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Line in the sand

Far Eastern Economic Review - March 27, 1997

John McBeth, Jakarta – Just back from Germany in early February, Science and Technology Minister B.J. Habibie was summoned to a five-hour meeting with President Suharto. As the minister took notes in a book he habitually uses for presidential tete-a-tetes, Suharto railed against Muslim leader Amien Rais, whom he accused of making "subversive" statements. Rais, the president told his long-time confidant, was far more dangerous than his rival, Abdurrahman Wahid.

Within days, Rais had "resigned" as head of the board of experts of Habibie's Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals, or ICMI, a controversial grouping formed in 1990 to channel Muslim aspirations into public policy. Accusing the government of paranoia, he later grumbled: "Some people can't distinguish between cats and tigers. I'm only a cat a thin cat."

Rais, who continues to head Muhammadiyah, a mass Islamic organization, is only the latest victim of a system where political Islam must toe the official line. While Suharto has reached out to Muslims in the past seven years, the unwritten law is that the dialogue has to stay within the parameters set by the president. In Muslim-majority Indonesia, Islam and politics can mix, but it is Suharto who decides by how much.

Another to have crossed Suharto's line in the sand is Sri Bintang Pamungkas, who was expelled in mid-1995 from his parliamentary seat by the Muslim-oriented United Development Party and then from the ICMI's board. Sri Bintang will soon go on trial for "unconstitutional activities." His crime: sending out Muslim greeting cards suggesting a boycott of the May 29 parliamentary elections. He already faces a 34-month jail term for "insulting" Suharto in a speech he made at a German university in 1995.

The upheaval in the ICMI and a symbolic reconciliation between Suharto and Wahid, leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah's larger rival, appears to have dealt Habibie and his radical-modernist Muslim allies a major setback. The minister's stock had already taken a tumble because of downsizing at his pet project, state-run aircraft manufacturer Industri Pesawat Terbang Nusantara, and his difficulties in selling the Natuna gas-field project to foreign investors. It took another beating on March 11 with his announcement that Indonesia's long-planned nuclear-power station may be delayed for 20 years.

Wahid has been a vocal critic of the ICMI since its inception, sharing the view of many military officers that it represents a potential threat to secularism as well as to his own stature as a religious voice of moderation. "This is the biggest blow to hit the ICMI," he said in an interview. "All the notions the radical modernists had of dominating political life here are gone. Now Habibie has to clean up the organization, ousting all the radicals from key positions. It has to be neutralized and sanitized."

Still, Wahid isn't sure what the recent turn of events means in a country where Islam's place in politics is still a hotly debated topic. "Is it a tactical adjustment?" he muses, "or does it represent a true shift in Suharto's views that Islam shouldn't be manipulated in a political way? You have to remember the president is a very astute player who keeps his cards close to his chest." What triggered Rais's demotion was a verbal attack he made on the Irian Jaya-based American mining firm Freeport Indonesia, and on the country's mining policy in general. He made the charges even as an unseemly scrap over East Kalimantan's giant Busang gold deposit was under way. His mistake may have been to describe the terms of current mining contracts as "unconstitutional," a charge sure to touch a raw nerve with Suharto because it goes to the heart of his political legitimacy.

Habibie later confided to some of his associates that while he had protected Rais from his critics in the past, he was not in a position to do so now. Certainly, Rais had alienated the authorities as far back as the 1980s, when his sympathies for the Iranian revolution led to accusations he was a Shia fundamentalist. That was a damaging label in a strongly Sunni-Muslim community.

Although perceptions about a change in Rais's tone in the early 1990s may have been enough to win him election as chairman of Muhammadiyah in 1995, it apparently hasn't been enough to get him off the military-intelligence watch list. "The military has always worried about Rais," says one well-placed source, familiar with thinking in the intelligence community. "He's considered much too nationalist to be a leader of such a large religious organization."

Corruption, democratic reforms and political term limits have remained the focus of Rais's sharp-edged rhetoric. Indeed, during the 1995 Muhammadiyah congress, Rais ally Syafi'e Marif shepherded a resolution through the organization's political commission calling for a limit of two five-year presidential terms. The measure was subsequently dropped during the plenary session when it failed to attract a consensus.

Analysts have been struck by the lack of any real reaction to Rais's demotion in the ICMI. But that might change if there is a move against him in Muhammadiyah itself, as some predict. "Muhammadiyah is not the PDI [the Indonesian Democratic Party], and if someone tried to intervene there as they did with PDI, then the trouble would be very serious," says respected Muslim scholar and ICMI founder-member Nurcholis Madjid, referring to the state-engineered downfall of PDI leader Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Rais, whom Nurcholis diplomatically describes as a "romantic," has his most ardent following among university students and young professionals. While he espouses the same democratic ideals as Wahid, their differences mirror the gulf that separates the two organizations. Largely urban-based and considered more orthodox than Wahid's Nahdlatul Ulama in its interpretations of the Koran, Muhammadiyah is dispersed mainly through Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi. The Nahdlatul Ulama's 35 million members, who follow a moderate creed, are concentrated in the rural heartland of Central and East Java.

If Rais's downfall was not anticipated, Wahid has manoeuvred shrewdly all the same. While he remains close to Megawati, his symbolically important handshake with Suharto last November marked the first contact between the two since he refused to endorse the president's re-election in 1993. That highly publicized meeting was followed in early February by a similar encounter with Suharto's eldest daughter, Siti Hardijanti Rukmana, or Tutut, which insiders say was arranged through army chief Gen. Hartono.

In many ways, the imagery has served the purposes of both Wahid and Suharto. For the president and Tutut the latter one of the eight chairmen of the ruling Golkar Party it sends the message ahead of the parliamentary elections that all is well between the government and Indonesia's largest Muslim organization. For Wahid, whose religious credentials belie the skills of a consummate politician, it allows him to regain his stature as Islam's spokesman seemingly at the expense of Habibie and the ICMI.

Some analysts believe it was the closeness of the alliance between Wahid and Megawati in late 1995 which led to her being unseated from the PDI leadership. Wahid insists he was trying to prevent her from being overly influenced by the more radical elements in the PDI. "He can't be an opposition figure, he must be in the middle," explains Ulil Abshar Abdullah, a member of Nahdlatul Ulama's research and development board. "It's important to maintain the culture and the equilibrium of the organization, so to do that he has to play the pendulum game."

Although Suharto had nothing to do with the ICMI's actual conception, his patronage of the organization has allowed him to co-opt many of his critics. Whether it will survive him, however, remains an open question. Rais acknowledges the ICMI would never have been born if its leaders had not been in harmony with the government, but now he clearly feels the relationship has become too close for comfort. Nonetheless, he believes the ICMI will survive, "but in a different way."