WHATEVER the time or place, Abdurrahman Wahid—Gus Dur, as everyone fondly called him—had a joke to tell. About his predecessors as Indonesia’s president: “Sukarno was mad about sex, Suharto was mad about money, Habibie was mad about technology, but me? I’m just mad!” About his removal from the presidency in 2001, when he was almost blind: “I need help to step up, let alone step down.” About losing power: “It’s nothing. I regret more that I lost 27 recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”
Visiting Tokyo, he was delighted when the prime minister congratulated him on his “erection”. For a Muslim ulama, or priest-scholar, his appetite for smut was remarkable. He had naughty jokes on his website, and was once reported to the police by conservative clerics for emphasising the raunchier bits of the Koran.
Joking was essential, he said, for a healthy mind. Villagers in Jombang in East Java remembered him, as a boy, tied to the flagpole in the front yard for some jest that had gone too far. Visitors to the house would find their shoelaces surreptitiously knotted together. Later on, it was sometimes hard to tell whether he was larking round or serious: as a narcoleptic, he would often lull journalists into a snooze and then snap to, razor-sharp, with the answer to their questions. Joking got him through the rigours of pesantren, rural Muslim boarding school, and certainly through the turmoil of his 21 months as president from 1999 to 2001. At the end, when his aides tried to restrain him, “It has affected me,” he complained. “Starting tomorrow, I will start telling jokes again.”
His eccentricity could be infuriating. But it usually hid a serious purpose. In sprawling Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, cramped under authoritarian rule for most of its existence, Mr Wahid was committed to pluralism, liberalism, democracy and tolerance. He promoted these principles in his columns in Prisma, Tempo and Kompas. More remarkably, he believed that they were also fundamental to his religion. “All too many Muslims”, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2005, “fail to grasp Islam.” “Right Islam” was not fanatical. It was tolerant, open and fair.
To some of his co-religionists, he went too far. But Mr Wahid had imbibed the gentle, Hindu-flavoured Islam of Java and the café-table cut-and-thrust of Baghdad’s student circles, as well as the doctrinaire rote-learning of al-Azhar University in Cairo, and had plumped for free expression every time. He had also been brought up in a house that was both devout and cosmopolitan: encouraged to read European magazines, to devour Dickens and Dostoyevsky, to listen to Mozart and Janis Joplin, as well as to get involved in Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim organisation, heavily rural and steeped in animist Javanese tradition, which his grandfather had founded and his father had run.
In time the NU, with its 40m members, became his own power base. He reformed it, as well as removing it, in 1984, from party politics, in order to focus its energies on raising the pesantren to the level of secular schools. Though a deep believer in mysticism and the spirit world, secularism never offended him. Selamat pagi, “Good morning”, did as well for him as the believer’s assalamu alaykum; both, as he pointed out, meant “Peace be to you”. He accepted the constitution’s doctrine of pancasila—national unity and social justice with freedom of religion—as a useful creed for fissiparous Indonesia. More surprisingly, he kept on cordial terms with Suharto, despite pushing against the strongman both as the hugely popular head of the NU and, from 1998, as leader of his own non-sectarian National Awakening party.
In 1999, in Indonesia’s first (indirect) presidential election, Mr Wahid comprehensively outmanoeuvred Megawati Sukarnoputri, who had in fact done better than he had at the polls. Though hobbled by strokes and blindness, he now grinned from ear to ear at the prospect of power. In short order, he invited outlawed dissidents and communists to see him at the palace; removed the ban against Chinese culture and language; talked to, and tried to make peace with, Aceh and West Papua, as part of a devolution of power away from “corrupt” Jakarta; dismantled Suharto’s press-curbing Ministry of Information, and the extortionist Ministry of Welfare; sacked General Wiranto, who had overseen atrocities in East Timor, and apologised to the East Timorese. He did not manage to control the army or set up diplomatic relations with Israel, but made it clear he wanted to.
The result was chaos. Mr Wahid, out of his depth and surrounded by enemies, soon lost control, and parliament removed him. But he had at least set standards for government accountability and openness in Indonesia, which helped democracy to grow. Even more valuably, he had shown the world a thoughtful, tolerant form of Islam. He saw himself as many characters: as Semar, the wise demigod-turned-jester of Javanese shadow-theatre, and as the “drunken master” of kung-fu films, expertly waddling in, in his cheap batik shirts, to bang heads together. But he was also the laughing Sufi of Islam’s mystical tradition, mad—or wise—before the undiscriminating inclusiveness of God.