I had the good fortune of meeting him for the first time on my very first visit to Indonesia in 1979.  A group of young men orbited around the figure of Soedjatmoko, the erudite diplomat who became the first rector of the UN University.  I met Abdurrahman Wahid through this exceptional circuit of Indonesian intellectuals, whom I came to know as Indonesia’s “successor generation”.  On October 20 this year, the 59-year-old half-blind stroke-weakened Wahid became the first freelyelected president of the world’s largest Islamic nation.

He was, as the writer V.S. Naipaul had described him in his relentlessly patronizing book on Muslims, “Among the Believers”, “a short, chunky, middle-aged man in a sarong” who had made his mark as an advocate of the pesantren movement.  The pesantren is the traditional village boarding school, where religious instruction permeates all the other modern subjects.  What distinguishes it from the typical school is the close practical relationship it establishes with the local village.

Wahid was raised in such local boarding schools.  When he was 24, he was sent to the Islamic University of Al-Azhar in Cairo and the University of Baghdad in Iraq.  Bred in the tradition of the finest Islamic scholar, he was, upon his return, put in charge of one of the oldest pesantrens in East Java.

But around 1978, after Suharto had co-opted all opposition parties, Islamic groups stood as the only organized force that could offer any challenge to the military’s hegemony over Indonesian society. Restless students sought in Islamic teachings the same themes of struggle that resonated in Philippine and Latin American theology of liberation.  Wahid was among the few Islamic scholars who understood that vocabulary.  That year, he moved to Jakarta where, following in the footsteps of his ancestors, he became part of the highest governing body of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Islamic organization.

Before long, “Gus Dur”, as he is better known, assumed the top leadership of NU.  But Wahid is no Ayatollah.  He thinks of himself rather as a modern Muslim, for whom faith is fundamentally a private matter. He does not believe in instituting Islam as a state religion. Yet he is also aware that in a rapidly changing world, Indonesians must continue to draw meaning from a living Islam.

Wahid quickly mastered the subtle ways of Indonesian politics.  Gifted with a big sense of humor, he steered a narrow course between collaboration and criticism.  He used his moral and spiritual authority to attack the corrupt ways of the Suharto regime.  But he also puzzled those who would claim him as comrade by doing the most outrageous thing – like campaigning with Suharto’s daughter in the 1997 elections.

At the lowest point in its history, when Indonesia seemed at the verge of falling apart, Wahid alone could command solid respect among the country’s various interest groups.  In the face of daily riots, he called for a “national reconciliation dialogue” that would culminate in a covenant among influential figures in and out of government.  Critics denounced his proposal as an elitist power-sharing formula designed to stem the tide of an authentic social revolution.  Wahid argued it was the only alternative to a national breakdown.

Because of his fading health, his public disavowal of power carried a lot of weight and he succeeded in persuading Indonesia’s powerbrokers to subordinate their sectoral interests to the bigger task of preserving the nation.  He supported Megawati Sukarnoputri’s presidential bid and placed the votes of his own National Awakening Party solidly behind her.   But against the wishes of Megawati, he deftly maneuvered to install fellow Muslim leader Amien Rais as head of the People’s Consultative Assembly, the body that would choose the next president.

His disagreement with Megawati grew in proportion to her refusal to reach out to leaders of the minority parties.  Having won 36% of the popular vote in the June parliamentary elections, Megawati was confident that the Islamic groups, the politicians and the generals had no choice but to give her the presidency.  The international community made her believe that she alone held the key to Indonesia’s future.

While the remnants of the old Suharto regime – Habibie, Golkar, and the army – had conceded that the people would no longer allow them to rule, they were also certain that without their cooperation, no new government would be able to function.  Wahid knew this, but Megawati would not accept it. To the shock of his own party, Wahid offered himself as a candidate when it became clear that Megawati would not listen.  What followed was a complex balancing act that banished Habibie from the political stage, reassured the military, pacified traditional Islamic groups, consigned Megawati to the role of vice president, and mollified the militants in the streets.

But Indonesia’s problems are far from over. Though the shift from Suharto to Habibie to Wahid is not as dramatic as the 1986 Edsa events, the questions that Indonesia faces are the same.  How will the new government handle human rights cases against the military? What will it do to the Suhartos and their cronies?  How will it repair a severely damaged economy?  And most importantly – the area in which we have failed – how will the new regime reconfigure political institutions so that the masses who drove Suharto out of power may play a meaningful role in public affairs without having to pour into the streets each time they wish to be heard?


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