B J Habibie, appointed president of Indonesia upon Suharto’s ouster from power in May is beginning to enjoy himself. The change of guard has led to claims in some circles that he reflects the Islamic sentiments of the nearly 200 million people scattered across the vast archipelago. As proof, they cite the fact that there are more ministers with pro-Islamic leanings that at any time before.
Suharto’s regime is hardly a yardstick by which the progress of Islam in Indonesia can be measured. Together with Kemalist Turkey, Indonesia is the only other Muslim country where Islam is forbidden any role in politics. Anyone calling for Islamic rule ends up in jail or worse.
Whereas in Turkey the regime has banned even hijab and beards, in Indonesia such personal expressions of Islam are tolerated. It is at the political level that Islam is banned. Indonesia’s State ideology, Pancasila - meaning the five principles - is an odd assortment of paganism mixed with nationalism. It is still in force even though Suharto himself tried to put on an air of Islamicity in the last years of his rule.
Like most Javanese, Suharto has only one name. It has no meaning. His late wife Tien (she died in 1996) was a Catholic. The Saudi regime made her an ‘honorary Muslim’, whatever that means, so she could accompany Suharto on the Hajj pilgrimage in 1994. Such are the ways of the rulers in the Muslim world!
It is, however, to the question of the emergence of Islam in Indonesia that one must turn. One of the tragedies of Muslims is that they are easily taken in by slogans. This was true of Saddam Husain of Iraq, a well-known criminal and mass murderer, as it is of people like Habibie and Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia.
No sooner does some ruler utter a few Islamic phrases and indulge in some outward expressions of Islam, then Muslims begin to proclaim him as an Islamic hero. The greater tragedy is that this attitude is also quite widespread among Muslim activists.
The most glaring manifestion of this was visible in the weeks leading up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in January 1991. When Saddam Husain started to wrap himself up in the Islamic flag, after slaughtering tens of thousands of Muslims both in Iraq and Iran, a number of leaders of Islamic Movements rushed to Baghdad calling upon him to declare himself the Khalifah. This is nothing short of disastrous.
The Habibie phenomenon is undergoing a similar experience, though on a much more modest scale. There is no Islamic Movement in Indonesia. The two Muslim organizations - Nahdatul Islam and Muhammadiya - that are permitted to operate are no more than Tablighi Jama’at-type outfits. It would, however, be unrealistic to expect anything from such groups which have done the regime’s bidding throughout their existence. Like the Tablighis, these groups boast of millions of followers but dish out religion as an opium to sedate rather than as a force for change.
In the campaign that led to Suharto’s ouster, Amien Rais, leader of the Muhammadiya, was given much prominence in the western media. Initially he demanded total change insisting that Habibie must give a specific date for fresh elections. Since then he has changed his tune. Now he wants to give Habibie a chance, no doubt at the behest of the military which is the real power in the country. Rais is close to the military as is Suharto who is already using his ill-gotten wealth to buy favours and keep his family from losing it.
The more rural Nahdatul Ulama, led by Abdurrahman Wahid, indulges in Javanese mysticism. He has close links with the Suharto family. Prior to assembly elections in May 1997, the Nahdatul Ulama endorsed Suharto and his daughter Siti Hardianti Rukmana. Late last month, Wahid again had a long meeting with Suharto.
The real power wielders in Indonesia are the military officers. If they say that someone should stay in power, he does; when they want him out - even a 76-year-old dictator who ruled the country for 32 years - he must pack his bags and leave the presidential palace.
Suharto, however, is still trying to manipulate the situation from behind the scenes. He and his family members hold senior positions in Golkar, the ruling party. Lieutenant general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, chief of socio-political affairs in the military, warned on June 24 against attempts to return the ‘old regime.’ At the same time, he also warned labour leaders and students not to cause disruption. The military made its intent clear by stating that such protests would be dealt with harshly.
Amid such public noises, Muslims need to be wary of Habibie and his cabinet’s new Islamic attire. He sacked attorney general Sujono Atmonegoro for saying that he was setting up an investigation of former government officials including Suharto. So much for Habibie’s Islamic credentials.
Muslimedia: July 16-31, 1998