Abdurrahman Wahid has just died, I knew him a bit during the mid-1990s, when the Suharto regime was still well entrenched and “Gus Dur” – as he was known – was a focus for the hopes of democrats and liberals. His position as a key figure in the opposition to dictatorship was made easier by the fact that he was descended from a long line of Muslim leaders, with deep roots in Java. But Wahid was anything but a parochial or forbidding figure. On the contrary, he was culturally tolerant, funny, liberal, fluent in English and intellectually-sophisticated.
I once travelled with him into Central Java to watch him preside over a religious ceremony, in a village that claimed to have just manufactured the world’s largest Koran. On the way there, he told me a joke that marked him out as an unusual Muslim leader. “Have you noticed,” he said, “that when the Jews pray, they stand by a wall and whisper. The Christians kneel and speak very quietly. But we Muslims stand in a tower and shout through a megaphone. It makes you wonder who is closer to God.” At this, he roared with laughter.
Religious tolerance was fundamental to Wahid. He told me that he had been a student in Baghdad in 1969, when nine Jews had been publicly hanged in Liberation square. The experience had horrified him. Wahid also made himself unpopular in Indonesia by defending Salman Rushdie. My wife pointed out to him that the cleric in the village we were visiting had referred (in Arabic) to “the accursed Rushdie” in his sermon. But Gus Dur simply replied mildly – “Yes, well we disagree about that.”
And although Wahid was regarded as almost the epitome of Javanese culture, he was far from reverential about the hocus-pocus surrounding it. During our drive, he mentioned to me that he had recently visited Suharto in his palace and had had to spend several hours with the various shamans that the elderly president surrounded himself with. “What were they saying?”, I asked with bated breath. “I’ve no idea,” he replied, “I can never understand a word those people say.” More laughter.
December 31 , 2009 1:46pm