Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Godly men in green

Admiral Sudomo, the once powerful commander of Kopkamtib and currently head of the Supreme Advisory Council, has always been in possession of an infallible political instinct. When he returned to Islam in a widely publicised ceremony in August 1997 after having embraced Christianity for more than thirty years, this was not just another chapter in the already legendary record of one of the New Order's most flamboyant characters. It also reflected a significant change in the approach to the cultural and political implications of Islam by the Suharto administration in general and by the military elite in particular. Sudomo's move highlights a development that has seen a remarkable shift in the religious affiliations of the top military personnel. In the 70s and 80s Christian officers held key positions in the Armed Forces, and most of their Muslim colleagues could be described as less than strictabangan. But devout santri officers with strong ties to Muslim organisations have been prominent in the 90s.


For decades, the secular and nationalist orientation of the Armed Forces seemed to exclude devout Muslims from top military posts. After independence had been achieved, the army saw itself as the defender of the national ideology Pancasila. This implied opposition to the identification of the state with any particular religion. Especially Islam with its reluctance to concede a distinction between religion and state politics was viewed by the army as a possible threat to the stability of the heterogenous nation. It was only the threat of a communist takeover during the last phase of Sukarno's Guided democracy in the early 1960s that forced the army and the Muslim community into a short-lived coalition. But after Sukarno's fall in 1967 the New Order government demonstrated very quickly that it had no intention of making any concessions to a politically oriented Islamic movement. The final disillusionment for Muslim organisations came with the 1971 elections, in which Abri orchestrated a Golkar victory that marginalised the Muslim parties. The distrust of the government towards political Islam was embodied in the military personnel. Besides moderate Muslims many Christian officers occupied top posts: Panggabean, Witono, Sudomo and - most notably - Benny Murdani. Together with Ali Murtopo, who had provoked the Muslim community by creating the concept of 'democratic theism' as a theoretical basis for the New Order, the Christian officers became the focus of anti-military sentiments within Muslim circles.

Legitimacy crisis

In 1983 and 1984 Benny Murdani's ascent to the top post of the Armed Forces, and the army's suppression of the Islamic riots in Tanjung Priok which left a still unkown figure of protesters dead, marked the historic low in the relations between Abri and the Muslim community. After Tanjung Priok, the army took an active role in 'convincing' Muslim organisations to accept Pancasila as their sole ideological principle, which was finally enshrined in the 1985 political laws. Having domesticated Nahdatul Ulama (NU), Muhammadiyah and the Islamic Students Association (HMI) by 1985, Abri should have been satisfied with its achievements. But its very success undermined fundamental elements of Abri's legitimacy. Given the reduced danger of Muslim extremism, it was much more difficult for Abri to explain the need for the continuation of its dominant role in politics. The presence of Christian officers in the top ranks, traditionally presented as a measure of containing ambitions for an Islamic state, was now openly questioned. This partial legitimacy crisis coincided with the cultural renaissance of Islam in Indonesian society. Caused by the New Order's success in providing secondary and tertiary education to the average Indonesian, devout Muslims began to rise to important positions in the bureaucracy and - after some initial resistance by the Abri leadership - in the middle ranks of the military. At the same time, Benny Murdani's obvious attempts to distance Abri from the administration and a Golkar dominated by Sudharmono confronted Suharto with the possibility that the Armed Forces could withdraw their support for the president.


