Indonesian President a Champion of Pluralism in Strained Nation

New York Times, June 17, 2000
By Peter Steinfels

Among religious leaders, President Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia stands out, but not simply because he has repeatedly called for a respectful dialogue among faiths and has decried any appeal to religion as a justification for violence.

To be sure, Mr. Wahid, who is Muslim, said those things again last Tuesday at two gatherings in New York, one under the auspices of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, and the other at the United Nations under the auspices of the Unification Church.

Many other religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama and the pope, have said much the same, although their pronouncements have often been ignored, most tragically, by many of their followers.

But as head of a nation strained by political, economic, ethnic and religious tensions, Mr. Wahid is virtually the only religious leader who directly confronts the challenge of translating such convictions into policy. In a brief interview, the 59-year-old president was able to convey both his commitment to religious peacemaking and the obstacles he faced in meeting that commitment.

In Indonesia, Mr. Wahid's stature as a religious figure and an intellectual preceded his political ascendancy.

Put simply, in a nation with the world's largest Islamic population, he headed the world's largest Islamic organization. That organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, was founded in 1926 by Muslim leaders that included his grandfather, an Islamic scholar. It was meant to be a bulwark of the "pesantren," traditional rural schools that teach the Koran and other Arabic religious texts, against urban Muslim modernizers who were establishing schools that put more emphasis on secular learning, ethics and individual freedom in interpreting sacred texts.

Today, Nahdlatul Ulama links 7,000 pesantren and claims more than 30 million members. Westerners might wonder how such a background could produce a leader like Mr. Wahid, a champion of pluralism, a defender of minorities, a believer in the separation of mosque and state, a sympathizer with Israel, an advocate of women's rights, a man seemingly free of hostility toward modernization and the West and convinced that many core values of post-Enlightenment liberalism are compatible with Islam.

How did traditionalism produce a man who not only knows the Koran by heart but also, according to David Lamb of The Los Angeles Times, travels with a Sony Walkman listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee"?

Part of the explanation lies in Indonesia's Islam. Succeeding an earlier mix of Hindu and Buddhist religiosity and co-existing with local folk beliefs, Indonesian Islam seems to have inherited at least a few genes for live-and-let-live pluralism.

But the explanation is also familial and personal. Mr. Wahid's father and grandfather were religious leaders and national heroes in Indonesia's struggle for independence. Though steeped in traditional Islam, the family environment was also polyglot and cosmopolitan. Mr. Wahid became a voracious reader, taking in not only Western political philosophy and social theory but also the great Russian and French novels. After Mr. Wahid's father died in an automobile accident, the son took on the mantle of religious leadership.

His studies in Islam and Arabic literature took him from the Javanese pesantren to Al Azhar University in Cairo and to Baghdad. At the same time, he pursued soccer, French films, discussions about Jewish mysticism and always his wide-ranging reading with at least equal diligence.

No one has delved into this background more than Greg Barton, who teaches comparative religion and Asian studies at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.

Professor Barton, who is completing an authorized biography of Mr. Wahid, also sheds light on the Indonesian leader's personality and idiosyncrasies. Mr. Wahid's spontaneity, playfulness and zest for life seem to contradict the seriousness expected of a religious scholar and leader. He is known for irreverent, even earthy, humor and for puncturing pretentiousness. It is a manner that recalls a number of Asian spiritual leaders.

By many accounts, there has been a seemingly erratic, unpredictable character to Mr. Wahid's conduct. At times he has been cautious, at other times outspoken, sometimes fearless, sometimes compromising. And his shortcomings in day-to-day management, exacerbated by his near blindness, are well known.

But his apparent bumbling and inconsistency cloak an instinctual canniness, said Professor Barton, who compared Mr. Wahid to Semar, a clowning character in the shadow puppet plays that are basic to Javanese culture. Semar plays the buffoon but turns out to be the smartest character in the plays' pantheon, the one who has the last laugh. Professor Barton says Semar is like Colombo, the television detective played by Peter Falk, a man who throws others off guard by calculated maladroitness -- and gets the job done.

Whether Mr. Wahid can do the job remains to be seen. It is certainly a formidable one, leading a nation of thousands of islands, hundreds of languages and scores of ethnicities from authoritarianism to democracy while weathering an economic crisis.

If he succeeds, his success will have a great deal to do with his roots, so deep in Indonesia's Islam that they have allowed him to encounter democracy and modernization confidently.

Whether he succeeds or not, Mr. Wahid has already challenged what Professor Barton has described as the secular and "typically post-modern" misconception that "it's only by abandoning all claims to metaphysical or absolute truth that one can be genuinely tolerant and pluralist."

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