Nurcholish Madjid Nurcholish Madjid

Martin van Bruinessen: Nurcholish Madjid, Indonesia’s New Order, and the rise of the Muslim middle by class

Nurcholish Madjid, Indonesia’s best know Muslim intellectual, died in August last year after a prolonged and painful illness. At the time of his death, the country appeared to be drifting away into increasing religious intolerance: physical attacks by radical Muslims on makeshift churches and assaults on the main centre of the Ahmadiyah movement; mob demonstrations and death threats against the Liberal Islam Network; and a series of fatwas in which Indonesia’s Ulama Council, once a paragon of moderation, inveighed against ‘liberal Islam,’ secularism and religious pluralism, forbade inter-religious prayer meetings and reinforced earlier bans on inter-religious marriage. The days in which Nurcholish’ voice of moderation and inter-religious understanding was almost hegemonic, at least in the media, are rapidly fading away, and memories of Nurcholish resonate with nostalgia for times of greater harmony.

Nurcholish’ career as a public intellectual was closely correlated with the emergence and demise of Indonesia’s New Order, the political system put in place by General Suharto and his advisors. He was a prominent member of the student generation of 1966, which played an active role in the demonstrations that weakened Sukarno and prepared the way for Suharto’s final takeover in 1966 and many members of which were soon to fill the ranks of the New Order’s civilian elite. In that crucial year he was elected the chairman of the most important Muslim student union, HMI — a position he held for two consecutive three-year terms. A number of provocative public statements he made about the need to rethink petrified modes of Muslim thought and patterns of action in the name of Islam received wide press coverage and gave him the reputation of chief legitimiser of the New Order’s policies towards Islam. His statements could be, and were, read as a devastating critique of the existing Muslim parties and organisations, their obsession with the ideal of an Islamic state, and the general staleness of their religious ideas. A comment he made on secularisation as the ‘de-sacralisation’ of concepts and institutions that had been turned into sacred objects by the Muslim community was misread as a call for secularism. This all went down well with the regime, which was bent on depoliticising society and destroying the political muscle of Islam, but it earned Nurcholish the lasting enmity of many of the older generation of Muslim political leaders – especially those of the Masyumi party, who had been jailed or pushed into the political margin by Sukarno and were never rehabilitated under Suharto.

In the final days of Suharto’s rule, when the president made a last-ditch attempt to form a new cabinet in response to the ever louder protests and calls for reform and invited nine Muslim leaders to give him advice, Nurcholish was the only one who had the courage to tell Suharto in polite words that those calls for reform meant that the people wanted him to step down. The new cabinet fell through because some key ministers deserted; Suharto desisted from another attempt and resigned, handing over the presidency to his deputy, B.J. Habibie. This was the other side of Nurcholish’ position as New Order legitimiser: he could withhold legitimisation, as he had been one of the few who could exercise the moderate criticism of a loyal but independent supporter of the regime. Unlike many others, including some who once had been vocal critics, Nurcholish never lost his independence.

The impact of Nurcholish’ thought on the ideas and attitudes of the educated members of his own generation and the generations following can hardly be overestimated. At a time of rapid economic and social change, he argued for a rational and dynamic interpretation of Islam, in which change and development are natural processes and God is the only unchangeable Truth. The essence of Islam is submission to God; established practices and received ideas should not be made into sacred icons, for that would be tantamount to shirk. Nurcholish also imparted upon his followers a taste for wide-ranging and eclectic reading. In his numerous lectures and papers, quotations of Quranic verses and references to American sociologists and such thinkers as Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre stand side by side. Doctoral studies at the University of Chicago during 1978-84, under Leonard Binder and Fazlur Rahman, further broadened his horizon. He wrote his dissertation on reason and revelation in the thought of Ibn Taymiya, the thinker most venerated by the Islamists who were his opponents at home, and his first major public statement upon return was a collection of translations of Muslim philosophical thinkers, from Kindi and Farabi to Afghani and Abduh, with a lengthy introduction on the intellectual heritage of Islam.

Nurcholish saw himself, and wished to be seen, as standing in a reform-minded and philosophically oriented Muslim intellectual tradition, and he was anxious to point out the genealogy of the ideas for which some of the old Masyumi leaders branded him a heretic. During his years in Chicago, he entered into correspondence with another Masyumi leader, the moderate Mohammad Roem, to explain his ideas in a form acceptable to the older man, and he made sure copies of this correspondence were – against Roem’s wishes – widely disseminated. Roem was famous as one of the men who had negotiated Indonesia’s independence, a former minister in several cabinets, and a Masyumi politician who had always had excellent relations with secular nationalists; recognition by Roem was very important to Nurcholish, for it gave him, as it were, a legitimate pedigree in Indonesia’s Islamic movement and pointed to a respected earlier case of Muslim accommodation with secular nationalism.