Suharto reacted quickly. He dismissed Benny as Abri Commander-in-Chief in 1988 and turned to the Muslim community as a new basis of power. This ingenious move carried some far-reaching consequences and provided the president with a wide range of tactical alternatives. First, he was able to integrate Islamic groups into the system of the New Order and therefore reduce the danger of political instability. Second, comforting the Muslim community required the appointment of more Muslim generals in place of the hitherto predominantly Christian and abangan military leadership, which had been for decades a bone of contention for Muslim groups. Both factors combined to give Suharto the opportunity to gradually dismantle Benny's network - a move that had strong support from society. The president's new strategy was clearly mirrored in his policy of appointments to top and middle military positions. Between 1988 and 1991 Feisal Tanjung, Hartono, Sofyan Effendi and Syarwan Hamid were promoted to important posts in both the central hierarchy and the regions, preparing them for the top ranks in the years to come. These officers were hardly influenced by Abri's traditional reservations towards political Islam. They did not hesitate to demonstrate their affinity towards both the cultural implications of Islam and their political consequences. Therefore they fitted well in the president's calculations to reconcile the Muslim community with the New Order and to bring the army back under his control. Benny's replacement as Abri Commander-in-Chief, the madrasah-educated Try Sutrisno, enjoyed a higher degree of acceptance in the Muslim constituency, although he was also widely considered to be loyal to his former superior, now transferred to the Ministry of Defence and Security. From the perspective of Abri-Islam relations, Try's leadership was a period of transition. While the handling of the 1989 Lampung affair initially showed the well-established pattern of blaming Muslim fundamentalists, it was later acknowledged by the military that land conflicts had been the reason for the unrest. Although warnings against Islamic extremism became less frequent in the post-Murdani era, the new military leadership left no doubts that there were clear limits for Muslim activism. The military's treatment of Muslim separatists in Aceh is a hint to where the line in the sand is drawn. The nationalist education in Abri's institutions has no tolerance for movements undermining national unity.

Abri factions?

Hartono's meteoric rise since 1994, and the general observation that devout Muslims held key positions after Feisal Tanjung's appointment as Abri Commander-in-Chief in 1993, led many analysts to the conclusion that the Armed Forces were split between an Islamic and a nationalist faction. While the Islamic faction is usually associated with the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association ICMI and its chairman, Minister of Research and Technology BJ Habibie, the nationalists are described as officers following the secular tradition of Benny Murdani. At the surface, this observation can be reasonably defended. But the curiosity that Feisal Tanjung is variously assigned by observers to both of the factions suggests that the categorisation along religious and nationalist lines is misleading. Instead, more fundamental problems seem to be the cause for the split in the ranks. Two facts should be taken into account. First, the 'Islamic' faction, by actively mobilising the support of Muslim organisations for the political elite of the New Order, was merely implementing Suharto's strategic imperatives. Second, the biographical background of officers categorised as nationalists differs in religious terms considerably from that of their Christian and abangan superiors during the 70s and 80s. Officers like Bambang Yudhoyono also established excellent relationships with Muslim groups in the regions where they served. Thus the controversy separating the two groups is concentrating more on another question. Are the Armed Forces a security force with the fundamental task of safeguarding the unity of the state, or a political tool of the incumbent administration? In this context it was a telling phenomenon when Hartono, as Army Chief of Staff, not only distinguished himself as a 'green', 'Islamic' general, but in 1996 also attempted to commit Abri to Golkar. Strengthening the relationship with the Muslim community and tying Abri to the administration's party were key elements of Hartono's politicisation of the army. The 'nationalist' camp does not so much object to the more receptive stance of Abri vis-a-vis the Muslim community as to the exploitation of Muslim groups as a means of perpetuating the New Order government. Abri's changed perception of Islam itself is not part of the controversy. It is a historical development which is unlikely to be reversed in the near future. Only the resurrection of a radical Muslim movement threatening the substance of the state might lead Abri to reconsider its approach.


Current developments tend to underline this point. Muslim protests against the economic dominance of the Chinese are now received with some sympathy by military officers. During the recent riots in Java, West Kalimantan and Sulawesi, the responsible regional commanders were very fast in assuring that no Muslim fundamentalists were responsible for the unrest. They rather pointed to the social roots of the conflicts which were exploited by a 'certain group' for political reasons. The reluctance of the military to blame Muslim extremists for instigating riots points to the importance of Muslim groups in counterbalancing the challenges posted by liberalism, which in Indonesia is often identified with communism. During the hunt for activists of the People's Democratic Party PRD, military commanders tried to mobilise Muslim support for the New Order's anti-communist record. In East Java, however, some of the Muslim leaders summoned by the then Brawijaya Commander Imam Utomo refused to sign a declaration blaming the PRD for subversive activities. Overall, the gradual shift in the military top brass from a Christian- and abangan-dominated leadership to one with a santri background had a strong impact on the late New Order society. It deprived Abri of one of its institutionalised explanations for its intervention in political affairs, namely the exposure of a latent threat from the religious right. On the other hand, the changing pattern of religious preferences of military officers is not always helpful to explain splits in the ranks.

Marcus Mietzner is a PhD student at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra.

Inside Indonesia 53: Jan-Mar 1998

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