Wahid, Abdurrahman

▪ 1996

      One could say that Abdurrahman Wahid was born to lead the world's largest Muslim organization, the 25 million-member Nahdatul Ulama (NU), founded by his grandfathers and a third Muslim teacher in Jombang, Java, in 1926. As NU chief since 1984, Wahid was one of the most respected figures in Indonesian Islam and the most politically active. The stout, soccer-loving Wahid also headed Forum Demokrasi, which welcomed dissidents and human-rights advocates. From behind his thick spectacles, Wahid spoke frankly on national issues to ministers, diplomats, journalists, and others who consulted him. Many admired his defense of Indonesia's Christian minority. Even the powerful military was keen to maintain good ties to a perceived bulwark against radical Islam. Honoured in 1993 with the Magsaysay Award, Wahid was elected the following year to lead the World Council for Religion and Peace.

      Deviating from conventional Muslim positions, Wahid suggested normalizing ties with Israel and contended that the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina was not religious. That unorthodox streak hailed from childhood. Wahid, who was born on Aug. 4, 1940, studied the Qur`an intensively at East Java pesantren, religious boarding schools pioneered by his paternal grandfather, and at institutes in Jakarta when his father was Indonesia's first Cabinet minister for religion. Instead of studying more scripture during his years at Egypt's venerable al-Azhar University, Wahid devoured New Wave movies, French and English books, and Marxism. Finding Cairo's teachings irrelevant, he moved to Baghdad, Iraq, and soon began attracting attention with his religious writings.

      After returning to Indonesia in the late 1960s, Wahid became a scholar; he was elevated to the post of general chairman of NU in 1984. The organization then severed links to a Muslim-based party and concentrated on social work and education. The owners of 6,500 pesantren nationwide—NU's backbone—opposed any antigovernment moves. Wahid, nonetheless, was widely perceived to present a threat to authority. His vision that Nahdatul Ulama "should move toward the transformation of society, socially and culturally," meant involvement in such political issues as poverty, corruption, and injustice.

      In 1990 he declined to join the new Association of Muslim Intellectuals, accusing its chairman, B.J. Habibie, protégé of President Suharto and the nation's research and technology minister, of using Islam to gain power. Critics and even relatives conceded, however, that Wahid could not separate his own political stance from NU's needs. In 1994 pro-Suharto forces tried in vain to end Wahid's chairmanship. One of Wahid's problems was that many of his staunchest backers were outside NU. Still, he did not fear reprisals because, he pointed out, "I have never attempted to support or oppose anyone in the government." (RICARDO L. SALUDO)

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Universalium. 2010.

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