THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
Last King of Java
Indonesia's former president offers a model of Muslim tolerance.
Saturday, April 7, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT
JAKARTA, Indonesia--Suppose for a moment that the single most
influential religious leader in the Muslim world openly says "I am for
Israel." Suppose he believes not only in democracy but in the liberalism
of America's founding fathers. Suppose that, unlike so many
self-described moderate Muslims who say one thing in English and another
in their native language, his message never alters. Suppose this, and
you might feel as if you've descended into Neocon Neverland.
In fact, you have arrived in Jakarta and are sitting in the small
office of an almost totally blind man of 66 named Abdurrahman Wahid. A
former president of Indonesia, he is the spiritual leader of the
Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), an Islamic organization of some 40 million
members. Indonesians know him universally as Gus Dur, a title of
affection and respect for this descendant of Javanese kings. In the U.S.
and Europe he is barely spoken of at all--which is both odd and
unfortunate, seeing as he is easily the most important ally the West has
in the ideological struggle against Islamic radicalism.
Conversation begins with some old memories. In the early 1960s, Mr.
Wahid, whose paternal grandfather founded the NU in 1926 and whose
father was Indonesia's first minister of religious affairs, won a
scholarship to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which for 1,000 years had
been Sunni Islam's premier institution of higher learning. Mr. Wahid
"These old sheikhs only let me study Islam's traditional surras
in the old way, which was rote memorization," he recalls, speaking in
the excellent English he learned as a young man listening to the BBC and
Voice of America. "Before long I was fed up. So I spent my time reading
books from the USIS [United States Information Service], the Egyptian
National Library, and at the cinema. I used to watch three, four movies
As Mr. Wahid saw it, the basic problem with Al-Azhar was that the
state interfered in its affairs and demanded intellectual conformity--a
lesson he carries with him to the present day. In 1966 he left Cairo for
Baghdad University, where he encountered much the same thing: "The
teaching [suffered from] conventionalism. You were not allowed to go
your own way."
Here Mr. Wahid digresses into Islamic history. "In the second century
of Islam, the Imam al-Shafi'i began remodeling the religion," he says.
"He put into place the mechanism of understanding everything through law
[Shariah]. Now people can't talk about that anymore. We cannot attack
The point is crucial to Mr. Wahid's understanding of Islam as being
something broader, deeper and better than the tradition-bound view of
life imposed by traditional schools of Islamic law (all the more
striking because Mr. Wahid is himself a leading theologian of the
Shafi'i school). It is equally crucial to Mr. Wahid's politics, not to
mention his relaxed approach to social issues.
"The globalization of ethics is always frightening to people,
particularly Islamic radicals," he says in reference to a question about
the so-called pornoaksi legislation. For the past three years
Indonesian politics have been roiled by an Islamist attempt to label
anything they deem sexually arousing to be a form of "porno-action." Mr.
Wahid sees this as an assault on pancasila, Indonesia's
secularist state philosophy from the time of its founding. He also sees
it as an assault on common sense. "Young people like to kiss each
other," he says, throwing his hands in the air. "Why not? Just because
old people don't do it doesn't mean it's wrong."
||Mr. Wahid is equally relaxed about some of the
controversies that have recently erupted between Muslims and the
West. Pope Benedict's Regensburg speech from last September was
"a good speech, though as usual he pointed to the wrong times
and the wrong cases." As for the furor over the Danish cartoons
of the Prophet Mohammad, he asks "why should we be angry?" And
he dismisses Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the al-Jazeera preacher who
helped incite the cartoon riots, as an "angry, conventional"
What really concerns Mr. Wahid is what he sees as the
increasingly degraded state of the Muslim mind. That problem is
becoming especially acute at Indonesian universities and in the
pesantren--the religious boarding schools that graduate
hundreds of thousands of students every year. "We are
experiencing the shallowing of religion," he says, bemoaning the
fact that the boarding schools persist in teaching
"conventional"--that word again--Islam.
But Mr. Wahid's critique is not just of formal Islamic education. He
also attacks the West's philosophy of positivism, which, he says,
"relies too much on the idea of conquering knowledge and mastering
scientific principles alone." This purely empirical and essentially
soulless view of things, broadly adopted by Indonesia's secular state
universities, gives its students a bleak choice: "Either they follow the
process or they are outside the process."
