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Wahid and the Voice of Moderate Islam


Published: 7 January 2010

The Wall Street Journal
JANUARY 6, 2010, 9:45 P.M. ET

Wahid and the Voice of Moderate Islam
Indonesia's first democratic president espoused a philosophy of religious and ethnic tolerance.


Abdurrahman Wahid, who died last week at the age of 69, was the first democratically elected president of Indonesia, the world's fourth largest country and third largest democracy. It has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. Although he was forced from office after less than two years, he nevertheless helped to set the course of what has been a remarkably successful transition to democracy.

Even more important than his role as a politician, Wahid was the spiritual leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, and probably in the world, with 40 million members. He was a product of Indonesia's traditionally tolerant and humane practice of Islam, and he took that tradition to a higher level and shaped it in ways that will last long after his death.

Wahid recognized that the world's Muslim community is engaged in what he called in a 2005 op-ed for this newspaper "nothing less than a global struggle for the soul of Islam" and he understood the danger for Indonesia, for Islam and for all of us from this "crisis of misunderstanding that threatens to engulf our entire world."

Wahid was one of the most impressive leaders I have known. Although his formal higher education was limited to Islamic studies in Cairo and Arabic literature in Baghdad, his breadth of knowledge was astounding. With a voracious appetite for knowledge and a remarkably retentive memory, he seemed to know all of the important Islamic religious and philosophical texts. He also loved reading a wide range of Western literature (including most of William Faulkner's novels) as well as Arabic poetry. He enjoyed French movies, and cinema in general, and could identify the conductor of a Beethoven symphony simply by listening to a recording. He was an avid soccer fan and once compared the different styles of two German soccer teams to illustrate two alternative strategies for economic development. He loved jokes, particularly political ones. During Suharto's autocratic rule he published a collection of Soviet political humor in Indonesian, with the obvious purpose of teaching his own people how to laugh at their rulers.

Despite all that learning, Wahid had a common touch that enabled him to express his thoughts in down-to-earth language. He thus gained broad legitimacy for a moderate and tolerant vision. He could speak to young Indonesians, grappling with the relationship between religion and science by explaining to them the thoughts of a medieval Arab philosopher like Ibn Rushd (known to Christian philosophers as Averroes). And he was all the more effective because he himself had grappled with controversial ideas.

Wahid had been somewhat attracted in his youth by the writings of Said Qutb and Hasan al Banna, the founders of the Muslim brotherhood, but his deep humanism led him to reject them. When I visited him recently he told me of a long-ago visit to a mosque in Morocco where an Arabic translation of Aristotle's "Nichomachean Ethics" was on display. Seeing that book had brought tears to his eyes and Wahid explained: "If I hadn't read the 'Nichomachean Ethics' as a young man, I might have joined the Muslim brotherhood."

No doubt, what had so impressed Wahid was that Aristotle could arrive at deep truths about matters of right and wrong without the aid of religion, based simply on the belief that "the human function is activity of the soul in accord with reason" (Nichomachean Ethics, Book I). But his tears must have reflected the thought of how close he had come to accepting a cramped and intolerant view of life and humanity.

Throughout his public career, three ideas were central to Wahid's thinking. First was that true belief required religious freedom. "The essence of Islam," he once wrote, is "encapsulated" in the words of the Quran, "For you, your religion; for me, my religion." Indonesia, he believed, needs "to develop a full religious tolerance based on freedom of faith." Second was his belief that the fundamental requirement for democracy—or any form of just government—is equal treatment for all citizens before the law. Third, that respect for minorities is essential for social stability and national unity, particularly for Indonesia with its extraordinary diversity.

Throughout his career Wahid spoke up forcefully for people with unpopular ideas—even ones he disagreed with—and for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. He was admired by the Christian and Chinese minorities for his willingness to do so. One of his first acts as president was to participate in prayers at a Hindu temple in Bali where he had earlier spent several months studying Hindu philosophy. Later he removed a number of restrictions on ethnic Chinese and made Chinese New Year an optional national holiday.

Even after leaving office, Wahid's role as a defender of religious freedom was extremely important. Indonesian voters have rejected extremist politics at the polls—and the leadership of the current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono deserves much credit for that. Nevertheless, extremist views and even violent extremism too often go unchallenged. A recent report from The Wahid Insitute (which he founded in 2004) notes that a minority with extremist views, now in control of the Indonesian Ulama Council, has issued religious rulings against "deviant" groups. An even smaller minority that espouses violence, particularly the Islamic Defender Front, has attacked Christian churches and the mosques of the small Muslim Ahmadiyah sect.

