Vol. 5, No. 2, Hilman Latief

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

Philanthropy and “Muslim Citizenship” in Post-Suharto Indonesia

Hilman Latief*

* Board of Research, Publication and Community Development (LP3M), Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta, Jl. Lingkar Selatan, Tamantirto, Bantul Yogyakarta, Indonesia
e-mails: h_latief[at]yahoo.com; h_latief[at]umy.ac.id

DOI: doi.org/10.20495/seas.5.2_269

The spawning of Muslim philanthropic associations signifies an increasingly visible Islamic social and political activism, in Indonesia as elsewhere in the Muslim world. Acting as non-state welfare providers, the associations provide “social security” to poor and disadvantaged groups as a means of promoting the public good. In the intricate relationship between state and citizen in the world’s largest Muslim country, Muslim philanthropic ideals of promoting the well-being of the community (ummah) are in turn contested. Will they lead to a more democratic citizenship or to new types of clientelistic relations within a plural society? This research deals with the following questions: To what extent are welfare issues perceived by Muslim philanthropic organizations as shaping a new debate over “citizenship”? Can the Islamic concept of ummah be reconciled with modern ideas of citizenship?

Keywords: Islamic philanthropy, citizenship, welfare, rights, ummah


Welfare provision in a nation-state era has become an interesting issue to investigate. In many developing countries, economic growth is often hindered by an inadequacy of a reliable welfare system to benefit society at large. Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, which is inhabited by more than 250 million people, seems to have suffered from such an inadequacy. After the fall of Suharto in the late 1990s, Indonesia recovered from the financial and political crises and then started experiencing considerable economic growth and democratization. Nevertheless, an adequate welfare system that can reach all parts of society remains hard to find, despite the increased economic growth in the past 10 years. The public does not easily accept Indonesian government statistics showing a decrease in the number of people living below the poverty line. As such, statistical reports do not stop civic organizations from acting as non-state welfare providers by trying to provide aid for particular segments of society unreachable by state welfare agencies.

In this increasingly democratic country, civic organizations with different social, religious, and political orientations have flourished. In post-New Order Indonesia, civil society organizations have appeared publicly in different ways: as NGOs focusing on community development projects (Sinaga 1995; Hadiwinata 2003), as ethnic-based mass organizations supporting political institutions (Aspinall 2011), and as religion-based paramilitary groups focusing on the imposition of religiously inspired public norms (Hasan 2002; Jahroni 2004). Others have appeared as voluntary welfare associations attempting to offer an alternative to the state’s role in fulfilling social needs. These types of groups have had a massive presence in the public sphere. One may argue that such a lively civic engagement in the public sphere can lead society to the achievement of democratic values, in a way comparable to what happened in the New Order era. While this assumption may be true in a certain context, the increasing participation of society in Indonesia’s political sphere may also lead to other consequences that are not necessarily suitable for democratic values. Corruption, collusion, clientelism, new authoritarian culture, predatory political groupings, social disparity, and economic inequality are examples of how civil society in a democratic era is still “burdened” by undemocratic behavior (Aspinall and Van Klinken 2011).

This paper examines the roles of Muslim volunteer organizations—which are referred to as Islamic philanthropic associations—in shaping the nature of democratic culture in Indonesia and analyzes their contribution to the creation of a just society. Studies suggest that in the past three decades Islamic philanthropic associations in Indonesia have had a vibrant public presence, more than ever before. They have actively engaged in various types of social projects to cater for the poor, as well as had a profound impact on Muslim discourse on welfare issues (Fauzia 2013; Latief 2014; Retsikas 2014). The objectives of Islamic philanthropic organizations, as reflected in their organizational mission, include fostering social justice and bettering the welfare of society. In practice, Islamic philanthropic organizations provide aid for those in need, including low-income families, orphans, disaster victims, and refugees in city slums and disaster-affected areas. Given the wide range of Islamic philanthropic activism in Indonesia, this paper examines Muslims’ understanding of citizenship and how they interpret people’s rights and the state’s responsibility by analyzing two cases. The first case concerns the role of Islamic philanthropic organizations in validating the rights of the poor. The second is about how Islamic philanthropic organizations define the rights of underprivileged minority groups, including Shi’a and Ahmadiyya communities, and whether or not these groups deserve assistance from their fellow Muslims.