As a result, Western-style education in Indonesia has come to
represent not just secularism but the negation of religion, to which too
many students have responded by embracing fundamentalism. At the
University of Indonesia, for example, an estimated three in four
students are members or sympathizers of the "Prosperous Justice Party,"
or PKS, an ultra-radical Islamic party.
This raises the subject of religion and politics.
"For us, an Islamic party is not a thing to follow," he says, adding
that "religion and morality is tied to person, not a party." To
illustrate the point, he observes that religious parties in the Muslim
world have more often been the handmaids of dictatorship than democracy.
"Whenever governments tried to enforce their institutions they use
'Islamic' people as potential allies." The Front for the Defense of
Islam (FPI), a radical vigilante group that uses violent means to
suppress "un-Islamic" behavior, was, he observes, originally a creature
of the Indonesian military.
So why did Mr. Wahid, as a religious leader, make the choice to go
into politics himself? He demurs at the suggestion of choice. "I am
against politics, so to speak. In 1984 I tried hard to convince people
that the NU should not be in politics." He was overruled by others in
the organization, and eventually he founded the Party of National
Awakening, or PKB. Yet the party, he insists, is "based on non-Islamic
principles," a fact he illustrates by pointing to a nearby aide who is
an Indonesian Protestant. "We have to go for plurality, for tolerance."
He also believes that the "only solution" to the challenge of Islamic
radicalization in Indonesia is more democracy. But what about the
example of Hamas, which came to power through democratic means, and of
other groups like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood that would probably do the
same if given the chance? Mr. Wahid's answer is to distinguish between
what he calls "full democratization" and the "hollow imitation of
democracy" that he sees taking place in Indonesia as well as among Arabs
in Palestine and Iraq.
"The problem is not personalities, it is institutions," he says. "For
the past 250 years the Americans have had not just Jefferson's concept
of the rights of the individual but also Alexander Hamilton's belief in
a strong state." In order to function properly, democracy requires
competent government that can effectively uphold the rule of law. It
also requires a broadly understood concept of self-rule, which is
missing in too much of the developing world: "Here, ordinary citizens
expect the government to do everything for them."
He therefore takes a fairly dim view of Iraq's democratic prospects.
"Iraqis understood that Saddam had caused them trouble," and were
grateful to be rid of him, he says. "But as for the U.S. concept of
democracy, they don't understand it at all." The problem, he adds, goes
double in the rest of the Arab world, where, he says, the prevailing
view is that being a democracy is an expression of weakness, while being
a dictatorship is a sign of strength.
What's needed, in other words, is for countries like Indonesia and
Iraq to find a way to combine effective government with a powerful
respect for the rights of the citizen. But how one goes about doing that
is itself a deeper problem, a problem of culture. "How do we follow the
West without [becoming] Westerners? How do you do that? I don't know."
In fact, Mr. Wahid has begun to develop an answer
through two organizations he chairs, the Wahid Institute, run by his
daughter Yenny, and LibForAll, an Indonesia- and U.S.-based nonprofit
run by American C. Holland Taylor, which works to discredit Islamism's
ideology of hatred. "It's up to LibForAll to introduce both sides to
Muslims; to show that common principles are also the principles of
Islam," Mr. Wahid says. "Hundreds of thousands of Muslim youth learn in
countries where there is technological modernity. We need to [nurture]
the emergence of a new kind of people who think in terms of being modern
but still relate to the past."
In fact, that perfectly describes Mr. Wahid, who is keenly aware of
his own roots in both Islamic and Javanese traditions. Among his
ancestors are the last Hindu-Buddhist king of the Javanese Majapahit
dynasty, and Sunan Kalijogo, a Sufi mystic who married Islamic and local
traditions and, according to lore, defeated Islamic extremism in the
16th century. Can Mr. Wahid, heir to this venerable tradition,
accomplish the same feat? "Right now, the fundamentalists think they're
winning," he once told a friend. "But they're going to wake up one day
and realize we beat them."
Mr. Stephens writes "Global View," The Wall Street Journal's
foreign affairs column.
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