A Friend of Israel in the Islamic World

Former president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, tells Haaretz that Islamic fundamentalism is not spreading, while he hopes that PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia can stay around long enough to make changes.

Micha Odenheimer
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Micha Odenheimer

Jakarta - Abdurrahman Wahid, who served as Indonesia's president from 1999 until 2001, is one of country's most prominent and influential politicians, intellectuals and spiritual leaders. Blinded by a stroke in early 1998, Wahid was impeached for incompetence and alleged corruption, and barred from running in last Monday's presidential elections due to his blindness and poor health. Wahid claims that both his impeachment and exclusion from the presidential race this year stem from the fear of the corrupt and entrenched elite toward his commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

Wahid was born in 1940 into an aristocratic Muslim family in East Java. Both his grandfathers were among the founders of the Nahdlatul Ulama ("the awakening of the religious scholars"), the world's largest Islamic organization with 40 million members. His father was the first Indonesian religious minister after independence was declared in 1945. Wahid, educated in Cairo and Iraq as well as in Java, came to prominence as the chairman of the NU during the 1980s, and became renowned for his sharp intellect, deep knowledge of Islamic law and history, and unpredictable and usually liberal positions on theological and political matters.

During the 1990s, Wahid began to make his mark on politics, and was part of a triumvirate of opposition figures who symbolized the popular challenge to General Suharto's authority. The other two - Megawati Sukarnoputri, the current president and daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, and Amien Rais, an academic and chairman of Muhamadiya, Indonesia's urban based "modernist" Islamic organization - are candidates in the current election. Wahid has also had a long and torturous relationship with General Wiranto, commander of the armed forces under Suharto, who is also a candidate this year. Another former general, Susillio Bamban Yuhadyona, won the first round of this year's voting but will have to face either Megawati or Wiranto in September's second round of voting.

Wahid is known for his outspoken and courageous advocacy of Islamic moderation, his adamant stance on separation of Islam and state, and his work to protect Indonesian minorities such as Christians and Chinese. As president, he instituted important reforms, such as separation of the police from military command, but committed political errors as well and sometimes appeared erratic in his ideas and performance. Although disqualified from running, Wahid's continuing influence and popularity and the importance of Nahdlatul Ulama are reflected by the fact that Wahid's brother, Sollahidun, was chosen to be Wiranto's running mate, and Hasyim Mazari, current executive chairman of NU, was chosen as Megawati's running mate. A recent issue of Tempo, one of Indonesia's premier news magazines, called Wahid, featured on its cover, "The Drunken Master of Indonesian Politics."

In his office at NU headquarters in Jakarta, Wahid seemed highly lucid, bemused and quite bitter about having been pushed out of direct political participation during the current elections. Although he abstained from the voting in an act of protest, shortly before the elections and following this interview, he advised people who wanted to vote to cast their ballot for the Wiranto-Sollahudin team.

Wahid has visited Israel six times, most recently as a guest of the Elijah Institute for the Study of World Religions, the Peres Center for Peace, for which he serves as a member of the board of directors, and the Center for Strategic Dialogue of the Netanya Academic College.

Haaretz: You are known in Israel as a friend. This is quite unusual for an Islamic leader.

Wahid: "I think there is a wrong perception that Islam is in disagreement with Israel. This is caused by Arab propaganda. We have to distinguish between Arabs and Islam. Some people in Indonesia claimed that I was a stooge for the West, but the fact that I am gaining in popularity all the time dispels this idea, and shows that this is the view of only a small minority of the elite. I always say that China and the Soviet Union have or had atheism as part of their constitution, but we have long-term relationships with both these countries. So then 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."

What about the Koran's statements against the Jews?

"The Koran is an historical document. When Benazir Bhutto was president of Pakistan, a high-ranking Islamic clergyman from Pakistan came to visit me at the offices of the Nahdlatul Ulama, and asked me to issue a fatwa against Bhutto. But why? I asked him. `Because the Koran says that it is a calamity for a woman to be a leader,' he answered. `Yes,' I said. `At the time when the Koran was written, leaders had to lead their men in battle, had to ride at the head of commercial caravans heading through the desert, and so on. That is why they were all males. Leadership was personalized. Now it is institutional. Bhutto can't make a decision without her cabinet, the cabinet must bend to the legislature, and the legislature to the Supreme Court - who are all male.' `Yes, yes,' he said. `I see your point.' But he still wanted the fatwa. It is hard sometimes to break with the past, but we can't avoid it. We must continuously reinterpret the Koran."

But if you change and reinterpret, aren't you afraid that people will stop believing?

"The Koran has principles for the human race, for human prosperity, justice and so forth. And because I believe that, as a leader, I also believe that people will follow these principles."

Do these principles exist elsewhere, say in the Bible?

"Oh yes, everywhere. And my rabbi friends, like Bakshi Doron, they are Orthodox Jews, but they are also still reinterpreting the Torah."

Is Islamic fundamentalism spreading in Indonesia?

"No. The bombings and terrorist activity were because of our weak governments that didn't want to take action. Now that the U.S. and Australia have become so angry about terrorism, action is being taken."