Citizenship: The State, Welfare, and Volunteerism

Analysts have tried to relate benevolent deeds and traditional philanthropy to the role of the state as the main welfare provider in certain countries. Some have looked at philanthropy vis-à-vis the state in offering social security. The public sector and voluntary sector are often situated at opposite poles. Philanthropic organizing is seen as a “social innovation” of civil society and an active counterbalance to “excessive state bureaucracy” (Villadsen 2011, 1059). From this point of view, philanthropic activism arose as a response to the state’s inadequacy in sustaining a welfare system and alleviating distress (Latief 2010; Fauzia 2013). Thus, the social and political engagement of philanthropic organizations in public life signifies an attempt by civil society to fill the vacuum left by the state (Clark 2004).

Other observers and practitioners seem to be interested in reconciling philanthropy and volunteer organizations with the state. According to this “co-operative paradigm,” the relationship between philanthropy and the state is marked by “collaboration, overlaps, and interdependency” (Villadsen 2011, 1059). Hence, the roles of volunteer organizations complement the state-based welfare agenda. In this respect, philanthropic associations can “help citizens to learn the civic virtues of trust, moderation, compromise, reciprocity, and the skills of democratic discussion and organization”; and through their well-organized social welfare-oriented activities, they can “link individuals’ private interests to broader community interests” (Eikenberry 2007, 858).

Philanthropic activities by volunteer organizations and individuals in order to strengthen grassroots social security are perceived mainly as individual and collective benevolent deeds. We should note that from the state’s perspective, volunteer activities may symbolize “active citizenship” as opposed to “passive citizenship” or “negative citizenship” (Finlayson 1994, 15–16; Stokes 2008, 86–87). In sum, to discuss charity and philanthropy in a nation-state, we can employ ideas of citizenship as a framework—not only to evaluate whether voluntarism has rightly functioned to stand in for the state’s role in offering welfare provision but, more important, to understand to what extent philanthropy is changing citizens’ attitudes toward the state and interpretations of the state. The engagement of philanthropic organizations signifies “the citizenship of contribution” (Finlayson 1994, 12), which differs from “the citizenship of entitlement.” It can be said, therefore, that volunteer activity in a Muslim charity can be an expression of citizenship in the second sense but at the same time it might also be driven by convictions that other citizens have certain welfare rights that a community needs to provide for.

Due to the multilayered meanings of citizenship and philanthropy in today’s world, it is interesting to relate the modern concept of citizenship to the Muslim idea of ummah. Ummah is a religious and ideological concept of the political community. In Islamic literature, the meaning of ummah is normatively juxtaposed with that of “nation,” which points to a group of people “to which an individual may have a sense of belonging and attachment” (Kamali 2009, 124, 130). The literature suggests that there are at least two streams of thought about how ummah is formulated in Muslim societies. The first is the inclusive nature of ummah. The normative meaning of ummah is associated with the Quranic concept of people or nation (syu’ub) and tribes (qabail), according to which the most notable people in the sight of God are the most righteous of them (Qur’anic Verses 49: 13). As for the concept of the state in early Islam, scholars refer to the Constitution of Medina, which is believed to be the earliest form of the state in Islamic history. Prophet Muhammad protected the residents of Medina, who comprised different tribes and religious groups (Lubis 2008, 79; Kamali 2009, 124). The inclusive nature of ummah is indicated in M. Hashim Kamali’s studies:

The Prophet-cum-head of state himself did not insist on embracing Islam as a precondition of citizenship. The Constitution of Medina acknowledged and declared the Jews of Medina to be part of the ummah that the Prophet organized immediately after his migration to Medina. Moreover, there is nowhere a requirement in the source of Shari’a to say that a non-Muslim resident, the so-called dhimmi, must become Muslim first before he or she can become a citizen of an Islamic state. (2009, 125)

The above quotation suggests that in the cosmopolitan city of Medina, religion was not the main factor determining the citizenship status of residents. This postulation is supported by the prophetic narratives (hadith) putting emphasis on the egalitarian principles within ummah: “People are equal as are the teeth of a comb. There is no merit for an Arab over a non-Arab; merit is by piety” (Salam 1997). Accordingly, “distinctions based on rank, wealth, kinship or race were not recognized” (ibid., 134). Therefore, people of a different race, religion, or ethnicity residing in an Islamic state are entitled to equal rights and treatment from the state.

