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Indonesia: The Man of the Moment


Imaduddin was a lecturer in electrical engineering at the Bandung Institute of Technology. He was also an Islamic preacher. So in the 1960s and 1970s he was unusual: a man of science, one of the few in independent Indonesia, and at the same time a dedicated man of the faith. He could draw the student crowds to the Salman mosque in the grounds of the Bandung Institute.

He worried the authorities. And when, on the last day of 1979, I went to Bandung to see him, driving up through the afternoon along the crowded smoky road from coastal Jakarta to the cooler plateau where Bandung was, I found that he was a man more or less on the run. He had not long before finished fourteen months in jail as a political prisoner. He still had his little staff house at the Bandung Institute, but he was not allowed to lecture there. And though he was still being defiant, giving his courses in Islamic “mental training” to small groups of middle-class young people—holiday groups, really—he was, at the age of forty-eight, getting ready to go abroad.

He was to spend many years abroad. But then his fortunes changed. Going back to Indonesia more than fifteen years after that meeting with him in Bandung, I found that Imaduddin had money and was famous. He had an Islamic Friday morning television program. He had a Mercedes and a driver, a reasonable house in a reasonable part of Jakarta, and he was talking of moving to something a little better. The very mixture of science and Islam that had made him suspect to the authorities in the late 1970s now made him desirable, the model of the Indonesian new man, and had taken him up to the heights, had taken him very nearly to the fount of power.

He had become close to B.J. Habibie, the minister for research and technology; and Habibie was closer than anyone else in the government to President Suharto, who had ruled for thirty years and was generally presented as the father of the nation.

Habibie was an aeronautical man and his admirers said he was a prodigy. He was a man with a grand idea. It was that Indonesia should under his guidance build, or at any rate design, its own airplanes. The idea behind the idea—as I had read in some newspapers—was that such a venture wouldn’t only deliver airplanes. It would also give many thousands of people a high and varied technological training; out of this would come an Indonesian industrial revolution. Over nineteen years almost a billion and half dollars—according to the Wall Street Journal—had been given to Habibie’s aerospace organization. One kind of airplane had been built, the CN-235, in collaboration with a Spanish company; it hadn’t been commercially successful. But now something more exciting was about to fly, the N-250, a fifty-seat commuter turboprop, wholly designed by Habibie’s organization.

The aircraft’s inaugural flight was to be in time for the fiftieth anniversary of Indonesia’s independence, on August 17, 1995, for which, for weeks before, the streets of Jakarta and other towns had been strung with the same kind of colored lights and hung with flags and banners. Against this background of celebration—which was like the state’s gift to the people—the Jakarta Post, like a lecturer handling the beginners’ class, one day took its readers through stage by stage of the N-250’s trials: the taxiing at low speed, to check ground maneuvering; then at medium speed, to check wing and tail and brake systems; and then at high speed, to make sure that the N-250 could fly just above the ground for five or six minutes.

Four days before the inaugural flight a generator shaft (whatever that was) broke down during a medium-speed taxi. A replacement was, however, to hand; and on the appointed day the N-250 flew for an hour at 10,000 feet. The front page of the Jakarta Post showed President Suharto applauding and Habibie embracing a smiling Mrs. Suharto. Plans were announced for a midrange jet, the N-2130, for March 2004. It was going to cost two billion dollars. Since this program stretched far into the future, Habibie’s thirty-two-year-old son Ilham, who had done an apprenticeship course at Boeing, was going to be in charge.

Three weeks later, after the climax of the fiftieth-anniversary independence celebrations, a great French-produced fireworks display, and in an atmosphere of national glory, Habibie proposed that August 10, the day on which the N-250 flew, should be observed as National Technological Reawakening Day. He made the proposal at the Twelfth Islam Unity Conference. Because there was another side to Habibie: he was a devout Muslim and a passionate defender of the faith. He was chairman of a new body, the aggressively named Association of Muslim Intellectuals. And when he told the Islam Unity Conference that mastery of science and technology had to be coupled with stronger faith in Allah, it was accepted that he was speaking with both religious and secular authority.

If it wasn’t absolutely certain how the designing and building of airplanes with imported components could lead to a general technological or scientific breakthrough; so, too, it wasn’t absolutely clear how Islam had been ennobled by the success of the N-250, and the hundreds of millions that had gone to serve one man’s particular talent or interest.

