Abdurrahman Wahid’s life deserves serious and critical reflection
Gus Dur in 2009
The death of Abdurrahman Wahid, widely known as Gus Dur, on 30 December 2009, has led to an outpouring of emotion, both within Indonesia and abroad. The grief at his passing has been most evident within Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the organisation he led for 15 years. Indeed, Gus Dur was NU’s most famous and controversial son. He had been its leading intellectual and reformer since the 1970s and had carved out a role as an advocate of change in national affairs that was without precedent in NU history. The pinnacle of his career, at least in terms of formal office, was his election as president of Indonesia in 1999, the only NU person to become head of state. Many in NU’s grassroots regarded him as a wali, a saint who was blessed by God and was closer to Him than normal mortals, and who possessed special powers of knowledge and insight. His funeral ceremony was attended by many thousands of grief-stricken NU members and within hours of his burial his grave had become a site of pilgrimage for his followers.
Judging by the many obituaries written by scholars and journalists since his death, NU people were not the only ones to cast Gus Dur in saintly terms. Understandably, obituarists have focused glowingly on the many achievements of his life and carefully refrained from touching on his shortcomings. They have applauded his role in promoting interfaith dialogue, political reform, human rights, religious liberalism and the arts. Some have, rather creatively, gone so far as to extol the successes of his presidency. Long-term admirers of Gus Dur, as well as many of his erstwhile detractors, have joined in proposing that he be honoured as a ‘national hero’, an initiative warmly welcomed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his government.
But amid all the superlatives and hagiography, there should also be a place for balanced reflection on Gus Dur’s life. Every public figure has failings and failures, as well as virtues and victories. Serious discussion of Gus Dur’s role is only possible if both positives and negatives are considered. He was unquestionably an outstanding figure in contemporary Indonesia, who exerted beneficial influence on many aspects of his nation’s life. But he was no saint. For all that he achieved in his rich and eventful life, he was also capable of reckless, wilful and unforgiving behaviour, which at times proved harmful to Indonesia and his beloved NU community, and which also sat oddly with the high-minded principles that he espoused.
Gus Dur’s public life was divided into two distinct periods, with the late 1990s as the watershed. There was a marked changed in his personality and outlook between the two periods, to which the strokes that he suffered in 1998 contributed heavily. It was in the earlier period that Gus Dur made his greatest mark and the latter period was one of misadventure, calamity and forsaking previous ideals.
Gus Dur was born in 1940 into East Java’s most powerful and prestigious family of traditional religious scholars. His grandfather, Hasyim Asy’ari, was the principal founder of NU, and his father, Wahid Hasyim, a highly respected minister in numerous governments of the late 1940s and early 1950s, before dying in a car accident in 1953. The then 12 year old Abdurrahman survived the accident unhurt but watched in distress the failed efforts to save his father’s life. He had the privileged education of a prominent ‘gus’ (the title given to sons of Islamic scholars), attending several of the best Islamic boarding schools in Java and receiving special tuition from senior teachers. Somewhat less commonly, he was also sent to state schools for a general education.
Gus Dur long admired Israel and was a member of Shimon Peres Center
Gus Dur had a sharp but restless intellect. He could quickly master difficult subjects in which he was interested but often neglected topics that he found mundane. His teachers, both in state and religious schools would frequently tell his family that he was a gifted child who lacked consistency and application. These would turn out to be hallmarks of his career: brilliance combined with errancy. He won a scholarship to al-Azhar, that most famous of Islamic universities, in Cairo in 1963, but by his own admission, he spent more time in cinemas and at the soccer than he did at lectures. He failed to complete his bachelor course there but eventually graduated in Arabic Studies from Baghdad University in 1970 and returned to Indonesia the following year.