Nevertheless, there is also an exclusive nature of citizenship in Muslim society that indicates an idea of exclusion. Based on historical accounts, observers relate the idea of citizenship in Muslim societies to dâr al-Islam (Abode of Peace, or House of Islam). In the classical form of the Islamic state, citizenship was—and could be—distinguished not only by people’s membership in political communities but also by their religious affiliation. According to this view, citizens are those who follow and embrace the Islamic faith in an Islamic state. Non-Muslim inhabitants (referred to as dhimmis) who take up domicile in an Islamic state are considered second-class citizens. Therefore, observers argue that the early form of citizenship in Muslim societies could be less egalitarian (Kamali 2009, 122) and thus non-Muslims could “neither acquire the equal status” nor enjoy their “equal rights” (Salam 1997, 134). As to the reasons why non-Muslims were considered second-class citizens in the early form of ummah, Nawaf A. Salam notes: “Islam, strictly speaking, did not know citizenship . . . and the ummah as a political community, being exclusively based on jus religionis, the Dhimmi(s) did not qualify for membership.” Salam also suggests that the dhimmi(s) “could not enjoy, accordingly, the same rights as those accorded to Muslims, but neither were they obligated by the same duties” (ibid.).1)

The aforementioned competing streams of understanding of citizenship are based on experiences of Muslim society where the modern concept of a nation-state was still absent. Both inclusive and exclusive concepts of citizenship in early Islam are relevant to our discussion about how the state and society attempt to satisfy the rights of citizens. It appears that the rise of a modern nation-state as a result of the decline of Western colonialism in Muslim regions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has changed Muslim understanding of citizenship.2) In a modern nation-state system, the political community is not restricted to certain religious groups but can cover all members of the community regardless of their religion. But among Muslims, the unity of ummah still becomes an essential issue. In fact, ummah has been a central idea that justifies Muslims’ social, economic, and political activities. Ummah has also been imagined as an ideal concept of the Islamic community, blurring geographical boundaries between Muslim nations. Inter-state relationships and globalization have transformed the elements of citizenship in general, and ummah in particular, from what was simply local society residing in certain regions into “global citizens” or “transnational citizenship” (Hutchings and Dannreuther 1999; Stokes 2000; 2004).

The emerging public appearance of Muslim social and political activism has had far-reaching consequences for the revitalization of the Muslim ideal of the “Islamic community.” Similar interests among community members, for example, have enabled Muslim societies with social concerns to establish and expand their networks nationally and internationally. In his study on transnational Islamic NGOs in Chad, Mayke Kaag argues that the flow of humanitarian aid brought by transnational Islamic NGOs is inspired by the “idea of Muslim solidarity” and has functioned as a way “to bring (more) people (closer) to God” (Kaag 2007, 94). Therefore, dakwah (Islamic proselytizing) is embedded in humanitarian activities, and vice versa. In areas where both Muslim and Christian missionaries are active, Islamic transnational philanthropic organizations provide humanitarian aid with the aim of competing with Christian NGOs. Kaag further notes, “it is generally considered a Muslim’s duty to help and expand the ummah, and it follows from the foregoing that this expansion can be interpreted in both a moral and a territorial way” (ibid.).

Similar findings can be seen in the work of Marie Juul Petersen, who questions whether the aid offered by Islamic philanthropic organizations is primarily for the sake of humanity or ummah. Petersen (2011) compares two types of “aid culture” that have characterized Muslim philanthropy: “Islamic aid culture” and “Western development culture.” She argues that Islamic aid associations from Gulf countries, such as the International Islamic Relief Organization (established in Jeddah in 1978) and the International Islamic Charitable Organization (established in Kuwait in 1984), with their “Islamic aid culture” apparently attempt to adopt a Western development perspective in their organizational mission. In the same way, Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid, two Islamic aid organizations founded in the United Kingdom in 1984 and 1985 respectively, emerged with a Western development style but at the same time “seek to maintain a strong relationship to the culture of Islamic aid” (ibid., 15).

More important, the role played by Islamic philanthropic organizations in the international arena, such as helping in disaster- and conflict-affected areas, can also be justified by the idea of solidarity and unity of the community of believers (Kochuyt 2009, 105–106; Petersen 2011, 146–147). In sum, domestic philanthropic associations in certain areas can be linked to global society, and thus they can operate not only to relieve the poor in their neighborhood but also to overcome crises on other continents. Ideas of the “global citizen” among Muslims have inspired and compelled advocates of Islamic volunteer organizations to operate in the international arena. Hence, the terms “global charities” and “transnational philanthropy” signify the rise of what Olivier Roy (2004) terms “globalized Islam” as a result of the globalization of ummah (Lubeck 2002).

Islamic Philanthropy and the Rights of the Poor Ummah

The proliferation of Islamic charities in Indonesia indicates that there has been an active effort within Muslim communities to define the rights and obligations of society. Muslims are urged to donate a portion of their wealth as a means of fulfilling religious duties and helping those in need. The practice of giving has increasingly become a concern among Muslims, who are willing either to pay zakat (almsgiving/Islamic tax) through charitable organizations or to directly channel their money to the masses. In the past, every Muslim whose wealth or annual wage reached a certain minimum amount (equivalent to the price of 85 grams of gold) was obligated to pay 2.5–5 percent zakat to appointed institutions, usually state-sponsored zakat organizations (‘amil). But over time the nature of zakat practice among Muslims has changed considerably thanks to the rise of community or civil society-based zakat organizations (see Benthall and Jourdan 2003).

