leadership team targeted youth training in the 1960s. Sometimes this is purely social, like when a colleague in Mataram invited me around for tea and regaled me with stories of his madrasah days. Sometimes this is professional, like I met Prof. Abdul Muti for tea in London in 2014, to hear about his vision for the future of Muhammadiyah and the challenges faced at home and abroad.
I do not agree with everything I hear from Muhammadiyah colleagues—just as I know sometimes Muhammadiyah members have disputes with one another about issues. (One of the experiences that has been most difficult for me over the years is hearing pride from Muhammadiyah alumni about violence committed against the PKI in the 1960s. While I recognize that my native country [the USA] was very complicit in that violence, I still want to condemn political violence as the wrong way to solve differences in society, and I hope for peace as Indonesia—and the world—continue to face stark political divisions, including on questions of religion.) Still, I am confident that when I meet a colleague from Muhammadiyah for tea and conversation that it will be a discussion that is honest and deep-thinking.
Dr. Kevin W. Fogg is Associate Director of the Carolina Asia Center, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill