Mar 23, 2023 Last Updated 2:07 AM, Mar 22, 2023

More than meets the eye

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Indonesia's surprising new president

Greg Barton

The media regularly remind us that the president is a 'half blind, frail Muslim cleric'. Uncomfortable in suit and tie, clumsy assisted by aids on right and left, Abdurrahman Wahid seems almost as incongruous in the role as his elfish predecessor BJ Habibie. This revered but eccentric leader of the peasant-farmer based Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) seems an unlikely choice to lead a nation wracked by a radical collapse of confidence.

Almost everyone expected the regal and immensely popular Megawati Sukarnoputri to win the top office. Her serene visage had stared presidentially forth from tens of thousands of banners, whilst the folksy and decidedly unphotogenic Gus Dur was barely seen. Megawati's party PDI-P garnered a third of the votes at the June 7 general elections. Abdurrahman's party PKB, largely lacking support outside rural East Java, gained just twelve percent.

When Abdurrahman, backed by the Muslim right, the military and Suharto's Golkar party, trounced Megawati in a parliamentary vote for the presidency on October 20, many could not accept the result. That Wednesday night Jakarta burned. Only when Megawati won the vice-presidency the following day did the nation begin to breathe easy. Even then, some were hardly reassured when Abdurrahman announced a 'National Unity' cabinet several days later. Where was the opposition? Could democracy thrive in such a climate of compromise and 'solidarity making'?

But Abdurrahman Wahid, or Gus Dur as he is popularly known, has been grossly underestimated by the Australian media in particular. Behind the avuncular facade lies a profoundly complex individual of surprising measure. He faces some extraordinary challenges, not least the fear of 'Balkanisation' in this fatigued and brittle nation-state. If he proves equal to them, the entire nation will acknowledge him, as many already do, as in a Churchillian way the very best leader for the hour.

Polyglot father

Abdurrahman comes from one of Indonesia's more remarkable families. His grandfather Hasjim Asj'ari was an outstanding Islamic scholar (ulama). One of the founders of NU in 1926, he had influence not just among traditionalist Muslims but within the nationalist movement. His father Wahid Hasjim also played a key leadership role within NU and was Minister for Religious Affairs under Sukarno. Two major roads in central Jakarta bear the names of these two men - testimony to the esteem in which they are held.

Abdurrahman grew up in the early 1950s in affluent and cosmopolitan Central Jakarta. As a key figure within Indonesia's small elite, Abdurrahman's polyglot father regularly entertained a diverse range of personalities, including many foreign ambassadors. Abdurrahman spent enough time with a German friend of his father to learn a love of Beethoven and other classical European composers.

After completing junior high school he spent his late teenage years studying classical Islamic learning at several religious boarding schools (pesantren). Even in these most traditional of institutions, in his spare time (of which he had plenty for he found his classical Arabic studies easy) he read western philosophy, psychology, sociology and politics, both in English and French. A wardrobe filled with European texts remains at one pesantren as a tribute to this most unusual student.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this rich interior life Abdurrahman describes himself as a teenager locked in a difficult personal struggle. In his mid-twenties he was sent to Cairo's famous thousand year old Al Azhar University to complete his Islamic studies. However he soon found the formal Al Azhar rote-learning tedious and the subjects not greatly advanced on what he had already covered in some of Java's better pesantren. Instead he spent his time reading in the library of the American University, joining in intellectual cafe discussions, and watching French cinema and soccer. (The latter 'education' proved invaluable when years later he was asked to comment on World Cup matches on Indonesian television.)

In Cairo Abdurrahman became a committed liberal. As a teenager he had gone through a phase of, as he puts it, 'Islamic extremism', but in Cairo he left this behind. In 1966, after two years in Cairo, he moved to Baghdad, then the Arab world's most cosmopolitan capital. He spent four years there studying not Islamic studies but Arabic literature and society. This was followed by a year in Europe, were he had hoped to continue his studies, before returning to Java in 1971.

His unorthodox educational experience enabled him to synthesise modern western thought and classical Islamic learning in a most productive fashion. Back in Java he plunged into the task of reforming the pesantren system.


By 1978 he was an intellectual activist in Jakarta. Through his essays in Tempo weekly magazine he explained NU's arcane traditionalist Islam to Indonesia's urban elite. He was an innovative religious thinker and sharp social commentator. He spoke up for Indonesia's Chinese and other minority communities and eloquently declared intolerance antithetical to the true spirit of Islam.