There are at least two types of zakat organizations in Indonesia. The first are those established by civil society, referred to as Lembaga Amil Zakat (LAZ). While in the past zakat organizations were not registered, in recent times civil society-based zakat organizations, including charitable and humanitarian organizations, are required to be registered and recognized by the government, especially the Ministry of Law and Human Rights and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Some charitable organizations are registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs, as they appear publicly as humanitarian organizations even though they receive donations, including zakat, from the public. Although there are some zakat organizations that are legalized and recognized by the government, many small-scale ones have never registered but remain active in collecting zakat funds from Muslim benefactors.

The second type includes state-sponsored but autonomous zakat organizations known as Badan Amil Zakat Nasional (BAZNAS). The inception of BAZNAS has several implications. From a political perspective, the state policy on Islamic philanthropy indicates that the state facilitated Muslim religious and political aspirations by specifically and directly sponsoring BAZNAS. BAZNAS, which was officially legalized through Presidential Decree No. 8 Year 2001, is the only state-sponsored national zakat agency in Indonesia. Apart from having the right and opportunity to collect public funds through fund-raising and zakat collection from state workers and private companies, BAZNAS receives “subsidies” from the government. It is an autonomous and non-structural state agency under the supervision of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. According to the Zakat Organizing Law issued in 1999, BAZNAS had a similar duty, responsibility, and position to that of civil society-based zakat organizing. However, the 1999 Law was amended when in 2011 the government issued the Zakat Law. The latter provides more latitude for BAZNAS to manage zakat funds. BAZNAS functions not only as a regulator that can assess zakat organizing, but also as an operator that directly manages zakat funds. As a state-sponsored agency, BAZNAS has been able to build a partnership with both state bureaucracies and private corporations. Justified by the Zakat Law as well as government regulations at the provincial and district levels, which are referred to as “Shari’a-by law,” BAZNAS regularly obtains zakat funds from Muslim employees of government offices.

In 2010, BAZNAS claimed that the potential zakat funds to be collected in Indonesia totaled about 217 trillion rupiah. However, in practice the combined Indonesian zakat agencies collected only 1.5 trillion rupiah. In comparison, the government obtained 723.3 trillion rupiah in tax the same year. Because of this envisaged large amount of money, BAZNAS, together with other civil society-based zakat agencies, actively engages in fund-raising to finance various types of social enterprises. As the state-sponsored zakat agency, BAZNAS focuses on different forms of development projects; but most of them are under the framework of dakwah (religious proselytizing) and the notion of ummah. BAZNAS’s ideas of ummah, in particular, are expressed partly in the provision of scholarship for Muslim preachers as a way to combat Islamic liberalism and prevent Christianization.

It is worth noting that thanks to the enthusiasm of Indonesian zakat mobilization, which was in line with the rapid development of global Islamic charities, in 2007 Indonesia was entrusted to be the host of the inaugural World Zakat Forum. The forum or conference was formed by zakat collector activists in Indonesia and Malaysia and supported by other Muslim countries. It aims at energizing zakat activism and strengthening the vision of zakat organizations in projecting their capacity and potential. The first World Zakat Forum conference was held in 2010 in Yogyakarta, where hundreds of representatives of zakat organizations from many parts of the world met and shared their experience and vision of zakat. The title of the conference was “To Strengthen the Role of Zakat in Realizing the Welfare of the Ummah through International Zakat Network.” The second World Zakat Forum conference was held in New York City in 2014, with the title “Zakat for Global Welfare.” These two conferences, which were organized by Indonesian zakat activists, focused on welfare issues and poverty eradication around the world. At a glance, it seems that there has been a widening of orientation in determining targeted zakat beneficiaries, from simply strengthening the welfare of the ummah to global welfare.

Unlike other conferences on zakat that were focused mainly on the welfare of Islamic communities, the panelists in the second World Zakat Forum brought up some interesting points about inclusivity in zakat distribution. Zakat was defined in a broader context, such as how zakat funds could be used to overcome the problem of discrimination among minority groups, strengthen interfaith initiatives, and promote social solidarity with non-Muslims. It is under these circumstances that zakat for global welfare is defined. For Muslims in Indonesia as well as other countries, the points proposed in the second World Zakat Forum can shape the nature of philanthropic practices projected to protect underprivileged groups, including among the minority. This is partly because over the years minority groups have faced a lot of difficulty due to tensions with the majority.

