Wahid, seated, receives the Medal of Valor from Rabbi Marvin Hier,
the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as Rabbi
Abraham Cooper, far left,
and C. Holland Taylor look on at the Simon Wiesenthal Center on May
Photo Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center
Rock Music, Islamic Teachings,
for Moderate Islam
Tuesday, May 19, 2008
In its telling, the story of a notorious lynching of Jews is
The storyteller, however, is: Abdurrahman Wahid, the former
Indonesian president, and a leading Muslim scholar visiting the U.S. to preach
his message of Muslim tolerance, revealed the root of his
understanding of the risks and perils of Jewish existence.
was a 29-year-old student at Baghdad University in 1966, earning his
keep as a secretary at a textile importer, when he befriended the
firm’s elderly accountant, an Iraqi Jew he remembers only by his
family name, Ramin.
“I learned from him about the Kabbalah, the Talmud, everything
about Judaism,” Wahid recalled of the four-year friendship that
included long lunches, quiet walks and talks at the city’s legendary
Wahid has spoken about this friendship before — it is featured in
his biography by Greg Barton, “Abdurrahman Wahid: Muslim Democrat,
Indonesian President” — but on this recent tour Wahid added to the
account his memories of Jan. 27, 1969.
In 1968, the Iraqi
government effectively had come under the control of Saddam Hussein,
whose title at that time was deputy to the president, Ahmad Hassan
At Saddam’s behest, Iraqi courts had convicted 14 Iraqis – nine
of them Jews – on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel, and they
were hanged that day in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, just steps away
from where the textile firm had offices.
Ramin came to his friend Wahid and wept, wondering what would
become of Iraq’s ancient Jewish community.
“I said, ‘This is not only your fate, it is my fate,’ ” said
Wahid, now frail and in a wheelchair.
Wahid said he decided then that “the Islamic people should learn”
about the Jews and their faith.
Ramin’s worst fears were realized:
The community that dated to the Babylonian exile heard Saddam’s
message loud and clear, and by the early 1970s it had dwindled to
barely a hundred Jews. By 2007 there were less than 10, according to
Wahid, however, made good on his pledge.
Best known as the
president who shifted Indonesia to democracy from 1999 to 2001,
Wahid then was forced out due to a combination of financial scandals
and hard-liners who opposed his attempts to liberalize restrictions
on political groups and the country’s Chinese minority.
Wahid also has gained prominence for his insistence on introducing
the world’s most populous Muslim nations to certain truths about the
As an opposition
leader, he broke new ground by visiting Israel in 1994. The apex of
this effort, conducted jointly with the LibForAll Foundation, a
group that promotes moderate Islam, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center,
was the Holocaust conference last year in Bali, Indonesia.
At the conference, which was attended by survivors and Jewish and
Muslim clergy, Wahid called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a
“liar” for denying the Holocaust.
Wahid, 67, continues to promote
his message with LibForAll, founded in 2003 by C. Holland Taylor, a
scholar of Southeast Asia and a telecommunications magnate. Wahid,
who says he plans to run for president again in 2009, brings to the
venture his prestige as the scion of a family of Javanese Islamic
Earlier this month he attended a Wiesenthal Center tribute dinner
in his honor and then traveled to Israel to participate in Israeli
President Shimon Peres’ conference celebrating Israel’s 60th
anniversary, “Facing Tomorrow.”
This Jewish component is just part of Wahid’s larger effort to
promote an ideology of moderate Islam. He wants to demonstrate that
the radical factions are not pre-eminent and to promote a faith that
preaches equality for women and tolerance of non-believers.
Taylor says the strategy is to reach political, religious and
cultural leaders — even pop stars — and through them to “trickle
down” the message of Wahid’s moderate Islam.
This strategy might make headway in countries where moderate Islam
has roots — Malaysia, Turkey and some East African nations — but
Taylor does not have a clear plan of action for how this strategy is
supposed to work in places such as Saudi Arabia, which has few
Wahid says moderate Islam stands a greater
chance of triumphing over Islamic radicalism once Western leaders
stop trying to accommodate Islamic extremists. Saudi Arabia, in
particular, remains the primary funding source for the global spread
of fundamentalist Islam.
That is worthy of being repeated:
Moderate Islam stands a greater chance of triumphing over
Islamic radicalism once Western leaders stop trying to accommodate
“Don’t give any kind of recognition to the fundamentalist view of
Islam,” Wahid said. “The Saudis have a double-pronged thing: the
first is to give assistance to fundamentalists, on the other side to
show the ‘humanist’ side of Islam. These things cannot be
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