For Nurcholish, there was no contradiction between devotion to Islam and nationalism. Throughout his career he frequently made the argument, in one form or another, that the Indonesian nation owed its existence to Islam, for it had been Muslim rulers who had led the struggle against colonial occupation, and Muslim traders who united the archipelago through their trading networks and their lingua franca, Malay. The only art forms that were all-Indonesian and not specific to a single ethnic group are those associated with Islam, such as the musical qasidah and dangdut genres, with their Arab and Indian Ocean influences. One senses in Nurcholish’ understanding of ‘Indonesian-ness’ the influence of Marshall Hodgson’s concept of ‘Islamicate’ civilisation, with which he became acquainted during his stay in Chicago. Christians, Hindus and Buddhists are equal citizens in Nurcholish’ view of Indonesian society, but Islam provides the overarching civilisational unity.

The New Order regime, incidentally, emphasised that it was the state ideology of Pancasila that united the nation in all its ethnic and religious diversity. Pancasila stood for racial, religious and class harmony; it could be accommodated with Islamic values — some even claimed it was essentially Islamic — but it was incompatible with the idea of an Islamic state. The mid-1980s were a period of confrontation, occasionally violent, between the regime and its radical Muslim critics over Pancasila, which the latter saw as a pagan philosophy in the service of non-Muslim interests. Nurcholish was one of the first Muslim public personalities to openly endorse the government’s Pancasila policy, and he was, as could be expected, taken to task for it by his old critics. At a high-profile international conference on Islamic studies in Jakarta in 1985, where one American Muslim participant caused much embarrassment by asking what ‘this business about Pancasila’ was, and the Indonesians were at a loss for words (dozens and possibly even hundreds of demonstrators had been killed the army in a protest action the previous year), Fazlur Rahman came to Nurcholish’ support and said that perhaps Pancasila should be seen as the Indonesian tafsir (exegesis) of Islam — a response that visibly made Nurcholish very happy.

Tense relations between Muslims and the Christian minority constituted an important but mostly hidden backdrop to the history of the New Order, occasionally erupting in riots and attacks on churches but soon submerged again, until violent power struggles became a dominant part of the political scene after the fall of Suharto. Christians had long been overrepresented in business, the bureaucracy and the armed forces, partly due to the superior education they owed to Dutch colonial rule and missionary schools. Muslim leaders, especially the old Masyumi politicians, were obsessed by perceived Christian efforts to undermine the Muslim umma, to convert nominal Muslims and to expand their control of key positions in the state apparatus through a conspiracy of businessmen, military officers and foreign sponsors. Against that background Nurcholish’ friendly relations with (at least some of) his Christian peers and his consistent defence of the thesis that Jews and Christians are the Muslims’ brothers-in-faith and that in several passages the Qur’an subsumes them under the label of Muslims represented a major departure from the apologetic or hostile attitudes of earlier reformist Muslim leaders. Along with the traditionalist leader Abdurrahman Wahid, who was to become an even more committed defender of the rights of religious minorities, Nurcholish was an effective builder of bridges between religious communities: between Muslims and Christians, but with Hindus and Buddhists (who, he insisted, should also be considered as ahl al-kitab, ‘People of the Book’).

He did share the elder leaders’ concern about the intentions of some Christian leaders, however, and was wary of being used as a legitimiser of efforts to spread Christianity and to weaken Islam. In the Monitor affair, he responded furiously to what he believed was a deliberate insult to Islam. The popular magazine Monitor, published by Indonesia’s largest, Catholic-owned, press conglomerate, printed in its October 1990 issue the results of a popularity poll that showed the Prophet Muhammad ranking number 11 among the persons most admired by the magazine’s readers. All others were living persons, number one unsurprisingly being president Suharto (it would of course have been unthinkable for Monitor to show Suharto in any other position). Politicians, a pop singer, a general, Saddam Hussein, and the magazine’s editor outranked the Prophet. Muslim radicals, who had long nurtured grievances against the Christian domination of the press, jumped to the occasion and organised angry and violent demonstrations against the magazine’s offices. The affair appeared to unite moderates and radicals in shared indignation. When the leading daily of the same group tried to have Nurcholish make a conciliatory statement to deflate the issue, he felt he was being used and became outraged. He made some uncharacteristically harsh comments on the issue in those days; it was left to Abdurrahman Wahid to try to calm down the situation and remind his fellow Muslims that the Prophet had given the example of patience and forgiving in the face of insults.