Wahid was one of the few prominent Indonesians to defend the rights of the Ahmadiyah or to speak out forcefully against the Islamic Defender Front. Doing so takes courage. But he was always courageous, whether in defying President Suharto at the height of his power or in his personal struggle against encroaching blindness and failing health.

Although optimistic that "true Islam" will prevail, as he wrote in his 2005 op-ed, Wahid did not underestimate the dangers facing the world from an "extreme . . . ideology in the minds of fanatics" who "pervert Islam into a dogma of intolerance, hatred and bloodshed" and who justify their brutality by declaring "Islam is above everything else." This fundamentalist ideology, he said, "has become a well-financed, multifaceted global movement that operates like a juggernaut in much of the developing world." What begins as a misunderstanding "of Islam by Muslims themselves" becomes a "crisis of misunderstanding" that afflicts "Muslims and non-Muslims alike, with tragic consequences."

No one who knew Abdurrahman Wahid can believe that those fanatics who preach hatred and violence speak for the world's Muslims. Even though the extremist ideology represents a distinct minority of Muslims, it is well-financed and well-organized. To confront it, Muslim leaders like himself need, as he wrote in 2005, "the understanding and support of like-minded individuals, organizations and governments throughout the world . . . to offer a compelling alternate vision of Islam, one that banishes the fanatical ideology of hatred to the darkness from which it emerged."

That support includes material support, but it also includes the moral support that comes from international recognition and attention for Muslim leaders who speak out with the courage that Wahid did.

When Wahid was only 12 he was riding in a car with his father, Wahid Hasyim, himself a prominent Muslim leader at the time of Indonesian independence, when the car slid off a mountain road and his father suffered fatal injuries. What Wahid most remembered from that tragic event was the sight of thousands of people lining the roads as his father's casket traveled the 80 kilometers from Surabaya to his burial at Jombang. Overwhelmed by the affection people had for his father, he wondered "What could one man do that the people would love him so?"

As the funeral procession for Wahid himself traveled the same route on the last day of 2009, thousands of mourners, deeply moved, again lined the road. What had he done that Indonesians so loved him? Perhaps the question is answered by the words that he asked to have on his tomb: "Here lies a humanist." That he was and a great one as well. No one can replace him, but hopefully he has inspired others to follow in his path.

Mr. Wolfowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia and assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kev · 11 years ago
    Sorry, there's no such thing as "moderate Islam". There's people calling themselves Muslim who don't understand the true, deep nature of their religion nor its origins but, their religion is morally bankrupt, vacuous, vapid nonsense that will bring this world closer to oblivion than nukes ever dreamed.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    SteveO · 11 years ago
    Kev, one would think that the man who devoted his life to studying his faith would be a better commentator on his chosen ideology. The world's troubles are not focused on one religion or another, the battle is with extremism, in whatever form it manifests.

    Michael, thanks for the read. Sure would be nice to see leaders of this caliber in Af, Pak, Yemen, Syria and the likes...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mario · 11 years ago
    Kev, there is no shortage of wackos among those who call themselves "religious". The minute a movement proclaims itself to be "God's chosen people" , it is used as justification to inflict harm on others, since they are effectively "lesser" beings. History, including recent history, is filled with examples of Christians, Muslims, etc, inflicting harm on others who are not, or harming even those within their own group who are perceived as not being religious enough.

    I like the quote, "For you, your religion; for me, my religion", from Sura 109. But Wahid's modern interpretation is in conflict with actual practice in established Muslim majority nations where non-Muslims are persecuted, executed, or put in Jail.

    Take the good parts of religions, leave the bad. For example, I love the way mainstream Christianity promotes helping the poor. On the other hand, when I find evangelical child rearing lists quoting Proverbs 2 :1 ' "Beat your children, they will not die", I shake my head and lament that so many will follow that course because it's "God's word". (never mind that the actual Hebrew doesn't mean that at all ....).
  • This commment is unpublished.
    hajj · 11 years ago
    Unfortunately if one were to look worldwide at acts of terror committed by either religious or political extremists in the last ten years, Islam would be responsible for well over 95%. This is according to the proclamations of those committing the terrorist acts themselves. These acts occur in just about every country on earth. It is the height of politically correct absurdity to ignore these facts and insist "Islam is no different than any other religion." But the PC iron hand is always present and prevents any hope of honest discussion regarding Islam.

