Can She Run Indonesia?
It's About Islam, or Is It?
This article was written for the New York Times
on June 20, 1999. All rights reserved.
-- 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
A restive but
largely quiescent political force for decades, Islam has suddenly
emerged, in the vacuum of the slow vote count, as a potentially
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
"A Woman President:
No Way!" shouted a recent newspaper headline, stating the case
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."
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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