Book Review: Abdurrahman Wahid by Greg Barton

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle,”

It might be a little strange to quote Martin Luther King Jr. in this context but I think it absolutely represents what this (authorized) biography of Abdurrahman Wahid is all about. My nation’s first democratically elected president, was misunderstood by international media throughout his 21-month presidency from 1999 to 2001, often portrayed as a clumsy, and even comical, half-blind Muslim cleric. Now, Indonesian history wasn’t part of my curriculum for most of my childhood schooling as I had to live abroad so Greg Barton’s book has definitely helped me gain an insight into how both this man and my country came to be.

Gus Dur, as he was colloquially known, became well-equipped with faith and knowledge of Islam from such a young age, as well as Western thought through his readings and his overseas study. So, that helped form his tolerant, and inclusive view of the world that inspired many people to this day. And truly, at my age, he has read so much literature that I’m motivated to catch up! Anyways, one of the most beneficial things I’ve gained from this book, was a reshuffle in my view of Islam through Gus Dur’s knowledge and implementation as a traditionalist Muslim. And being a traditionalist, he was able to unify the fundamental teachings of Islam, providing a solid foundation when maneuvering through modern society, and encouraged Muslim Indonesians to look around and embrace the country’s diversity.

Yes, from this book I also learned of his flaws as a president, because he was a non-politician from the start. So, this leads to little recognition of any achievement in legislations nor administrative reform throughout his presidency, including during his time as chairman of Nadhatul Ulama, an Islamic organization known for its progressive and pluralistic views. However, his passion for interfaith dialogue, and justice helped him contribute to Indonesia’s critical transition of a regime that was relatively authoritarian throughout Soeharto’s 3-decade rule into a democracy. It definitely wasn’t an easy task. He gave people an understanding on what a democracy means and the importance of passionately fighting for it. One memorable moment admirably described by Greg Barton was during one of his speeches shortly after being elected as president. After his speech, he casually shifted to ask his people, “Are there any questions?”. Goodness, this gave me the chills because after reading so many pages, that simple gesture was an immense and astounding introduction of a society without Soeharto.

If you haven’t noticed, and I certainly didn’t until I read the book and saw the attached pictures from Gus Dur’s collection, that he was often smiling. This leads me to comment on his personality. Indeed, irritation flew over the brim almost everytime Gus Dur spoke. This was due to a carefree and mischievous childhood of climbing and falling from trees. As a result, he grew up to be a man with ever-flowing wit and “maverick maneuvers”, as well as being quite outspoken. But despite all that, if you know him pretty well, you knew that he always has your best interest in his heart. This however, wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, especially in the West. Still, Indonesia was getting a glimpse of a leader who was a global citizen and nationalist.

Throughout his life, Gus Dur was heavily influenced in his personal and political decisions from the women in his life, such as his mother and wife. It was especially endearing to read these parts because hey, as James Brown sings, “This is a man’s world, but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl,”. Ah, there is so much more to gush about this book but then I would be rambling until tomorrow! So let me just sum up my final thoughts. I was left feeling more inspired than ever to channel my curiosity into something beneficial for society, such as writing. Gus Dur loved writing essays that are rich with discourse, a desire for justice and passion for humanity and maintaining diversity. So, once again, I must highlight this; that his intellect and photographic memory helped him reflect back on classic Islamic teachings to and implement them into dynamic answers or I think the better word is responses to some dilemmas such as adapting to a modern world.

Alas, if you want to read more about the “drama” of modern Indonesia, Greg Barton’s personal and critical account of Gus Dur is the book. His writing is relatively easygoing, combined with reliable facts from discussions with Gus Dur, and knowledge from the research on liberal Islam that he was doing. Trust me, it will spare you the lethargy of reading a history textbook, although it looks and definitely weighs like one! Hope you enjoyed this review and see you on the next post!


Photo: © Cemara Dinda/2017