Gus Dur began making his reputation as an intellectual and a religious and political reformer from the early 1970s. He became a popular columnist in print media Kompas, Tempo and Sinar Harapan. The sheer diversity of topics and approaches in these writings is remarkable. He could range with ease across historical, cultural, social, religious or sporting themes. His writing was always entertaining and thought-provoking, and at its best, utterly memorable. I recall one article that began as an historical account of the Abbasid caliphate in the eight and ninth centuries but turned into criticism of contemporary Muslims who regarded non-Islamic cultures as a threat. He argued that the greatness of the Abbasids lay in their embracing of other sources of learning and culture and thus he saw them as beacons of Islamic inclusiveness. His point was that Islam was at its best when it was open-minded and pluralistic. Aside from his writings, he also became active in NGO, intellectual and cultural circles. He possessed excellent English and Arabic and was often invited to speak at international seminars and conferences, whether in Indonesia or abroad.
Gus Dur also rose to prominence within NU, though he was never far from controversy. Soon after being made one of the secretaries of NU’s Religious Council in the late 1970s, he caused anger among conservative scholars by proposing that ‘tolerance’ become the sixth pillar of Islam. Many senior figures in NU at this time were ambivalent about Gus Dur. They were impressed by his creative mind and growing public stature and were also respectful of his blue-blood pedigree, but they were unsettled by his irreverence and unpredictability. Despite these misgivings, much of NU’s elite backed Gus Dur and other young activists in the early 1980s in their efforts to reform the organisation. Gus Dur was elected chairperson of the NU Central Board in 1984, a position he would hold till 1999. Under his leadership, NU withdrew from party politics and concentrated on broader community outreach and development. While Gus Dur was not the sole architect of this process, he was its public face and most eloquent advocate. He helped to transform NU from an inward-looking, conservative and politically stagnant organisation into a more progressive, intellectually open and strategically flexible movement.
Gus Dur was much more than an NU leader – he was one of the most articulate and daring proponents of liberal change in Indonesian politics and society
But Gus Dur was much more than an NU leader. Particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s, he was one the most articulate and daring proponents of liberal change in Indonesian politics and society. He tirelessly championed such causes as democratisation, human rights, religious tolerance, gender equality and free cultural expression. While he lacked the patience and discipline to write extended treatises (unlike his fellow reform-minded Muslim intellectual, Nurcholish Madjid), he understood better than most the impact of a pithy public statement or symbolic gesture in shaping community attitudes. For example, in the name of supporting Middle East peace, he travelled to Israel in 1994 to attend the signing of Jewish state’s treaty with Jordan, an act condemned by Indonesian Islamists. He demonstrated his commitment to religious pluralism by giving speeches in non-Muslim places of worship and sending NU paramilitary units to defend churches at risk of attack from vigilantes. He often spoke up when many other Muslim reformers thought it wiser to remain quiet, such as in 1990 when rampaging Muslim students ransacked the office of Monitor magazine after the editor had placed the Prophet Muhammad below himself on a popularity survey. Gus Dur denounced the students, saying they should use their minds, not their muscles, to express their grievances, and he openly criticised the regime’s later prosecution of the editor.
This characteristic outspokenness sometimes bordered on foolhardiness. Once, he described Suharto as ‘stupid’ in an interview with a foreign journalist. Before publishing the interview, the journalist rang Gus Dur to double check that he could include the word, and was breezily told: ‘Yes, of course. It’s about time someone said this!’ (Suharto was infuriated by the remark and almost succeeded in removing Gus Dur as NU chairperson in 1994.) Most of the time, though, Gus Dur was politically savvy in his relations with the regime. His election as NU chairperson in 1984 was supported by Suharto, and Gus Dur was, more often than not, wary of alienating the president. He accepted Suharto’s nomination of him to the People’s Consultative Assembly in 1988, even though it violated NU’s guidelines on political neutrality, and he made sure that NU leaders proved helpful to Golkar’s electoral interests. He once explained to me that he was involved in a ‘game of give and take’ with the regime: ‘I give it some of what it wants and this gives me space to push for reform.’