    Defenders of Islam always quote from the Meccan passages of the Quran. These first revelations to Muhammed showed great respect for the monotheism of Christian and Jewish worshipers, and great tolerance in general. It's the Quranic revelations later in Muhammad's career, after he relocated to Medina, that transformed Islam from a relatively benign monotheistic faith to the expansionist military-political ideology it is today. Since in many cases these later verses have the same subject matter (e.g. tolerance of other faiths) as the early verses, the concept of 'abrogation' instructs readers of the Quran to let these later bellicose Medina verses overrule those of the more tolerant Mecca period. The Quran itself lays out the principal of abrogation.

    Islam is long overdue for a reformation, an awakening to modern civilisation. But the longer political correctness strangleholds honest discourse, the more sway violence and ignorance will have.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    wildiris · 11 years ago
    (Observation 1) Every society has its share of violent, misogynistic, hurtful and etc. people, a number of who will always try and bend their religion to serve as a cover, excuse or justification for their behavior. As a result, all religions have had their fringe cults and sects that have acted out in violent and/or other anti-social ways; that’s just a sad fact of human nature. But Islam, of all of the world’s major religions, seems to be the one most troubled by this problem, while at the same time; the more peaceful (moderate) element in the religion of Islam is seemingly powerless to stop this co-opting from happening.

    (Observation 2) It doesn’t matter what verses of the Bible or Koran one chooses to emphasize, or how one may try to interpret them. The ultimate arbiter of what is or what is not a proper Christian or Muslim response is the lives and works of Jesus or Mohammed themselves. Jesus was above all, a man of peace, while Mohammed was anything but a man of peace.

    A person may try to use Christian scripture to justify or incite others to violence, but because Jesus himself would not have acted in that way, their words will never attract more than a handful of listeners.

    But it is the converse that is true for Islam. While there may be many within the Muslim religion that want to live peacefully with their neighbors, Mohammed himself did not live that way. As a result, the voices of the “moderates” carry no weight with the community of Islam as a whole. After all, how can one Muslim, with any authority, tell another not to do what Mohammed himself did do? It’s not that the moderates can’t or won’t speak out against the radical element, it’s that the prophet Mohammed, by the example of his own life, left them with no voice to speak out with.

    (Conclusion) That’s why Islam is not, never was or can ever be trusted to be a “religion of peace”. Because Mohammed himself was not a peaceful man and by the example of his own life, he has left the door wide open for the more violent element in any community or society, in which Islam is the dominant religion, to turn Islam into a tool to justify their violent actions against others.

    In other words, Islam, as a religion, can’t be any more “peaceful” than, as a man, Mohammed was himself.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Cecil Trotter · 11 years ago
    It really amazes me when people make comments like "The world's troubles are not focused on one religion" or "no shortage of wackos among those who call themselves "religious"" whenever Islamic terror is the subject.

    To anyone paying attention the past 0 years or so and especially the past 10 years the "worlds troubles" ARE focused on one "religion" or at least on a large faction of people who claim to be of and represent one religion, namely Islam. And calling oneself "religious" doesn't make one a wacko anymore than calling oneself a Steelers fan or a fan of pecan pie does, what makes one a wacko is flying planes into buildings, beheading captives and committing other unspeakable acts upon other human beings and JUSTIFYING it in the name of a religion or a football team or a dessert or anything else. It isn't the religion necessarily that is the root of the evil just an excuse, although in the case of Islam there is evidence from the words of its very founder, that THAT religion is inherently evil.

    As a Christian I in fact do happen to believe that I am one of "God's chosen people", does that make me a wacko / no different than UBL? Some will say yes, but the big difference between myself and UBL is that I haven't taken my belief in my chosen stature and used it as an excuse to kill, torture and maim other human beings, he has.

    And to those who can't see that huge difference staring them in the face there is just no hope for them.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike Stergios · 11 years ago
    Sorry SteveO, but the "extremists of all religions" argument does not bear scrutiny. There are numerous examples of Christian "extremists" in evidence. We call them "saints".

    Nut jobs like the reverend who brings foul signs to the funerals of fallen soldiers are not "extreme" Christians, but heretics who misread the scriptures for their own twisted purposes. Their followers usually can be counted in the dozens.

    All scriptures can be misread. That is why the Catholic Church has the Magisterium to define the correct interpretation of scriptures, and Protestant denominations have theological bodies to clarify points of doctine. There are no such restraints in Islam; each and every Imam interprets the Koran as he wills. As Jonah Golberg has said, "Islam needs a Pope" to declare murderous interpretations of the Koran heretical.

