Abdurrahman Wahid: Muslim Democrat, Indonesian President, A View from the Inside. By Greg Burton. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002. 414 pp., bibliography, index. Reviewed by Nico Harjanto (Ohio University).
Abdurrahman Ad Dhakil Wahid, or popularly known as Gus Dur, was a ‘philosopher-king’ in modern Indonesian politics. He was a leader of the largest Moslem organization in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) with more than thirty-five million members, when he was elected as the fourth president of Indonesia in October 1999. He was the first democratically elected president by the member of the People’s Consultative Assembly, the highest political body in Indonesian political system, although he is virtually blind. He defeated the candidate Megawati Soekarnoputri from the winning party in the most free and fair general election in 1999, although his political party only controls ten percent seats in the parliament.
He is a respected Moslem scholar and internationally recognized for his commitment toward democracy, human rights, and inter-faith dialogue. His thoughts on Islam and state are progressive and liberal, although his organization is labeled as a traditionalist Islam. With his background as a noted ulema (Islamic cleric), the public and international communities also believed that he could eradicate the acute corruption practices in the Indonesian government. However, he was impeached in July 2001 for money scandals, and his presidency only lasted for less than two years. His presidency was taken over by Megawati and he left the presidential palace in disgrace.
With his ubermensch quality, Wahid is not only important to be studied, but he is also an area of study itself. Most Indonesianists are good friends of him, including Greg Barton who wrote this authorized biography. As the latest serious study of Wahid, this biography is the most comprehensive view of him, covering from his family origins, early childhood, ‘rebellious period’, to the last day of his highest political career as a president of the fourth populous country in the world. Barton’s study is very rich in detail but readable for most people, and has meticulous, systematic writing.
This biography is divided into five parts with thorough prologue and conclusive epilogue. The first part is about Wahid’s family background and his early childhood. In this part, Barton provides readers with many valuable insights about the origin of Wahid’s charisma. As a grandson of the NU’s only great leader (Rais Akbar) and son of a respected national figure during the independence war and student of many great ulemas, according to traditionalist Muslim culture Wahid is perceived to inherit the qualities of his forebears.
In the second part, Barton writes about the intellectual journeys of young Wahid and his contributions to the reformation of pesantren (Islamic traditional boarding school). This part is very interesting in describing Wahid’s early rebellious period as a ‘universal intellectual’ in Foucaultian term. After three years at al-Azhar University in Cairo, Wahid incurred an administrative sanction of the loss of his scholarship due to his frequent class absences. He apparently spent most of his time reading western philosophies, spy-fiction novels, and biographies of many prominent figures at the library of American University in Cairo, or locked in discussions around campuses, or watched foreign movies. Then, he moved to Baghdad University in Iraq in 1965, and enrolled in the Faculty of Letters where he continued skipping classes.
The third part covers the emergence of Wahid influence in the NU community and in politics. This part is very important in understanding the ‘Gus Dur’ phenomenon in Indonesian politics, as his progressive thinking was able to transform NU into a more politically independent mass organization. At the same time, Wahid also succeeded in improving NU political position and the quality of life for most NU members by his economic programs. Elected as the chairman of NU in 1984, he successfully convinced most NU leaders at that time to withdraw the NU from formal participation in party politics and redirected its energies towards educational, cultural, spiritual, and economic activities. In later development, he has been identified as NU, and NU has been personified in his figure. Since the late 1980s, he has also been regarded by his followers, especially ethnic Javanese, as a wali (literally translated as saint), someone who is under special protection, friend or protégé of God.
The next part is about Wahid’s struggle to establish a more democratic political environment in Indonesia. During the Suharto dictatorship years, he maintained a wide sphere of acquiescence and criticism. Beside abandoning an overtly political role for NU since 1984 with a ‘back to initial function’ policy (kembali ke Khittah), he endorsed the government’s plan when it moved to force all political parties and social organizations to adopt the state ideology Pancasila (five principles) in the mid-80s. Later, he stood up against Soeharto’s efforts to harness Islam for the regime's own advantage, and he declined membership of the government-backed Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) that was established in 1990. Rather, he set up the alternative 'Forum Demokrasi' (Democratic Forum) with many prominent nationalistic figures in March 1992 as a counter movement of sectarian and primordial tendencies in Indonesian politics. Wahid has definitely played a significant role in building civil society organizations and in integrating Islam and Islamic forces in the democratization process.
The last part is the longest story of Wahid in this biography. It covers from his hardest time with Soeharto in 1994, his perhaps best moment in life when he was elected as president, to his last days in the palace in July 2001. This part is likely the most valuable contribution of this book for understanding better the Indonesian political drama before the economic crisis, during the downfall of Soeharto and early reform era, and during rapid political changes in Wahid presidency era. Barton’s closeness with Wahid makes this part not only rich in detail but can be also counted on for its precision.
From the last part in particular and this book in general, there are many lessons from Wahid’s political life. As a charismatic but controversial leader, Wahid case clearly shows that personal qualities are inadequate to survive in the political arena. It is also a clear example how philosopher-king is only an ideal type of leadership which is difficult to find in this complex world. In order to survive in politics, a leader, even a charismatic one, should always implement democratic principles such as negotiation, persuasion, and deliberation. Wahid’s fall gives the basic lesson that the traditional style of leadership emphasizing on obedience and devotion cannot be implemented in the modern democratic system which requires dialogical and collective processes to achieve the goals. However, this authorized biography lacks proper explanations about some of Wahid’s controversies such as the trip to Israel, decision to fire and select some key ministers in his cabinet, and accusations of extra-marital or political scandals.
(This review was uploaded to www.antarakita.net on September 26, 2003)