A Tribute to former President of Indonesia Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur)

December 31, 2009

The Passing of Southeast Asia’s Prominent Spokesman for Pluralism in Muslim Politics

by Terence Netto

The death of former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, ‘Gus Dur’ to legions of his admirers, in a Jakarta hospital yesterday deprives Southeast Asia of its pre-eminent spokesman for pluralism in Muslim politics.

anwar ibrahim and gus dur former indonesia president 110808 01For a man with his long history of ill-health, death at 69 could not be said to have come early. Still, it is untimely because Gus Dur’s voice was a major one against monism: the human delusion that life is explainable by a single, overarching principle.

By leveraging on his stature as the son and grandson of pioneers of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said to be the world’s largest Muslim social organisation, Gus Dur influenced the direction of Muslim politics in his country towards democratic pluralism at a time when the country was groping following dictator Suharto’s ouster in the late 1990s.

Ordinarily, a Muslim potentate like Gus Dur would be expected to be in favour of Islamist prescriptions like syariah in a time of national questing after a more equitable social order, but Gus Dur was flatly opposed to theocracy.

Though his term as Indonesian president was curtailed because of a scam over rice supplies, Gus Dur remained untainted by the dross of scandal such that while out of office he continued to extend his much-sought patronage to those on the fringes of Indonesian society.

His defense of the right to exist in Indonesia of the dissident sect, Achmadis, was a notable example of his courage in taking positions at odds with the majority of his countrymen.

In the mid-1990s, his decision to accept an invitation to the Nobel ceremony honouring peace laureate Bishop Carlos Belo, whom Jakarta suspected as a East Timorese separatist, was typical of Gus Dur’s bucking of the majority view.

Support for Anwar’s decision

In an interview with Malaysiakini in Kuala Lumpur in August 2008, that streak was evident in his support of Anwar Ibrahim’s decision not to swear on the Quran as proof he was innocent of an accusation of sodomy leveled by a former aide.

anwar ibrahim and gus dur former indonesia president 110808 04In other opinions expressed in the interview, it was clear that Gus Dur was one Islamic leader who could be counted on to take the side of the rationalists against the orthodox in their recurrent debate of issues that is subsumed by what is defined as the Socratic puzzle.

This is the question that is so abstruse it gives philosophy a bad name: Is an action good because God commands it? Or does God command it because it is good?

In other words, do the categories of right and wrong have an existence independent from divine will?

Secular reason, the building blocks of democratic pluralism, says yes; theocracy holds there is no independent criterion of morality outside the will of God.  The death of Abdurrahman Wahid represents a loss to the argument that holds with the former and dissents from the latter.

6 thoughts on “A Tribute to former President of Indonesia Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur)

  1. I remember clearly when I was on assignment in Indonesia and watching on TV the whole day the counting of votes in the Indonesian Parliament to elect their representatives and their President, at that time it was Allahyarham Gus Dur. It was historic and memorable to watch politicians using a whiteboard and erasable pen and county each vote with dashes and crosses.

    Whatever weakness he had, Gus Dur was one of those who reach out to Indonesians of all races and ethnicity and told them they all have a place in the country.(Compare that to UMNO with all the BTN courses and public shrieking about non Malays as PENDATANGS.

    It was a huge milestone from a military government to a truly democratic one… Indonesia moving forward while Malaysia moving backwards in terms of practising real democracy.

  2. We all know that Indonesia is a resource rich country, politically unstable and riddled with corruption. We also know that it discriminates against minorities especially Chinese who are mainly Catholics and Adventists and for years has been persecuting Chinese minorities. The last wave of race riots in 1978 was followed by the exodus of millions as refugees many of whom were granted asylum in the U.S. and countries signatories to the 1954 U.N. Convention relating to the status of Refugees and the 1967 U.N Protocol.

    Malaysia may not be approaching anything like that because Malaysian Chinese make up a substantial minority unlike in Indonesia where their numbers are estimated at no more than 2% of the total population. Still the present policy of attrition has already driven out thousands of her most educated, talented and skilled to foreign shores.

  3. Gus Dur ruled for nearly two years of tumult as Indonesia embarked on a path to democracy in 1999 after three decades of dictatorship. A democratic reformer and proponent of moderate Islam, he ultimately was unable to implement his ambitious ideas amid the financial and political chaos that dominated during his presidency.

    A White House statement said Gus Dur was “a pivotal figure” in Indonesia’s transition to free government who “will be remembered for his commitment to democratic principles, inclusive politics, and religious tolerance.”

    During his short term, from October 1999 to July 2001, Gus Dur led a broad coalition of unity but was eventually impeached after firing Yudhoyono, then a Cabinet minister, for refusing to declare a state of emergency when the army positioned tanks facing the Presidential Palace.

  4. This is what he said about religion and Israel .

    Wahid said:
    All religions insist on peace. From this we might think that the religious struggle for peace is simple … but it is not. The deep problem is that people use religion wrongly in pursuit of victory and triumph. This sad fact then leads to conflict with people who have different beliefs.
    In a 2002 interview with Foreign Correspondent, Wahid explained his respect for Israel and posed a challenging “correction” to be addressed by his fellow Muslims:
    Israel believes in God. While we have a diplomatic relationship and recognising diplomatically China and Russia, which are atheist states, then it’s strange that we don’t acknowledge Israel. This is the thing that we have to correct within Islam.

  5. “…his second assumption that Israel believes in God is debatable to say the least…”

    To be totally correct, Israel believes in a Jewish tribal God that hides behid burning bushes, refuse to show ITSELF to mortals, talks only to one man on a mountain, and not the rest and expected to be carried around on the shoulders in a “radio active” box called the Ark of Covenant while its followers were wandering around in the desert for 40 years. It was “radio active” because the fairy tale book considered holy by Muslims, Christians and Jews, that if any one even look at it inside, he/she will die instantly.

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