    There are thousands of Christian martyrs (the word comes from the Greek for "witness") revered by the Church; none of them are celebrated for killing anybody. Christian martyrs witness their faith in Christ by refusing to forsake him, even at the cost of their lives.
    The Islamic "shaheed", to the contrary, witnesses to Allah by donning explosive BVDs and trying to kill unbelievers. Somehow, the motives ain't the same.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jan D USA · 11 years ago
    I just never knew that about Mohammed. I don't know exactly why, but I always thought Mohammed was akin to Jesus. Your observations/conclusions make perfect sense to me. Thanks for giving me a better understanding (really, before I had none) of what's behind this troubled religion.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    asdfsdf · 11 years ago
    Correlation does not imply causation. Even if most terror attacks are perpetrated by muslims, and I can't find data to prove or disprove this, there is very possibly, and probably, and alternative answer. I am willing to bet that there is a much greater correspondence between terrorism and populations that live in impoverished, stateless areas than there is between Islam and terrorism. Islam may be unique in having extremist interpretations that posit exceptions to the "suicide=hell" thing that is prevalent in most religions; I am not aware of any non-islamic terrorist that launched what is technically a suicide attack (i.e. one where you will almost certainly be shot does not count), but I am aware of a great deal of non-islamic terror. If I recall correctly, the number of terrorists who were muslim or christian are roughly equivalent when considering attacks in the west. Radicalized islam may provide a focus for mental instability (for Major Hassan, there is MUCH more evidence for his psychosis than for a direct AQ link), but it certainly isn't the only thing. Remember the OK City bombings? Disturbed guy pissed off at getting fired directs anger at government, has access to explosives. Or the 2009 Apeldoorn-Koninginnedag Car attack, where a disturbed man directs his anger at losing his job at the Royal family of the netherlands, driving his car through the crowd on queen's day to try and attack the queen (missed the royal bus but killed several people). Motive but few means; if he had explosives and detonator I think he would have made a carbomb, but he didn't.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Wrong · 11 years ago
    "Sorry, there's no such thing as "moderate Islam". There's people calling themselves Muslim who don't understand the true, deep nature of their religion nor its origins but, their religion is morally bankrupt, vacuous, vapid nonsense that will bring this world closer to oblivion than nukes ever dreamed. "

    Comments like these are incredibly ignorant. To paint such a broad stroke over the entire Muslim world only proves how dangerous ingorance is. You would be led to believe that all Muslims have no moral center and their religion is based off of bad intentions. A crisis of misunderstanding I believe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mad Dog · 11 years ago
    Just gotta agree with the above. The incredible ignorance shown here is disturbing. Mike puts up this site so that we can get a better idea of what is really happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, showing us that it is not the religion that is the problem, but the extremists who use ignorance and violence to force their view on other at the expense of society and some of the readers go ballistic, ranting about Christianity being better than Islam, etc. THAT is exactly the problem and that is exactly what Wahid was trying to overcome. When we become blinded by labels, when our troops become ignorant of the situation on the ground, that is when we start to lose. Wolfowitz knows a great deal about Asia and his article is a call to moderation by all religions, a call to step away from radicalism in any form. BTW, we have seen pretty bloody events performed by so called christians in the very recent past. Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, etc. have shown us that white christian folks are just as capable of atrocities as any Muslim.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jan D USA · 11 years ago
    According to Paul Wolfowitz, Abdurrahman Wahid was attracted as a youth to the teachings of the Muslim brotherhood, “but his deep humanism led him to reject them”. Wahid recognized that those teachings were deeply flawed, and instead embraced Aristotle’s book ‘Nichomachean Ethics’ of right and wrong.

    I believe all religions are flawed in one shape or another; i.e., are we a Christian who follows the Old Testament that teaches the wrath of God; or are we a Christian who follows the New Testament that teaches the love of God. But that’s not to say one religion doesn’t have much more to overcome than others. Acknowledging that fact may be useful in understanding and recognizing their struggles; therefore a bid for more tolerance.

    I do not hold the belief that any religion is at fault for terrorism. There is no doubt in my mind that the EVILS of the WORLD are openly present, openly using religions to further their agendas,

    and I agree as 'asdfsdf' suggested, they prey on “populations that live in impoverished, stateless areas”. For they are cowards of the worst kind. If only we could obliterate them all from the face of the earth.

    I did not know of Abdurrahman Wahid, but he obviously devoted the whole of his life to goodness and no one can diminish that. There are millions of people in Indonesia and across the world who will cherish him even in his death.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Hannahck34 · 11 years ago
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  • This commment is unpublished.
    wildiris · 11 years ago
    Historically, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi that spent his few short years of ministry healing the sick and offering a message of hope and encouragement to the common people, and ended his days with no material possesions, stripped of all dignity and executed like a common criminal.

    Mohammed started as a failed business man and prophet-wanabe, and ended his days a desert tribal warlord. And in his time, he amassed an army and wealth, while making war on his neighbors.

    Enough said.
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