Center for Strategic Communication

by Mark Woodward

Former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) died yesterday. He was 69 years old. His passing was sudden, but not altogether unexpected because his health had been fragile for many years. He will be buried tomorrow in Jombang in East Java at Pesantren Tebuireng, the Islamic school founded by his grandfather. Tens of millions mourn his passing and join together in prayer, that as one friend put it “all of his sins will be forgiven and all of his prayers received by God.”

Gus Dur was a remarkable person. It is hard to find words to describe him and the contributions he made to Indonesia. He devoted his life to the struggle for social justice, democracy, peace and religious harmony which he passionately believed to be core Islamic values. But perhaps his greatest contribution was his role in transforming Nahdlatul Ulama (NU, the traditionally conservative Muslim organization founded by his grandfather Hasyim Ashari 1875-1947). NU has more than fifty million members and tens of millions more supporters. This makes it by far the largest Muslim organization in the world. Its primary base of support is among people from villages and small towns in East and Central Java. The organizations leaders are almost exclusively traditional Muslim scholars who have well deserved reputations of deep knowledge, not only of the Qur’an but of centuries old traditions of Islamic scholarship in areas including Quranic Exegesis, Theology, Law and Mysticism. Until recently they have been slow to venture outside this world.

Gus Dur did a great deal to bring NU into the modern world, while preserving the its spiritual traditions and intellectual heritage. He often led by example in ways that some NU traditionalists, to say nothing of Muslim fundamentalists, found outrageous. He was, for example, an avid fan of western classical music and once quipped that losing the presidency was not nearly as painful and loosing his collection of 27 recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He had a well-deserved reputation for being disorganized and impulsive. He sometimes described Indonesia’s first President Soekarno as the “Order President,” Suharto (Indonesia’s second president and founder of the totalitarian military regime that ruled from 1965 to 1998) as the “New Order President,” and himself as the “No Order President.” A habit that aides and rivals found particularly frustrating was that a times of crisis, which were many in the early days of Indonesia’s democratic transition, he would break off meetings to pray at the tomb of one of Java’s many Muslim saints. He once told me that he got much better advice from them than from most of the members of his cabinet.

This combination of tradition and modernity, and the fact that many NU people thought of him as a living saint, made it possible for Gus Dur to bridge vastly different social and intellectual worlds. He could talk about Kant, Hegel and Marx in any number of European languages and suddenly switch to reciting and expounding upon classical Javanese or Arabic poetry. He was always unpredictable. A common Indonesian joke about him was that, “There are two things that are impossible to know: When you will die and what Gus Dur will do next.”

Gus Dur had a remarkable memory, not only for philosophy and poetry, but for names and numbers. He could recall hundreds of phone numbers and the details of conversations he had years before in an instant. In these and many other ways he embodied the archetype of the Javanese Islamic scholar-saint. At the same time his dedication to democracy, religious pluralism and social justice was unwavering. His conviction that Islam is not only compatible with these values, but that they are central Islamic teachings was absolute. He was equally committed to the cultural and theological plurality of Islam and viewed attempts to equate it with political extremism and Arab culture with bemused indifference. On a visit to Arizona State University in 1993 he remarked that: “The problem with Saudi Arabs is that they do not understand the difference between Islam and their own culture.” He also thought that their understanding of Islam was simplistic – at best.

He also promoted modern education for the young people of NU. This may be his most enduring legacy. As recently as the 1970s most of Indonesia’s modern intellectuals were from either secular or “modernist” neo-fundamentalist Muslim backgrounds. This is no longer true. There are now many who bring NU’s traditional concern with scholarly attainment to their study of “modern” disciplines in the natural and social sciences.
Gus Dur was an enigmatic and genuinely remarkable figure. He was an inspiration for tens of millions of Indonesians and truly, as many have called him, “The Nation’s Teacher.”

[Editor’s note:  A CSC white paper on Mr. Wahid written by Mark Woodward can be found here.]