Gus Dur’s public persona as a tolerant, good-natured leader did not always reflect his behind-the-scenes behaviour during the 1980s and early 1990s. Many who worked with him on a regular basis found him difficult and frustrating. Particularly as NU chairperson, he was little interested in administration or due process and frequently made arbitrary or impulsive decisions. This especially irked those who had supported his rise to power and who wanted NU to become a modern, efficient organisation that provided reliable services to its millions of members. By the early 1990s, many of his erstwhile allies had either fallen out with him or quietly distanced themselves from his circle. Some found to their cost that Gus Dur could be a hardhearted adversary. Several NU executive members who crossed him in the 1980s were later subjected to his often withering pejorative humour and his penchant for calumnising opponents. He also frequently made outlandish claims against conservative Muslims, especially those holding strongly Islamist views, which he equated with sectarianism and fundamentalism. Indeed, he showed no tolerance for those whom he saw as intolerant, regularly vilifying them with claims that they encouraged religious violence and conspired against Indonesia’s secular political system.
From the mid 1990s, Gus Dur became more erratic and irascible. He flabbergasted his fellow NU leaders by tacitly endorsing Suharto’s daughter, Tutut, in the run up to 1997 election campaign and sharply censured younger NU activists who criticised his decision. He also admitted to his inner circle various unsavoury characters whom NU colleagues suspected were manipulating him. The two strokes that he suffered in January and September 1998 exacerbated his physical and mental decline. His eyesight, which had been deteriorating for many years, was now lost, though he continued to assert that he retained some vision and that various miracle treatments abroad would fully restore his sight. He had greatly reduced mobility and his temperament and intellectual functioning seemed impaired. He was much quicker to anger and his rebukes much harsher than before. His powers of oratory were also diminished; a fine, often uplifting speaker prior to 1998, his post-stroke addresses tended to be rambling and elliptical. Most notable of all was an unrestrained ambition and particularly a burning desire to become president.
The depth of Gus Dur’s determination was apparent in early 1999 when he began systematically undermining his close friend, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who was the presidential frontrunner. Echoing the objections of Islamist groups, he repeatedly told the press that the Muslim community, including his own NU members, would not accept a female president. He also regularly derided Megawati as lacking the intelligence and energy to be a good president, attacks which she regarded as outright betrayal. Women’s groups were shocked to see Gus Dur, a long-time advocate of gender rights within Islam, using such arguments. In the run-up to the presidential election in the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), Gus Dur campaigned constantly to stitch together a coalition capable of delivering majority support. He cultivated many Islamists and groups associated with the former regime he had previously criticised, promising them rewards should he be elected. It was, in one way, skilful and wily politics, but in another way contrary to many of the principles that he had long championed. He eventually defeated Megawati by 373 to 313 votes.
One senior diplomat emerged from a meeting with Gus Dur and told his staff he had ‘expected to meet Indonesia’s Nelson Mandela but instead had met a gossip monger’
Gus Dur’s presidency was chaotic. He began sacking ministers within months of taking office and would eventually replace 26 ministers in 21 months. Sometimes the manner of ministerial dismissals seemed as if it had been scripted by Monty Python. For example, he announced one afternoon in early February 2000 that General Wiranto was to be sacked as Defence Minister. He then reversed the decision later that evening, only to fire Wiranto again at the end of the month. Laksamana Sukardi and Jusuf Kalla were accused of corruption and removed from their portfolios without any evidence ever being produced against them. He routinely ridiculed his vice president Megawati in public and in formal meetings. Official visitors to the palace were often regaled with unflattering accounts of Megawati’s physical appearance or embarrassing aspects of her personal life – many of which would quickly make their way back to the vice president. One senior diplomat emerged from a meeting with Gus Dur and told his staff he had ‘expected to meet Indonesia’s Nelson Mandela but instead had met a gossip monger.’
Gus Dur’s approach to policy making was similarly disordered. He would often fall asleep during briefings and cabinet meetings and frequently forgot or reversed on a whim decisions previously made with ministers. He would regularly make pronouncements on the basis of information fed to him by unreliable friends and associates, even when this was diametrically opposed to official advice. His lack of discipline extended to his overseas visits. He quickly became the most travelled president in Indonesian history, making some 30 trips abroad, most of which yielded no discernable benefit. (Curtis Levi’s Midnight in Jakarta documentary captures the sometimes hilariously absurd aspects of Gus Dur’s peregrinations.) This pattern of leadership had a debilitating effect on the entire process of government.