Why was the Indonesian government reluctant to take action before?

"Because Megawati was afraid, though as FDR said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Is Islamic fundamentalism spreading among the poor? Are TV stations such as Al Arabia and Al Jazeera, which are centered in the Middle East but have a global reach, helping Middle Eastern Islamic ideas to penetrate into Indonesia?

"No. Indonesian Muslims respond to moderation, not fundamentalism. And even the majority of the Arabs are against what is being broadcast or printed in the news. When you think that the Palestinians are ruled by the so-called suicidal bombers, you are wrong. The problem is how to cope with the militant minority. What is needed is moral courage, which Yasser Arafat has not shown. The current prime minister, [Ahmed] Qureia, is more moderate, and the fact that he was selected shows that the fundamentalists are having a hard time convincing people. What is needed now is an act of dismantling, piece by piece. I hope Qureia will last long enough."

Do you agree with Samuel Huntington's thesis about "The Clash of Civilizations"?

"Huntington is busy with the trees, and doesn't see the forest. He doesn't see that there are, for example, 100,000 university students from Islamic countries studying in the West, absorbing its culture. Of course, don't ask them to be totally western. I wear western clothes, but I have never touched a single drop of liquor, I don't womanize, and such things. That makes me a different Muslim than in the past, but also not western. Huntington has a double standard, I think. So, for example, if he would see the ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing rocks on Shabbat, believing they are protecting God's command, he would say, yes, they are peculiar, but they are our children, the children of our culture. But if any Muslim youth do anything different than the usual in western terms, he would say: They are against us. So it is a double standard."

What is your understanding about what is going on in Iraq right now?

"The Iraqi people have shown their disregard for Saddam Hussein. They have said that dictatorship must end, and human rights violations must be punished. But they have not developed the attitude of accepting western superiority in politics and civilization. That is important. I also think George W. Bush is bogged down in trying to create a civil society there because he miscalculated. He didn't realize the differences between Kurd, Sunni and Shi'ite. It's not that he was wrong. He just didn't consider those things."

In terms of Indonesian politics, the Supreme Court in the end did not allow you to run for office, ostensibly because of your physical disabilities. What do you think was really behind their decision?

"They were afraid of the other branches of government, including the parliament, who are not mature enough yet to accept the necessity of full democracy and the rule of law. Corruption is more rampant now than in the days of Suharto! So the elite is defending the status quo. But not the people. In due time, things will change."

You are hopeful that change will happen?

"Yes, in the long run, but it will be a bloody thing, and this is what I don't like. Islam doesn't permit physical violations."

Are you supporting any of the candidates?

"No, none of them are up to the job."

Why were you impeached?

"Because the elite don't want to change the status quo. First, they began a `legal process,' investigating me for wrongdoing. When they couldn't find any evidence of wrongdoing, they changed it to a political process. I wrote a letter to the Supreme Court asking for clarification. They still didn't answer it, because they are afraid of the other branches of government. When I was president, I also ordered the detention of 15 people - the army didn't arrest them. I wrote to the Supreme Court, asking for their opinion as to whether this was subordination, but again received no reply. How could I run a country like that? It's lucky that I saw that the use of violence would bear no fruit. 300,000 people signed their names to a petition saying they would defend me through any means, but I said that no state office, no matter how high, should be defended by shedding blood. I told them to disperse, to go back home. It is because of me that violence was avoided. If there had been another leader in office, I don't know what would have happened."

If corruption is so deeply rooted in Indonesian society, how can it be battled against?

"As of now there is no way. But the elections could change this. If more people decide to abstain than to vote, it would change things."

So you are calling on people to abstain?

"No, I told people everywhere that I will abstain, but I am not asking anyone else to do so."

Most Indonesians are living in poverty. What would you do to help them, if you were president again?

"I would ask for a 5-year moratorium on the $46 billion a year that we have to pay in foreign debt."

What can Israel and the Jews do to create peace between Islam and Judaism?

"All sides have to do justice. Sometimes the Arabic governments act without justice, and sometimes the Israeli government acts unjustly. You have to examine yourself, and so do the Arabs, to see where you are wrong. What is more important is that you need leaders that trust the other side. With your leader against Arafat and Arafat against Israel, there is no hope. Negotiations can be held only by people that trust each other."

Does the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East pose a problem for Islam?

"Only if you think Islam dictates that we have an Islamic state. All the states that claim to be Islamic are in trouble. Muslims everywhere, if they could vote, would reject an Islamic state. Not because they are against Islam. I am for Islam. But I am against an Islamic state."

Can the moderate form of Islam found in Indonesia influence other Islamic countries?

"We have so many terrorists and Islamic militants because there is no leadership in the Islamic world. One of the objectives of my party is to make Indonesia the leader of the Islamic world, and thus prevent people like Osama bin Laden from emerging. He is heard only because there is no other voice. The voice of the Islamic kings and rulers are not heard because they are all despots."

Would you like a final word to say to Israel?

"Keep up your work, and be true to yourself. That is enough."



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