Like many of my peers, I first learn about Gus Dur from his writings in Tempo and then from writings about him in the same magazine (where else?). It was in the mid 80s – I was in high school- that I realized that Gus Dur was not “just” a columnist but also a leader of the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, the NU. There were a number of articles in Tempo at that time that dwelled on NU’s decision to adopt Pancasila as the azas tunggal and to return to their 1926 khittah, and what those would mean for the coming election.
For someone like me, who spent most of my childhood in Jakarta, who had no deep roots in either NU or Muhammadiyah, and at that time was attending a catholic high school1, it pained me a lot to have to learn about the word "khittah" just to get through an edition of Tempo. But I remember buried in the dull and tedious discussions about party politics and NU internal politics, was Gus Dur’s argument about Islam being compatible with pluralism.2 Being in confined comfort of a school where religious and racial tensions were non-existent, I thought his argument was compelling if not relevant.
During my college years when, to my shock, I found college to be much more heterogenous than high school (duh!) Gus Dur’s views suddenly became more relevant to me. Dynamics between majority and minority as well as racial and ethnic differences became more apparent in college. I started to consciously seek what he and other “public intellectuals” had to say about the issue. When tensions between racial or religious groups became highly charged, I learned that Gus Dur often was the figure who helped resolve these tensions. During these years there were very high profile cases such as where he defended the right of Arswendo for free speech in the Monitor case, very much a lonely figure. But it was the little skirmishes, the low profile battles that he fought, that impressed me more. Our campus in Salemba was very close to LBH Jakarta where Gus Dur sometimes came to give a talk. I remember attending a talk he was giving there on the marriage rights of a couple who were Confucians. Their marriage had been presented before a court because of legal and administrative issue and Gus Dur was an expert witness of some sorts, in favor of the couple. I never knew who the couple were but during the talk Gus Dur was defending their case like they were his own relatives. There were many low profile events similar to that, and I tried to attend some that didn’t require much effort on my part. It helped a lot that Gus Dur had such an acute sense of humor, and one did not need to be a student activist steeped in rethorics to be able to digest and enjoy his talks. I was never an activist and never saw myself as one anyway, so I only read from the printed press the more vocal (and more political) views that he made as the chairman of Forum Demokrasi. Our Salemba campus was also close enough to STF Driyarkara where Gus Dur was often invited for discussions - and almost always came late. It was always worth skipping a few neoliberal (ha!) economic classes for those events.
Then 1998 happened. During the tumultuous years, I was away. Like many others, I was somewhat surprised by the turns of events that resulted in Gus Dur being elected the president. But I remember being very proud to have a man of such conviction becoming the leader of our nation.
As I read through his obituaries in recent days, while trying to recollect what I learned from the man, it strikes me how often people use the word “erratic” (=highly inconsistent), to describe his short presidency and even his personality. This is perhaps the biggest irony, since of all the public figures who were his contemporaries, no one is as consistent in sticking to his principles on humanity, pluralism and democracy as Gus Dur.
Thank you, Gus Dur, and so long.
1 Like many of my peers in high school, I was interested in the 1987 election primarily because election campaigns were fun (Truck convoys! Free t-shirts! Free concerts!). Incidentally, most students in my school were PDI fans, at least outwardly. Gugun Gondrong was the only student coming to school donning a non-PDI attributes (he wore green PPP headband while riding his motorbike across the schoolyard, but that is another story).
2 I’ll leave it for historians to debate how much of Gus Dur’s NU maneuvers were driven by political pragmatism, appeasement, or NU internal politics.
3 As a student studying economics in Salemba, I was perhaps already predisposed against IPTN and everything that had to do with it (funny how an undergraduate thinks). It was not surprising that when ForDem was formed partly as a reaction to the establishment of ICMI, my preference was clear.