Gus Dur with his daughter, Yenny
Perhaps the most reprehensible part of Gus Dur’s presidency was the undemocratic measures he used to intimidate political foes and shore up his incumbency. He repeatedly warned his opponents that he would mobilise millions of NU members on to the streets of Jakarta in support of his presidency and was reluctant to condemn thuggish behaviour by NU activists towards his perceived opponents, particularly in modernist Muslim organisations such as Muhammadiyah. Almost his last decision as president on 22 July 2001 was to issue a presidential decree freezing parliament and the MPR in a bid to thwart moves to remove him. Most legal experts regarded the decree as unconstitutional. It was testimony to his depleted authority that the police and the armed forces disregarded his orders, as did most of the political elite. When the MPR dismissed him the next day, in a final act of self-inflicted indignity, he refused to vacate the palace, claiming his dismissal had been illegal. He was eventually persuaded by family and friends to leave several days later.
Gus Dur achievements as president were slight. Parliament became so antagonised by his administration that few important bills were passed; many of the legislative initiatives for which Gus Dur is given credit actually had their origins in the preceding Habibie presidency. He was magnanimous in his behaviour towards the East Timorese, and bravely apologised for Indonesian human rights abuses, fully aware this would be condemned by nationalists and the military at home. He also spoke out against the stigmatisation of former members of the Communist Party and their families and sought to lift restrictions upon them, despite fierce opposition from within the military and Islamic groups, and restored religious and cultural rights to the Chinese, including removing the ban on Confucianism. His sympathy for Papuan and Acehnese grievances and willingness to discuss concessions constituted an equally welcome change from the inflexibility of previous governments, though ultimately, he proved unable to furnish a framework for systematically addressing demands for greater autonomy.
Embittered and defiant, Gus Dur spent much of the remaining eight years of his life fighting unedifying political battles. He sought to contest the 2004 presidential elections but fell foul of newly introduced and discriminatory health requirements that effectively excluded blind or physically disabled candidates. He increasingly came to treat the party that he had helped to found, the National Awakening Party (PKB), as a personal fiefdom, sacking or marginalising all who opposed him, freezing branches that he regarded as disloyal and intervening constantly in internal party decision making to ensure that favoured supporters won strategic positions or gained nomination to legislative seats in NU strongholds. Having dismissed three successive chairmen, he even went so far as to appoint his daughter, Yenny, as secretary general, despite her having no administrative experience. His actions were hard to square with his earlier denunciation of nepotistic and autocratic leadership cultures in NU. By the time of his death, he had left PKB a broken party, with many of its most talented cadres driven out and its electoral support languishing below 5 per cent. For a man who had sought to make the NU community into a bastion of democratic activity, Gus Dur’s leadership of PKB had proved an abject failure.
How, then, should we judge Gus Dur’s contribution to Indonesian life? It is tempting, so close to his death, to be generous and only acknowledge what a unique, liberal-minded, charming and iconoclastic figure he was. Equally at home in a traditional Islamic boarding school discussing medieval law texts in Arabic or speaking in English at an international conference on transformative Islam or human rights, he was one of the few Muslim intellectuals who was able to straddle different worlds with ease and have an impact in both. He changed the orientation and self-perception of NU, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, and gave momentum and intellectual acuity to efforts to democratise and liberalise Indonesia during the Suharto years. He also enriched cultural and social discourses with his championing of visual and literary arts. But the final chapters of his career from the late 1990s have a tinge of tragedy about them. Ill health impaired his faculties and judgment, perhaps inducing him to dispense with ethical constraints in pursuit of the presidency. It also meant that he was far less capable of being a successful president than might have been the case if elected in the early 1990s. His failures as president and in the PKB were a regrettable end to a career that had, for the most part, been built on optimism, decency and the serving of public good.
Greg Fealy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior lecturer and fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University.