As mentioned earlier, many people prefer channeling their zakat and charity funds directly to the poor. The practice of direct giving—with the masses queueing up for small amouts of cash—has characterized the practice of zakat distribution in Indonesia for many years. There have been some cases where this method of zakat distribution even caused deaths. The most notable incident occurred in mid-September 2008, when a local Muslim entrepreneur in Pasuruan, East Java, distributed his zakat. There was a disordered mass of people awaiting their share, and with the congestion and lack of fresh air, 21 people died and many others sustained serious injuries. This incident became a religious, legal, social, and political issue. The Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) insisted that direct zakat distribution was illegal and prohibited, because zakat funds should be redistributed to beneficiaries through appropriate institutions. The MUI emphasized that it was one’s right to deliver aid directly to people in need but that the extent to which zakat funds were distributed should be in line with Islamic principles. In an effort to prevent any harmful effects of zakat distribution, the MUI argued that distributing funds without engaging ‘amil, whether civil society-based or state-sponsored, was religiously inappropriate and socially unethical, because asking the poor to queue in front of the rich was humiliating to the poor.

The story does not end here. It snowballed, reaching wider audiences. One of the family members who distributed zakat in Pasuruan voiced his disagreement with the MUI’s opinion. While emphasizing his family’s right to share their wealth with the poor without necessarily engaging ‘amil, he argued that the government should thank his family for their willingness to help the poor rather than accusing them of wrongdoing. According to him, this tragedy was a result of the government’s lack of effort to alleviate poverty, especially after the increase in oil prices a few months before Ramadan. He also argued that since the government had not provided an appropriate welfare system the number of needy people in the countryside had increased rapidly.

On national television, talk shows hosted public debates to examine the issue. One of the speakers was the sociologist Imam B. Prasodjo, who said that the matter of poverty and social welfare was in the state’s hands but that local philanthropic organizations were also able to participate in empowering the community. Therefore, although there were official zakat collectors, their presence should not eliminate informal institutions organized by communities. According to Prasodjo, the Indonesian government was less able to identify and provide accurate numbers of poor people around the country, because the government did not have reliable databases to be used for purposes such as general elections, social security policy, and zakat distribution. He suggested that Indonesian citizens be provided with a social security number, as in developed countries.

Aid for Minority Groups

According to the 2012 annual report on Religious Life in Indonesia issued by the Center for Religious and Cultural Studies, Gadjah Mada University, communal and religious conflicts in Indonesia have been characterized by a rapidly escalating tension between majority and minority religious groups. Observers and social activists have questioned the role of the state in protecting minority groups in Indonesia and how the latter could gain their rights. The accusations brought against minority groups such as Ahmadiyyah and Shi’a by certain groups of the Sunni majority have been among the intriguing cases, leading us to raise questions about citizenship in Indonesia. In mid-2012 there was a riot in Sampang District of Madura Island, East Java, displacing hundreds of Shi’a families from their hometowns and forcing them to live in “refugee camps” (sports buildings) for about three months. In the villages, some of the homes belonging to Shi’a families were burned, jeopardizing the future of the Shi’a minority in that region. Surprisingly, the Sunni leaders in the area of conflict said that the Shi’a could not return to their villages unless they converted to Sunni Islam. As the Shi’a refused to alter their beliefs, it was hard for them to return home. In that situation, the government offered an unpalatable option to Shi’a families: relocation from their hometown in Sampang to another region in Sidoarjo.

Relations between Sunnis and Shi’a in Indonesia became increasingly complex after the issuance of a fatwa (legal/religious opinion) by the MUI, according to which Shi’a was a deviant form of Islam. The minority Ahmadis faced a similar situation as some Indonesian Sunni Muslim groups became radicalized, losing their sense of tolerance. Riots took place mainly in West Java—in places such as Bogor, Kuningan, and Tasikmalaya—in which Ahmadi communities, including their homes and places of worship, were attacked (Crouch 2009; Burhani 2014a; Formici 2014). In response to this, people started questioning the state’s role and reluctance to protect minority groups. They also questioned why the state, represented by government officials, failed to help the refugees return to their villages. At the same time, the MUI did not make a decisive effort to resolve this Sunni-Shi’a conflict.

