Today I met with Indonesia’s fourth President, Abdurrahman Wahid. Indonesia’s first democratically elected president since Sukarno, "Gus Dur" was elected in 1999 and held office until he was forced out on June 23, 2001.
Gus Dur is a fascinating character for a number of reasons, not least because he is a devout Muslim cleric and also very liberal. His Muslim credentials are impeccable, including education at al-Azhar University in Cairo, the traditional hotbed of orthodox Islam. He is the former head of Nahdlatul Ulama (The Revival of the Ulema), a traditionalist Muslim organization that is the largest mass organization in Indonesia. Gus Dur’s father Wahid Hasyim was a Minister of Religion under Sukarno (and incidentally, our hotel is on Wahid Hasyim Street).
Our discussion involved many interesting topics, not least of them what is wrong with Indonesia now and how to make it better. I kept finding it fascinating how tolerant and pro-diversity he is, and just how seriously he projects this image. Our translator (whom we did not need, ha!) was the head of the Indonesian Council of Pastors. I asked him about Pancasila, Indonesia’s old multiculturalist ideology, and he said that while the name of that ideology has been discredited by Soeharto, the spirit lives on. Gus Dur took a huge step in improving ethnic relations in 1999 when he
acknowedged publicly that he had some Chinese ancestry, which was
considered a big deal at the time. Like everyone else, Gus Dur thinks that the biggest problem facing Indonesia right now is corruption, but he thinks that morality and personal responsibility, coupled with "bravery" from the leadership, is the way to fix this. In other words, he doesn’t think that laws and regulations alone can fix things. He also thinks that anti-Chinese prejudice in Indonesia remains quite strong, and that its simple solution is ridding the country of economic inequality.
These topics had little directly to do with my research, but we did talk about some other things that were useful. Our conversation helped me to confirm some of the assumptions about ethnic relations under Soeharto and the role of political Islam in Indonesia’s democratic movement. So in addition to being interesting, our meeting was professionally helpful.