The legacy of a true friend



Colin Rubenstein


Jerusalem Post – January 10, 2010

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(An edited version of this article also appeared in the Australian Jewish News)

While it was not widely noted outside southeast Asia, last week Indonesia lost both a towering spiritual leader and the father of the country’s increasingly vibrant and robust democracy, former president Abdurrahman Wahid – affectionately known there as Gus Dur. But his death will also be felt widely outside Indonesia.

Among many others touched by this brilliant Muslim cleric-turned-campaigner for human rights and principled politician, both the Jewish world and Israel have lost one of their greatest friends in the Muslim world. I had the good fortune to befriend this historic figure and was deeply honored to have met with him several times over the years, both when he was president from 1999-2001 and in the years since, in Jakarta and Australia. The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) was delighted to host lunches for him with our leadership and supporters in both Melbourne and Sydney during his visit to Australia in 2002.

Before rising to the top of Indonesian politics, Wahid was an Islamic scholar of note who led the largest Muslim organization in the world, the 40-million-member Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), for 15 years. Using his brilliant intellect and impeccable Islamic pedigree, he synthesized traditional Islamic scholarship with his own studies of Western literature and culture. He went on to employ both these elements in a life devoted to the struggle for religious understanding, ethnic tolerance and human decency in Indonesia and internationally. He became a principled defender of minority rights, a powerful voice for democracy and a leading international promoter of an inclusive and tolerant Islam.

Courageously, he championed diversity and democracy during the Suharto dictatorship, and quickly showed that he was of the few forces in the country who could stand up to the regime, before becoming a key inspiration for the mass movement that brought the dictatorship to an end.

AS THE leading scholar of Indonesia, Greg Barton, has pointed out, Wahid’s was almost an accidental presidency, and he was not particularly well-suited to the political deal-making and back-scratching that the role required. But this does not in any way detract from his huge accomplishments as president.

Among these are achieving a measure of genuine reconciliation with East Timor, adopting innovative approaches to the separatists in Aceh and West Papua based on dialogue, defending the rights of minority Christians, Chinese, Hindus and other groups subject to persecution and suspicion, his successful removal of the seemingly immovable General Wiranto and establishing firmly the principle of civilian control over the Indonesian military; and in his affirmation of the principle that human rights abusers and the corrupt will be investigated and punished. To a very great extent, the increasingly well-established and prosperous democracy one can see in Indonesia today is Wahid’s legacy.

Almost uniquely among Muslim leaders and the heads of Muslim states, Wahid was not reticent about his friendship for Israel and his close ties and desire for even closer ones with the Jewish people. He visited Israel a number of times and served on the board of the Peres Center for Peace. On becoming president, he announced a hope to open an Israeli trade office in Jakarta and hinted that Indonesia should eventually go further and seek full political relations with the Jewish state. But unfortunately, he met considerable domestic resistance which limited but did not prevent growing Indonesian contacts and links of various kinds with Israel.

TRADE AND people-to-people ties between Israel and Indonesia have steadily improved since that time, and, despite the political delicacy, many in Indonesia are interested in the potential for both trade and for Indonesia to play a more active role in the Middle East peace process. This is particularly in Israel’s interest, given the potential of Indonesia as an economically viable, moderate, liberal and democratic Muslim country to help legitimize and serve as a role model for any future democratic Palestinian state.

I am proud that AIJAC (together with the American Jewish Committee) has been able to facilitate this growing Indonesian interest in Israel by bringing a number of delegations of Indonesian journalists and analysts to Israel in recent years to examine the situation for themselves.

Meanwhile, even after leaving the presidency, Wahid continued to speak out. At a packed meeting in the University of Melbourne in 2002, I well remember him rebuking a questioner who criticized Israel by eloquently praising Israeli democracy. In 2004, he publicly stated on behalf of Muslims that “Israel has a reputation as a nation with a high regard for God and religion – there is then no reason we have to be against Israel.” On Judaism, I can personally attest that he was both knowledgeable and highly interested in all aspects of Jewish tradition, beliefs, culture and literature. The study of Kabbala especially sparked his curiosity.

His personal engagement with Jewish thought and society caused him to react critically to the simplistic and prejudicial notions about Israel and the Jews that he encountered in Muslim circles. Consequently, for the past 30 years he made a point of speaking out against anti-Semitic thinking and ignorance about Israel and Judaism. Meanwhile, interfaith dialogue involving Jews and all other faiths was both a mission and a passion, right up until his death.

ABDURRAHMAN WAHID’S life was an inspiration to all who believe in mutual respect and harmonious coexistence between diverse peoples and who strive for constructive social action in the cause of democracy, reconciliation and human rights. He demonstrated that all these objectives are fully compatible with a vibrant and evolving Islamic faith and culture.

While he will be sorely missed, his legacy will long be felt in the efforts of those millions of admirers in Indonesia and around the world profoundly touched by the remarkable record, ideals and courage of this champion of human decency.

The writer is executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council and recently returned from a visit to Jakarta.