Indonesia: Understanding Gus Dur


Professor James Fox

The Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s leading English language newspaper, celebrated its 17th anniversary with a seminar entitled, ‘Understanding Gus Dur’. Five of Indonesia’s intellectuals, all personally well acquainted with the President, were invited to give their interpretations of what makes Gus Dur the way he is. It is evident that ordinary Indonesians are as anxious to understand their President as is the rest of the world. The very fact that he dominates Indonesian political life and yet manages to keep everyone questioning is a tribute to his remarkable character.

Many things distinguish Gus Dur. He is intensely political but he is not a politician. His religious credentials on both sides of his family are impeccable and his knowledge of Islam is formidable. Popular accounts trace his genealogy back to the last ruler of the Hindu kingdom of Majapahit and to the founder of Islam on Java who overthrew that kingdom.

He is deeply committed to democracy but his understanding of democracy is subtly tinged with his belief in the Islamic idea of the ummat, a community that defines its own spiritual direction. As a Sunni Muslim, he recognizes the right of an ummat to choose its leader. A chosen leader, however, is one who has the right to act with full powers.

Where in the West, the principle of greatest good is espoused as politically appropriate, Gus Dur operates on the basis of the Islamic principle of least harm. This essentially conservative principle applied judiciously can be a great protection to a country of many minorities

Gus Dur’s background is in a tradition of learning in which scholars have the right to form their own independent schools. This is not a tradition where conformity of thought is required: differing views, based on well-founded Islamic principles, frequently occur and the faithful are allowed to choose among them. Agreeing to disagree and yet continuing to cooperate is the hallmark of this tradition.

Translated into the political realm, this is not a recipe for consensus politics but allows for the free expression of a great variety of opinion; thus, for example, Gus Dur has recently insisted on ending the ban on communism and its views of the world.

Finally, Gus Dur is a person who can not hold his tongue: he formulates ideas as he speaks. At times he can be incisive and critical; at other times, he discourses like a Sufi savant, intending his audience to see behind his words to his intended meaning. Even his jokes can carry a special message. Always he targets his specific audience. Rarely does he expect anyone to hold him to every word he utters.

WATCHPOINT: To understand Gus Dur, keep your eye on the way he plays the larger game. Don’t try to make sense of all his utterances, most of which can only be understood in a particular context.


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