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JAKARTA, Dec 31 2009 (IPS) - The news about fourth Indonesian president and cleric Abdurrahman Wahid being admitted to the hospital last week merited only a passing mention in the national media. It was overshadowed by reports on the country’s tumultuous political situation, such as allegations that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was involved in a banking scandal and the controversies hounding the country’s corruption eradication agency.
Wahid, affectionately called ‘Gus Dur’ (‘older brother’), had survived a number of strokes and had been suffering from diabetes, near blindness and kidney problem for years. Thus, many people thought it was just a minor medical problem, from which he would soon bounce back to dispense his usual does of wit and wisdom on the latest events.
On Wednesday news broke that Wahid had passed away after undergoing a dental operation. The 69-year-old former president is survived by wife Shinta Nuriyah and four daughters.
The entire nation received the news of his death with a mixture of shock and grief. No sooner than word spread that one of the most respected and colorful figures in Indonesia had died than legions of mourners began to flock to his residence in South Jakarta. Impromptu prayer gatherings among citizens of varied faiths, not just Muslims, were held across the country.
“He was a Muslim, but he became a blessing to all faiths,” Jakarta Archbishop Julius Darmaatmadja, S.J., was quoted by the local press as saying, referring to the man who had symbolised Indonesian’s tradition of religious tolerance and political reform.
Wahid ruled Indonesia, between October 1999 and July 2001, at a time when the Muslim-dominated country had just emerged from three decades of dictatorship.
“He had opened up freedom of speech for us (citizens of) Chinese descent and eliminated the differences (based on) religion, ethnicity, race,” said Liem Tiong Soek, in between sobs, who described him further “as a great thinker, president and cleric. “He’s such a big loss.”
Eulogies, prayers and expressions of gratitude also inundated social network sites Facebook and Twitter. Religious and ethnic minorities thanked him for being their “strongest defender.” Journalists reminisced his quirky ways, informal leadership, incredible humor and open-mindedness – which had often sparked anger among less-than-moderate Muslims.
Abdurrahman Wahid was born to a prominent and politically active cleric family. Paternal grandfather Hasyim Asy’ari was the founder of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which Wahid later chaired and reformed. His father Wahid Hasyim was the country’s first minister of religious affairs.
He studied in a Muslim school in hometown Jombang in East Java before receiving a scholarship to study at al-Azhar University in Cairo, after which he continued his study in Baghdad. Returning home, he worked as a journalist, social commentator and academic. He was widely perceived as a man of deep knowledge, not just about religion and politics, but also about culture, film, music and sports.
Wahid had his initiation into politics when he campaigned for the Islamic- based United Development Party. As a leader of the 30 million-strong NU, he consistently maintained that government should be secular and that faith was a personal matter.
Following the downfall of Indonesian dictator Soeharto and the establishment of Wahid’s National Awakening Party (PKB), Wahid announced he was running for presidency in 1999. Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic of Party emerged as the winner of the South-east Asian country’s parliamentary elections in June 1999. However, politicians, particularly conservative Muslims unwilling to have a woman president, joined together and formed ‘Central Axis’, urging the People’s Consultative Assembly to elect Wahid. He then picked Megawati Sukarnoputri as his deputy.
When he assumed office, he dissolve two ineffective ministries that had long been the vehicle of the New Order (a term that had come to be associated with the Suharto regime). He curbed military influence in the government; revoked discriminative laws against Chinese Indonesians, enabling them to practice their culture and religion; he allowed publications to flourish on previously taboo subjects such as Marxism, communism and socialism); and released political prisoners.
His controversial political maneuvers – sacking military officers and ordering investigations into their alleged involvements in human rights violations – as well as erratic and unfocused leadership, which included excessive traveling abroad and lack of emphasis on economic recovery, however, earned him widespread criticisms from his enemies, particularly in the military.
When his own coalition parties began to turn against him, and amid allegations of corruption, his presidency finally collapsed. He was impeached by the parliament in July 2001 and replaced by Megawati.
In the following years he was in political isolation, and his party PKB was marred by internal disputes. But he remained an influential figure in politics. Considered his most important legacy was his advocacy for secular politics and religious tolerance/moderate Islam in an otherwise heterogeneous society.
This is especially important at this time, when many parties worry that the country has veered too much toward religious conservatism. There are also moves to limit freedom of speech and expression as well as intellectual freedom. The banning of several books this week by the Attorney General’s Office, particularly those dealing with issues of communism and religion, has raised deep concerns among rights groups, calling it a violation of the Constitution.
This is a step backward from Wahid’s vision of a country that recognises and celebrates diversity and prides itself on religious tolerance.
Indonesia has more reasons to mourn his passing.
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