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Can She Run Indonesia? It's About Islam, or Is It?

Seth Mydans

This article was written for the New York Times on June 20, 1999. All rights reserved.

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Like white doves, demure and cowled, the girls of the Asshiddiqiyah Muslim boarding school nestled on tiny carpets for their noon prayer, their thick-soled sneakers lying in a jumble on the steps outside.

Then came lunch and gossip and glances across the small brick courtyard at the boys and, all right, if we must, some talk of politics. Can a woman be president of Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic nation?

It is the question of the day. The leading contender for the presidency in Indonesia's long, tortured political process is a woman, Megawati Sukarnoputri As coalition lobbying intensifies following this month's inconclusive election, some of her opponents are playing the Islamic card.

A restive but largely quiescent political force for decades, Islam has suddenly emerged, in the vacuum of the slow vote count, as a potentially divisive issue.

There is no question of a rise of militant Islam or an imposition of Islamic law. But all of Indonesian politics is in flux now, one year after the forced resignation of President Suharto, and Islamic factions are shifting and roiling as they seek a new place in a new political order.

The wedge issue is gender.

"A Woman President: No Way!" shouted a recent newspaper headline, stating the case succinctly.

This was also the opinion of Rosita, 17, a student here at the boarding school. "We think a woman always follows her feelings and is too emotional," she said, expressing a view commonly held here. Then, as if to prove her point, she exclaimed, "We love Habibie!" -- the incumbent president, B.J. Habibie -- "He is so handsome!"

The rector of the boarding school, Noer Muhammad Iskandar, took a different (perhaps less emotional) view. "Why not?" he said. "Islamic laws allow a woman to be president. All this business is a political interpretation of Islamic law, not a religious interpretation."

The disagreement between the student and the rector goes all the way to the top of the religious hierarchy. Three of Indonesia's five leading clerics argue that a woman cannot be president; two disagree.

In the political field, a dozen parties that label themselves Islamic -- out of 48 that contested the vote -- are also divided on the question.

But there is agreement among most political commentators that the real issue here is not gender or Islam but politics. This is a country where nationhood has always taken precedence over religion and where Islam, in its many variations, has for the most part been moderate.

In a nation where some 90 percent of the population of more than 200 million are Muslim, there is no such thing as a unified Muslim vote. Instead there is a continuing debate over the role of religion in society and a continuing jostling for dominance among the more orthodox and more secular views, and their various subsets.

"Islam is factionalized and they are poorly organized," said Arief Budiman, a leading political scientist. "But it has the potential to be an effective political tool especially if it is focused on a unifying issue, even a small issue. But that does not mean fanaticism in the religion like the Taliban," a reference to the fundamentalist movement in Afghanistan.

During his 32 years in power, Suharto worked to neutralize the power of Islamic politics. He also at times subtly played an Islamic card when it suited him.

On voting day in the coastal village of Sukawali, 30 miles northwest of Jakarta, a fisherman named Hasan Bisri, 60, expressed the nationalist philosophy that Suharto had fostered. "Some people might vote for an Islamic party," he said. "But we prefer to put Islam aside. We prefer to put the nation first and Islam second."

Islamic parties generally did poorly in the election. The potential problem, political analysts say, is that if they are ignored in the government coalition that will eventually emerge, the seeds could be sown for future tensions.

The religious question emerged quite suddenly on the eve of the June 7 vote. First came an unconfirmed report that 60 percent of Mrs. Megawati's parliamentary candidates were non-Muslim. Then, in a clear attack on Mrs. Megawati's party, came a round of streetcorner fliers urging good Muslims to vote only for parties that support Islam. Then came the debate over a woman president.

Mrs. Megawati's party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Reform, represents the country's mainstream of secular nationalism and is home to many members of the Christian minority.

But she herself and most of those who support her are Muslim. If indeed a disproportionate number of her candidates are Christians, said Goenawan Muhamad, a leading publisher and political analyst, it was as much as anything a sign of her political ineptness, "most unwise on her part, and insensitive."

Apart from questions of religion, Mrs. Megawati's party will need to form a coalition in order to take power. And the two most likely partners are the parties of the two most prominent Muslim politicians -- both of whom also covet the presidency.

One, headed by Abdurrahman Wahid, has its base in the nation's largest Islamic association, with a membership approaching 30 million, the Nahdlatul Ulama -- which means council of religious scholars. It represents a relatively relaxed and moderate approach to religion, but it is so large that there is more than enough room for divisions over issues like the propriety of having a woman president.

The second, headed by Amien Rais, is based in his more conservative Muslim association, the Muhammadiyah, but contested the election as a secular party.

Rais was the first major politician to concede defeat in the election, when the early count showed his party trailing. But he could still form a crucial swing vote between a Megawati-Wahid alliance and an alliance built around the incumbent party, Golkar.

"I have great faith in the capacity of Muslim politicians to do the most remarkable deals with non-Muslims," said Harold Crouch, an expert on Indonesia at Australian National University in Canberra. "I think they'll be bargaining hard like everyone else."

He added: "This is not rising fundamentalism we have here. It's old-style Islamic politics."

This is all as it should be, said Rosita's Islamic law professor at the boarding school, Tohirin Suparta.

"If you know the history of Indonesia, our country was established by nationalism, not by Islamic law," he said. "We are not an Islamic nation, so the political leader is higher than the religious leader."

Her English teacher, Jazeri Sardi, looked on as the girls in their white cowls knelt in intense concentration, dipping their heads to the floor as their rector read a prayer.

"I have many Christian friends," Sardi whispered. "We visit each other often and we don't have any conflict. Religion has come to make people love each other, not to make people hate each other. What do you think?"

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