Conflicts between majority and minority Muslim groups have put Muslim philanthropic organizations in a delicate situation. In conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims, such as that in the Moluccas—Ambon—a decade ago, a number of Muslim solidarity groups and philanthropic organizations were present to provide relief. On the other hand, if Muslim philanthropic organizations were to deliver aid to minority groups attacked by the majority, it may raise criticism from conservative groups. After the 2012 riot the local government in East Java did not even allow Shi’a refugees to return home to visit their families after Ramadan to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, due to security reasons. It is also worth noting that the discourse among religious leaders in Sampang, including MUI members, never included ideas of maslahah or benevolent action to cater for those Shi’a refugees. The religious authorities have not raised the issue of the rights of Shi’a as Indonesian citizens, to show the ulama’s concern about the problem. Nor have local MUI members talked about reconciliation, forgiveness, and the need to distribute zakat funds to refugees.

Then Minister of Religious Affairs Surya Dharma Ali, who was also the chairman of an Islamic Party (PPP, Partai Persatuan Pembangunan), never showed a serious commitment to protect the minority’s rights. Instead, as reflected by his statements, the minister urged the perceived “deviant” minority groups to show repentance and to convert to “true Islam.”3) Like the MUI’s fatwas, the minister’s statements in some way have had serious repercussions for the minority groups because his unfriendly statements could justify violent acts by radical and conservative groups toward the minority. Unlike Surya Dharma Ali, newly appointed Minister of Religious Affairs Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, who is also a PPP politician, made the clear statement—as quoted by mass media—that “in principle, every citizen has the same rights to stay in the village and pray according to their belief because the state constitution protects them.”4) Saifuddin also rejected efforts by local religious leaders in Sidoarjo, East Java, to convert Shi’a refugees to Sunni Islam, saying that the majority should treat their fellow Shi’a with more respect.

It is in this combative context that the way in which faith-based humanitarian organizations define beneficiaries is contested, and the way in which it is decided whether or not refugees and disadvantaged minority groups receive aid from faith-based humanitarian and philanthropic organizations. Whereas there were a number of Islamic philanthropic organizations active in raising funds from the public, only a few of them were willing to openly provide aid for Shi’a refugees in Sampang, Madura. Surprisingly, the modernist Muhammadiyah—through its MDMC (Muhammadiyah Disaster Management Center)—provided assistance to the Shi’a refugees. As Indonesia’s largest modernist Muslim association, Muhammadiyah has been active in humanitarian and welfare-oriented activities since its inception in the early twentieth century (Nakamura 2012). After its tsunami relief in Aceh (2004) and earthquake relief in Yogyakarta (2006), MDMC increasingly became known, both nationally and internationally, as Muhammadiyah’s division specifically working on disaster relief. As noted by Robin Bush, MDMC’s role in disaster relief “represents an important innovation and will influence the direction of future international humanitarian assistance” (2015, 34).

MDMC has focused on assisting vulnerable groups among the children and elderly by, among other measures, providing emergency education for the children of Shi’a refugees. Children became increasingly vulnerable because their relationships with parents deteriorated with the parents’ increasing psychological stress. MDMC’s chairman, Budi Setiawan, explained that although MDMC represents an Islamic humanitarian organization, this does not mean it can only work with—or distribute aid only to—certain groups. The Shi’a minority in Sampang were victims, and therefore, according to Setiawan, they should be treated equally by humanitarian organizations—just like the victims of other man-made disasters. Setiawan said:

The aim of providing aid for Shi’a refugees is to fulfill their basic needs and rights. There has been a trend in interpreting al-Maun, a Quranic surah that has underpinned Muhammadiyah’s social engagement. In the past, we might have believed that we provided assistance to refugees because they needed help. But now we also have to think that we help them because they have the right to be assisted according to the standards of humanitarian principles. We provide assistance for Shi’a refugees to fulfill their right to have sufficient food, appropriate education, and health care as well as safety or well-being. (interview, April 5, 2015)

The quotation above signifies a new understanding and meaning of aiding the poor in the context of Indonesian Muslim philanthropy, from simply carrying out religious duties to fulfilling people’s rights. This understanding emerged partly because state agencies as welfare providers were often reluctant to take the risk of providing full support for minority groups due to strong pressure from majority groups or bureaucratic mechanisms. In this context, Setiawan said: “We have seen that the state agencies somehow were weak and very bureaucratic. Many refugees could not access the local government’s health services and education only because the refugees did not bring their ID (KTP)” (interview, April 5, 2015).