But this was precisely where Imaduddin’s faith—as scientist and believer—had coincided with Habibie’s, where the careers of the two men had crossed, and Imaduddin had been taken up by his new patron to the sky of presidential favor.

Imaduddin, some time after his return from exile, had been one of the principal early movers behind the Association of Muslim Intellectuals. And now he served Habibie in a special way. Habibie, or his ministry, had sent very many students to study abroad. It was Imaduddin’s duty—as scientist and preacher—regularly to visit these students at their foreign universities, to remind them of their faith and where their loyalties should lie. In 1979, when he had been on the run, the Islamic mental training courses he had been doing at Bandung hadn’t been approved of by the government, which was nervous about the beginnings of any populist movement it couldn’t control. Now—in an extraordinary reversal—these mental training courses of Imaduddin’s, or something like them, were being used by the government to win the support of the important new intelligentsia or technocracy that Habibie was creating.

It was out of his new freedom and security, the new closeness to power, which to Imaduddin was only like the proof of the rightness of the faith he had always served, that he told me how, in the bad old days of persecution, he had been picked up one night by the police from his little house at the Bandung Institute of Technology, and taken to jail for fourteen months.

He didn’t want to make too much of it now, but he had been provocative, had brought trouble on his own head. He had spoken against some plan of President Suharto, the father of the nation, for a family mausoleum. Gold was to be used in some part of the mausoleum, and Imaduddin spoke now as though it was the use of gold more than anything else that had offended his Islamic puritanism.

So he was expecting trouble, and it came. On May 23, 1978, at a quarter to midnight, someone rang the bell of his little house. He went out and saw three intelligence men in plain clothes. Imaduddin could see a gun on one of them. Many people were being arrested at that time.

One of the men said, “We come from Jakarta. We would like to take you to Jakarta to get some information.”

What kind of information?”

We cannot tell you. You have to come with us immediately.”

Imaduddin said, “Give me a few minutes.”

And, being Imaduddin, he prayed for a while and washed, while his wife prepared a little prison bag for him. She didn’t forget his Koran.

All at once Imaduddin felt that he didn’t want to go with the men. He felt that as a Muslim he couldn’t trust them. He believed that the intelligence people in Indonesia were under the control of the Catholics.* He telephoned the rector of the Bandung Institute. The rector said, “Let me talk to them.” He talked to them, but the intelligence men insisted that Imaduddin should go with them. The rector began to hurry over to Imaduddin’s house, but by the time he got there Imaduddin had been taken away in a taxi.

The intelligence men left the house with Imaduddin about 12:30, forty-five minutes after they had rung the bell. Imaduddin sat at the back of the taxi between two of the men; the third man sat in the front. They got to the Central Intelligence Office in Jakarta at 4:30 in the morning. Imaduddin, with the serenity of the believer, had slept some of the way. It was time for the dawn prayers when they arrived, and they allowed Imaduddin to do the prayer. Then they asked him to wait in a kind of waiting room. They gave him breakfast.

At eight he was taken to an office and he began to be interrogated by a lieutenant colonel in uniform. There was no hint or threat of abuse or violence. As a lecturer at the Bandung Institute, Imaduddin would have been considered of high official rank and had to be handled correctly.

After the lieutenant colonel there was a man in plain clothes. This man gave his name. Imaduddin recognized it as the name of a state prosecutor.

He asked Imaduddin, “Are you a Muslim?”

I’m Muslim.”

Is that why you think this country is an Islamic state? Do you think so?”

He was an educated man, a lawyer, perhaps five years younger than Imaduddin.

Imaduddin said, “I don’t know what to say. I have never studied law. I am an engineer. You are a lawyer.”

The prosecutor said, “The government has spent so much money building mosques and many other things for the Muslims. It has built the National Mosque. But still there are Muslims who would like to turn this country into an Islamic state. Are you one of those Muslims?”

You tell me what you think of this country,” Imaduddin said.

It is a secular state. Not a religious state.”

Imaduddin said, “You are wrong. You are dead wrong.”

Why? You said that as an engineer you don’t know the law.”

Some things I know. Because I have studied in the States. The United States you can call a secular state. But you have told me that the government here has spent so much money to build things like the National Mosque. What kind of government is that?”

  1. *

    Editors’ Note: In the 1970s and 1980s Indonesia’s intelligence service was controlled by General Benny Murdani, a Catholic. During those years, when Suharto was concerned to neutralize Islam as a political force, Islamic critics of the regime were often under surveillance by the intelligence authorities.

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