A moderating influence


Issue: "High stakes at the Court," Jan. 29, 2000

Popular regard for Indonesia's president, Abdurrahman Wahid, is embodied in his well-traveled nickname, Gus Dur. "Gus," in his country, means "good sir." Jakarta's streets rang with that name after Mr. Wahid's surprise victory in last October's presidential election. Mr. Wahid had become the overnight favorite after incumbent B. J. Habibie failed to overcome a corruption scandal and leading candidate Megawati Sukarnoputri could not muster enough ballots to prevail in the constitutional assembly.

His remarkable election was a prelude to a strenuous test in office. Leading a nation of 212 million stretched across 13,000 islands might never be easy, but Mr. Wahid's short tenure has been especially eventful. Since taking over, the 59-year-old president has faced separatist fighting in East Timor and rampaging Muslim mobs in Maluku-which have resulted in more deaths in the last year than the more widely reported clashes in East Timor. He has failed to suppress either.

Last week, the United States took the unusual step of warning Indonesia's military not to carry out a rumored coup attempt. When he took office, Mr. Wahid was expected to have support from the country's powerful, Muslim-dominated military, in part because he was expected to further a program of creeping Islamization, in which the government funded widespread mosque-building and ousted Christians from academic institutions and other places of influence. Instead, the popular Muslim cleric seems to be trying to protect Christians, sending troops to Maluku and Halmahera and even imposing a naval blockade to stop fighting.

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Mr. Wahid's rise to public office began with Nahdlatul Ulama (referred to as the NU), Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, which was founded by his grandfather and which he headed. The organization has 30-40 million members and is technically classified as a "conservative Muslim" group. In Indonesia this means it is broad-based and tolerant of other religions. The group's base of support is chiefly in thousands of pesantren, a catechism type of Islamic school attended by Javanese children.

Although a wily critic of long-time President Suharto and a political activist, Mr. Wahid is revered as a Muslim holy man and described as a mystic. Both Muslim and Christian intellectuals describe Mr. Wahid as "brilliant" and "sparkling," if slowed in the last year by a stroke and near blindness. Observers say he is ready to discuss spiritual issues, while he says he receives direction through his dreams.

From a Muslim perspective, Mr. Wahid makes one surprising theological distinction. He contends that the Koran term "umat Allah" (God's people), means all of God's creation. According to standard Muslim interpretation, "umat Allah" refers only to Muslims. That distinction could equal fighting words if Muslim-Christian clashes, like those that have fanned across Maluku, remain uncontained.


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