Another major humanitarian organization active in providing assistance for Shi’a refugees is YEU (Yakkum Emergency Unit), a Christian NGO specializing in health, emergency relief, and development. To run its program effectively, YEU has set up a partnership with a Shi’a organization (Ahlul Bait Indonesia) and MDMC. YEU and MDMC as humanitarian organizations have shared a concern with defining the rights of refugees. For these two faith-based humanitarian organizations, the main duty is to provide assistance so that refugees can satisfy their basic needs and rights, such as education, health care, and well-being. Meanwhile, advocacy NGOs such as KONTRAS5) and YLBHI6) have attempted to advocate for the Shi’a communities by urging the government to sharpen its policy about the refugees’ future. KONTRAS and YLBHI pay close attention to the rights of refugees to live in their village. They have urged the government to give back the minorities’ right to return to their village in Sampang. Meanwhile, MDMC and YEU’s main concern is how to effectively provide aid. The different views and methods of faith-based humanitarian NGOs (MDMC and YEU) and advocacy NGOs (KONTRAS and YLBHI) in defining and establishing the rights of refugees have given rise to tensions during humanitarian missions.

A similar, or even worse, situation has been experienced by members of the Ahmadi minority, who have for nearly 10 years lived in a “refugee camp” in Transito, Mataram, and an ex-hospital in Central Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. They were driven there in the aftermath of severe riots and violence in 2006 that forced them to leave their villages. They had great difficulty getting assistance from government agencies, notably in health care and education, because many of them did not hold an ID. Although a number of NGOs have attempted to push the government to provide assistance and protection as well as to revive the Ahmadis’ civil rights, it appears that the government cannot do much more to help them. Further, there has not been any information about Islamic charitable organizations attempting to deliver aid to the refugees. By contrast, in other cities—such as Bandung, Tasikmalaya, and Kuningan in West Java—BAZNAS channeled charitable funds to ex-Ahmadis or those who converted from Ahmadiyya to Sunni Islam. In this context, ex-Ahmadis are seen as muallaf, or “new converts,” and according to normative Islamic teachings they deserve zakat funds. The above case suggests that some Sunnis are still reluctant to see minority groups such as Shi’a and Ahmadis as part of the ummah and deserving of aid like other Sunni Muslims. In sum, understanding the concept of ummah has shaped the pattern of Islamic philanthropy, determining whether it is inclusive or exclusive in character.

Rethinking Muslim Citizenship

From the above discussion it can be argued that Muslim philanthropy in Indonesia, just like in other countries, has to cope with a wide range of issues, including welfare, majority-minority relations, conflict, and state bureaucracy. The pattern of philanthropic practice in underpinning a democratic culture is also contingent upon various factors, such as ethnicity, religious identity, and understanding of citizen rights. While citizenship remains understood in a secular perspective, the question to be asked is: Can the current social and political setting in Indonesia shape a particular form of Muslim citizenship? In their study of religious pluralism and multiculturalism in Indonesia and Australia, Lyn Parker and Chang-Yau Hoon argue that religion or religious principles can be inserted in recent discussions of citizenship. The idea of “religious citizenship” therefore can be defined and put forward in the contemporary context of the nation-state era, partly because religious identity still matters in many societies. Unlike in many Western societies, where religion has undergone a rigorous privatization process, in the Muslim world—including Indonesia—there is an increasing presence of religion in the public sphere (Parker and Hoon 2013, 162; Weng 2014).

In concert with the function of religion in shaping people’s social and political identity, ethnicity is another major factor shaping the type of religious citizenship in Muslim societies. Muslims believe that they are part of the larger ummah. However, Muslims have also become part of local ethnicities, which has been instrumental in forming their social, cultural, and political identities. In this regard, the concept of ummah is understood in different ways by Indonesian Muslims depending on the social and political context. Michael Merry and Jeffrey Milligan note that for the Acehnese, the concept of ummah Islamiyyah

. . . is not necessarily antithetical to a sense of Indonesian citizenship, as was experienced briefly in the period of Acehnese involvement in the Indonesian independence struggle. Nor is it any guarantor of a common sense of citizenship within a larger Muslim state, as the long-running struggle for Acehnese independence from Indonesia demonstrates. (2009, 318)

They also argue that “despite the philosophical and theological ideal of ummah Islamiyyah, ethnicity remains an important dimension of identity construction and negotiation in Aceh and, presumably, other Muslim societies” (ibid.; see also Fadel 2012).

It is under these circumstances that religion should not be sidelined in discussions of citizenship, partly because there are “multiple identities” attached to the meaning of citizenship in a multicultural society (Merry and Milligan 2009, 320). In the era of globalization, Muslims’ understanding of ummah is influenced not only by their local identity as members of a certain ethnic group or as citizens of a state, but also by their identification with transnational Islamic movements whose religious and political ideologies may differ from the ethnic groups or the state to which they are affiliated. It is not easy to reconcile different entities (citizen of the state, member of an ethnic group, or follower of a certain religion). Muslims’ philanthropic activities are thus challenged by these cultural, sociological, and political complexities.

