Indonesia's Rais Believes in Miracles

June 7, 1999 - 0:0
JAKARTA Amien Rais believes in miracles. Leading Muslim figure and political scholar who would like to be Indonesia's next president says a prayer during a Haj pilgrimage to Mecca brought him his first child. "It was a miracle," the youthful looking 55-year-old told an Indonesian newspaper. "I was taught from an early age the importance of saying prayers." Now, Rais has five children, and he prays for something else.

The former head of Indonesia's second largest Islamic group, the 28 million-strong Muhammadiyah, has tried to cast himself as a figurehead for the democracy movement in the run-up to Monday's parliamentary election and the November presidential poll. Trying to woo middle-of-the-road, mainstream Indonesians, the unassuming former university lecturer quit his Muhammadiyah post late in 1998, but is still closely linked with the powerful Muslim community.

His national mandate party, which draws support from Muhammadiyah, recently forged an alliance with Indonesia's democratic party-Struggle and Muslim-Oriented Nation Awakening Party to beat the ruling party Golkar in the polls. But, the Western-educated Rais has said he won't settle for second best and aims to be the nation's next president, which many analysts believe could spell trouble for the alliance.

A strong believer in federalism, Rais is regarded as a thoughtful academic and acclaimed as an orator, a useful skill which has helped him attain a high media profile. "He is very good at working the media," says one Jakarta-based Western diplomat. "He knows how to be controversial and how to phrase things in a way the media can use them." He inspires deep but not unanimous devotion among his followers.

When rumours swept Jakarta in May last year -- at the height of unrest that led to former president Suharto's downfall -- that he was about to be arrested, scores of followers flocked to Muhammadiyah headquarters, some wearing the paramilitary uniforms popular in Indonesia, to protect him. The rumours proved false. Rais has spent most of his life in schools and universities studying religion and Muslim politics.

Born in the royal city of Solo in Java's spiritual heartland in 1944, Rais studied in Muhammadiyah schools before going to universities in Indonesia and the United States. He gained a doctorate in politics, specializing in the Middle East. He was a politics lecturer at Gajah Mada University in the central Java city of Yogyakarta until forced to quit when parliament passed political reforms in January banning politicians from holding government-paid jobs.

His position had allowed him to straddle the Islamic and student groups, especially on his home campus. Rais' fiery rhetoric won him popularity and support at Gajah Mada, where his anti-government rallies drew crowds of thousands. But Rais has no military background, in a country where the armed forces are still a powerful political player despite a winding back of their political role in the post-Suharto era.

This, coupled with the fact that his Muslim backing makes the armed forces uneasy, is seen as the main obstacle to his political ambitions. The military has long fought against any attempts to bring religion into government and has ruthlessly crushed extremist Muslim groups in the past. His lack of military support also stems from his ambition to strip the military of its dual function which gives it an active role in Indonesian politics apart from its defense duties.

Some political analysts and opponents also suspect he wants to move the world's largest Muslim nation towards a more fundamental style of Islam. Rare opinion polls conducted in Indonesia show he is very popular -- level-pegging with Indonesian democratic party-struggle leader Megawati Sukarnoputri at around 30 percent, far ahead of president B.J. Habibie who languishes below 10 percent. (Reuter)