The past few weeks may well be seen as a watershed in Indonesia's political life. A meeting in the small town of Situbondo, East Java -- the biggest Muslim gathering in Indonesia in many years -- could mark the decline of Muslim influence and a victory for policies of President Suharto designed to secularize politics in this, the country with the world's biggest Muslim population.
It might also be seen as another step toward the formation of a one-party system in this Southeast Asian nation, the fifth most populated in the world.
The Situbondo meeting was organized by the Association of Muslim Scholars and Teachers, the oldest and most influential Muslim group in Indonesia, with more then 12 million members.
Based primarily in rural areas, the association is known for its conservatism and fierce anticommunism. After an alleged coup attempt by the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965, it was one of the major participants in a vicious hunt for communists or suspected communists. It is estimated that more than a quarter million people died in that period.
In 1973, the association was forced by the government to unite with three other Muslim groups into the Muslim United Development Party (PPP). In Situbondo earlier this month, the association's leaders decided to withdraw from the PPP. Further, they stated that the association would no longer play a role in the nation's political life. Instead it would concentrate on social and religious activities.
(A smaller, less influential Muslim group in PPP, Syarikat Islam, cut ties with PPP in late December as well.)
This dramatic move was in part a reflection of a genuine desire by some association members to return to a role in society unsullied by politics. But it was also a mark of the frustration some Muslims feel about the political climate in Indonesia. They say that Muslims are being increasingly forced into a corner by successive government policies and laws and that they are having their very identity threatened.
The major point of contention is a government edict pushed forward by President Suharto himself that all groups, political, social, or otherwise, must accept the state doctrine of Pancasila as their fundamental philosophy.
Pancasila is a seemingly innocent set of five principles, embracing belief in God, national unity, democracy, justice, and humanitarianism. Many groups are resentful about the way the government is forcing them to accept government policies as an integral part of this doctrine.
Further, some religious groups feel that it is not right that an essentially man-made ideology should be given precedence over spiritual ones. Discontent among certain sections of the Muslim community is thought to have been one of the reasons for recent riots and bomb explosions in Jakarta, which left some 20 dead.
Some association members have expressed their dissatisfaction at pulling out of the PPP. They say that Muslims are not consulted sufficiently and seem to have decided to retire from politics completely rather than participate in the present system. The move by the association is bound severely to weaken the PPP, which has been fraught with internal squabblings and has lost much of its Islamic identity -- its main attraction at general elections.
Meanwhile the government party, Golkar, goes from strength to strength. Golkar includes all senior officials from President Suharto down, plus civil servants, and has the backing of Indonesia's powerful armed forces.
Golkar membership is a vital prerequisite to advancement in most areas of Indonesian life. The party is now embarking on a mass registration drive. It seems likely that it will sweep the board at the next general elections, scheduled for 1987.
While any in-depth analysis is a dangerous exercise amidst the twists and turns of Indonesian politics, what President Suharto seems to be aiming at is an essentially apolitical state. All policy decisions and disputes would be settled according to Pancasila and would be based on consensus.
That consensus, however, would primarily reflect the ideas and policies of the ruling group. It is an essentially Javanese formula, a hierarchical political system that, above all, accepts that those in charge always know best.