In the early 1980s he became a key figure within a movement to reform NU. In December 1984 he was elected chairman of NU, a post he would hold for 15 years. One of his first initiatives was to withdraw NU from the political party PPP. He explained that 'church and state' should be separated, and declared that NU would return to its original charter as a social and religious organisation. This aversion to 'political Islam' meant that Suharto initially welcomed his ascension to lead the 30 million strong NU. The president soon had reason to revise his judgement, however, as Abdurrahman emerged as one of his most outspoken critics.

By the early 1990s Suharto was actively courting support from the 'political Muslims' he had persecuted a decade earlier, in an effort to balance the power of the military. His main vehicle was the Association of Islamic Intellectuals (ICMI), which he placed under the care of BJ Habibie. Abdurrahman's refusal to join ICMI, and his criticism of it for fostering sectarianism, enraged Suharto. At the November 1994 five-yearly NU congress Suharto did his best to block Abdurrahman's re-election to a third term as chairman. Despite his unparalleled resources, Suharto lost. It is difficult to conceive of any one else being able to stand up to Suharto and win in the way that Abdurrahman did. Megawati, for example, was not able to do so two years later when a similar assault within PDI saw her toppled from the leadership.

During the second half of the 1990s the political atmosphere chilled. Abdurrahman had to make some tough choices. In the face of unrelenting pressure from Suharto and the military he stepped back from the edge. Together with Megawati and Amien Rais he knew he could exert enormous pressure on Suharto's increasingly brittle regime, but he chose to bide his time until they could be certain of a lasting victory. For this he was greatly misunderstood.

Abdurrahman is a realist-idealist. His idealism is unambiguous and rooted in his religious convictions. For him Islam is a religion of justice, compassion and tolerance. He consistently champions inter-communal cooperation. He made three visits to Israel during the 1990s and has made diplomatic normalisation with Israel a personal project as president. Abdurrahman has a rich appreciation of how much we all share as human beings. This humanitarianism is reflected in his love of the novels of Orthodox Jewish writer Chaim Potok, and perhaps even more surprisingly, those of Salman Rushdie, whose freedom he has taken pains to defend.

But Abdurrahman is also a realist. Throughout his 15 years at the helm of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest organisation with a grass-roots network outside of the military-backed regime itself, he went out of his way to maintain good working relations with the military. Leading an organisation larger than many mid-sized nations made him familiar with the dynamics of real politik. To have opposed the military outright would have meant bloody repression, as the East Timorese are only too aware. Even as president he remains cautious of pushing too hard too fast. He recently signalled that he is prepared to consider pardoning a repentant Suharto 'but not his family members or cronies', arguing that 'Suharto still has many powerful supporters'.

For this reason, reform of the Indonesian military will be gradual. His instincts are to push for evolution over revolution, and to as far as possible avoid confrontation. As NU leader he had a pastoral concern for his tens of millions of members, and this same concern colours his presidential style.


For those who know him, however, the great irony and frustration is that his personality is shot through with a reckless streak. Had he taken greater care of his health, eating well and exercising regularly, he would not have suffered as he has from the effects of adult-onset diabetes. Better control of his blood pressure might have avoided the almost fatal stroke of January 1998 and arrested the erosion of his eyesight.

On another front, if he had only refrained from regularly declaring Megawati 'well intentioned but stupid' he would have saved his supporters considerable heartache. Abdurrahman's earthy wit has often gotten the better of him. His lack of discipline reveals itself in other areas as well. Had he learned to become a responsible administrator, his three terms at the helm of NU might have better equipped him for the presidency.

Whether this reckless streak is the product of his unusual childhood is impossible to know. But his abiding sense of destiny most certainly is. On a fateful day in April 1953 Abdurrahman was travelling with his father by car. He was twelve years old. He sat in the front with the driver, his father sat behind. The car was struck from behind by another vehicle and Wahid Hasjim was fatally injured. His mother, a strong woman whom Abdurrahman loved and a real power within NU, made it clear that his father's mantle had now passed to him. He was to become a leader and to serve the nation. He has been driven ever since.

Greg Barton ( teaches studies in religion at Deakin University, Geelong, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 62: Apr - Jun 2000

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