Religious citizenship in general, and Muslim citizenship in particular, can be understood as a new element in the complex meaning of citizenship. The complexity of the social, cultural, and political context may result in the birth of various meanings and categories of citizenship. Anthropologists, in fact, have discovered different qualifying adjectives for the term “citizenship,” such as agrarian citizenship, biological citizenship, pharmaceutical citizenship, formal citizenship, substantive citizenship, etc. (Lazar 2013, 15). In the context of this paper, Muslim citizenship can attach to citizens’ rights, responsibility, and obligation to other members of the community. Helping, caring for, and fulfilling the needs of members of the communities are among the rights and obligations of each community member. Likewise, although studies have pointed out that through the concept of citizenship democratic culture can be promoted and that the two should be linked, we can also note that citizenship meaning “membership of a political community” can still exist, even in a non-democratic state (ibid., 4).


The development of philanthropic activism in Muslim societies contributes to the pattern of the current academic discourse on citizenship. First of all, the idea of Muslim citizenship is characterized by the incorporation of religion into the rights, obligations, and responsibilities of members of the community. Inspired and motivated by religious duty, Muslims are required to contribute to the community by sharing their wealth in order to help the needy and in turn foster the public good. This kind of benevolent action in the form of sharing and caring is mandatory according to Islamic teachings. Muslim philanthropy is managed by Muslims, contributed to by Muslims, and dispensed mainly for the betterment of the Islamic community. The governments of Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, have also facilitated, endorsed, as well as created laws to regulate such religiously inspired philanthropic practices. Likewise, in the global context, there are a number of Islamic philanthropic organizations that have transformed into transnational Islamic organizations catering to members of the Islamic community in various parts of the world.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the broader context of society, the form of citizenship is always contested when it deals with “the other,” including non-Muslims and minority groups. In practical terms, there are two contesting orientations of Muslim philanthropic activism: to be exclusive in character by serving and supporting only those community members with a similar religious affiliation; or to be inclusive and cater to those in need regardless of religion, political affiliation, race, and ethnicity. In the Indonesian context, both types of activism—exclusive Muslim philanthropy and inclusive philanthropy—have characterized Muslim social activism. In a nutshell, while there have been rigorous efforts by Muslims to foster a democratic culture, a just society, and the public good through volunteerism and philanthropic practices, there are obstacles to contend with, such as clientelism in the practice of philanthropy (Latief 2013). Therefore, the meanings of Muslim citizenship and ummah in the nation-state era are still being contested among Indonesian Muslims.

Accepted: January 8, 2016


I would like to thank Professor Henk Schulte Nordholt, Dr. Ward Berenschot, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on this paper. I would also like to thank Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta, the Ministry of Research and Higher Education-the Republic of Indonesia, and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) for their fellowship and generous support.


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1) It is worth mentioning that Islamic egalitarianism within the early form of ummah is also challenged by the fact that slaves and women did not have equal rights (Salam 1997, 135).

2) Sami Zubaida in his study on the constitution and shari’a in Egypt found that a number of Egyptian Muslim intellectuals who supported Islamization, such as Adel Hussein, Fahmi Huwaydi, Tariq al-Bishry, and Muhammad Amara, seemed to be “liberal” in conceiving the status of non-Muslims in the Muslim constitution. They believed that “full citizenship rights for Christians is fully compatible with the shari’a” (Zubaida 2005, 179).

3) Wawancara Menteri Agama soal Syiah di Sampang (Interview with the Minister of Religious Affairs on Shia in Sampang), July 27, 2013, http://nasional.tempo.co/read/news/2013/07/27/173500167/wawancara-menteri-agama-soal-syiah-di-sampang, accessed February 2, 2016.

4) Lukman Hakim Saifuddin is the son of Saifuddin Zuhri, who was the minister of religious affairs in the 1960s. Before his involvement in a political party, Lukman Hakim was active in the Nahdlatul Ulama and became the chairman of NU’s think-tank organization, LAKPESDAM, in the mid-1990s. See Rico Afrido, Rekonsiliasi tak harus ubah keyakinan seseorang (Reconciliation does not change somebody’s faith), SindoNews, August 13, 2013, http://nasional.sindonews.com/read/770818/15/rekonsiliasi-tak-harus-ubah-keyakinan-seseorang-1376370137, accessed February 2, 2016.

5) KONTRAS stands for Komisi untuk Orang Hilang dan Korban Tindak Kekerasan (Commission for Disappeared and Victims of Violence). It is an NGO working on human rights and was founded by a number of civil society organizations in March 1998 in response to violent and repressive actions by the state that caused the disappearance, killing, or injury of many activists.

6) YLBHI stands for Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia (Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation). It is a civil society organization whose work focuses on human rights and fostering a transparent legal system in Indonesia.