Years later, the affair still appeared to be on his mind when he spoke (at a conference on Islam in the 21st century, held in Leiden in 1996) of the religious tensions facing Indonesia. He spoke of Christian efforts to spread their religion and keep the Muslims in their subjugated position, and of Muslim tolerance that went unanswered; he seemed to have adopted the perceptions of the Masyumi leaders in the early years of the New Order. These tensions remained present and boded ill for the future, he said, but for one favourable factor: the government’s development policies and the educational revolution, which benefited especially the relatively underprivileged Muslim masses.

Young educated Muslims of Nurcholish’ generation were in fact among the main beneficiaries of the rapid economic growth and expansion of education during the New Order period. They were around when new opportunities opened up in business and the professions, in politics and the bureaucracy. The peer network of HMI alumni moreover provided strong mutual support, and the entire cohort experienced unprecedented social mobility, which enabled them to facilitate the same process for younger HMI members and alumni. By the mid 1980s, people became aware that a Muslim middle class has come into existence: Muslim in cultural background and self-identification, middle class in economic position and taste for consumption. A large proportion of this new Muslim middle class had been HMI members, and many looked up to Nurcholish as the thinker who best embodied Muslim modernity.

Nurcholish returned from Chicago convinced that a strong middle class was a necessary condition for democratisation, and from that time on his efforts appeared to be focussed on educating and Islamising the Indonesian middle class. Aided by friends of his HMI days who were experienced organisers and others who were economically successful, he set up a sophisticated ‘religious studies club’ named Paramadina, which was to disseminate ‘inclusive’ religious thought and stimulate intellectual debate. Paramadina provided a new type of religious sermons, or rather seminar lectures, presented in posh modern surroundings, catering to the spiritual needs and intellectual ambitions of the new Muslim middle class. The country’s leading intellectuals were invited to deliver lectures at Paramadina, in tandem with a response in the form of a second lecture by Nurcholish himself and followed by a very free discussion. This was so successful that Paramadina had to gradually increase the number of lectures and offer courses on a broader range of religious subjects, among which Sufism became increasingly prominent and the positive appreciation of other religions remained a conspicuous element. Paramadina has played an important role in enriching the intellectual content of public discourse on Islam, and it has not shied away from controversial issues.

Nurcholish continued to value his independence highly; he never accepted prestigious and well-paid official positions and, unlike many of his peers, stuck to a very modest, simple lifestyle. His prestige, however, was enormous; many former HMI activists reached high positions in politics, the media, business, education and the bureaucracy, and they kept looking towards Nurcholish for moral and intellectual guidance. The government party Golkar, which in the early 1970s was dominated by secular-minded and somewhat ‘Islamophobic’ bureaucrats and military officers, was gradually Islamised from inside by HMI members who worked their way up from the bottom, and by the end of the New Order period, the Islamic wing had come to dominate Golkar. In most of the new political parties established after the fall of Suharto, former HMI activists were much in evidence. In the first freely elected parliament, the number of delegates with HMI affiliation was over fifty per cent — more seats than any single party had won. In an important sense, these elections crowned the success of HMI’s political ascension and of Nurcholish’ project of building a strong Muslim middle class as a step towards establishing liberal democracy.

At the same time, Nurcholish continued to be the target of often fierce criticism, from the right as well as the left. Conservatives and hardliners objected strongly to his liberal religious views and his pluralistic acceptance of divergent views within Islam as well of other religions. The controversies that had surrounded him in the beginning of his career stayed with him throughout his life. In some of the attacks on Nurcholish and his associates in the Islamist media one also senses something of a class antagonism, expressions of disgust with the lifestyle of the affluent middle class with which Nurcholish became increasingly associated. This element is more explicitly present in some of the criticism from the left, inspired by liberation theology. Early in his career, Nurcholish spoke much of social justice as a core element of Islam’s message and this dimension of his thought, some young critics assert, has gradually disappeared while he was serving the middle classes. His ‘bourgeois pluralism’ (as one critical book is titled) engages with relations between religions but is blind to the greed and corruption of the middle class and the blatant impoverishment of the masses.

Yet in an important sense these left-wing critics also owe much to Nurcholish and continue aspects of his work. He did not establish a school of thought and did not groom favourites as successors. Rather, he stimulated many younger people to think independently and facilitated their intellectual development. Although Paramadina was ‘his’ forum to present his thought to a wider audience, he never imposed his own version of Islam on the younger people who came to work there and who each have their own concerns and personal spiritual and intellectual interests, often quite different from his. The role of provocative, innovative and liberating thinker and broker of ideas that he played for his own generation is now played by a highly varied group of younger men and women, in various institutions, NGOs and informal networks. In his youth, Nurcholish was often called ‘the young Natsir,’ after the most influential reformist thinker of an earlier generation. It is his lasting merit that there are many ‘young Nurcholishes,’ none of them a clone of the original.

Martin van Bruinessen




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