Founded in 1926, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the Council of Islamic Scholars, is today Indonesia’s largest private organization. Its 30 million members are rooted in a vast network of pesantren, or Muslim schools, spread throughout Indonesia but concentrated heavily in East and Central Java. For centuries, scholars at these schools defined and preserved Java’s distinctive Muslim culture, and passed it on. When colonized by the Dutch and opened to new winds from the West, NU’s pesantren rejected the “modern” ideas embraced by many fellow Muslims and became bastions of tradition. And so, by and large, they remained until the early years of independence, when NU emerged briefly as a national political force.
By 1984, however, the year ABDURRAHMAN WAHID became chairman, Nahdlatul Ulama was locked in a no-win confrontation with Indonesia’s authoritarian New Order government. Bound to their rural villages, few of its members filled the ranks of Indonesia’s growing bureaucracy, its prospering business classes, or its powerful officer corps. WAHID immediately withdrew the organization from electoral politics and redirected NU to its original purposes, which were social and religious.
Born in East Java in 1940, WAHID received his formal education in Indonesia, Egypt, and Iraq and became a Muslim scholar in his own right. As the grandson of NU’s founding chairman, he is steeped in the Nahdlatul Ulama tradition. But his approach as chairman has been anything but traditional. To improve education, working conditions, nutrition, and health in NU villages, for example, he has initiated new pesantren-based community development projects. To give farmers and small businesses access to credit, he has launched a rural banking system. Now he envisions a great web of small-scale agro-industries, retail stores, rural banks, and mutual-help projects, raising NU’s villagers from poverty and economic dependency. “Islam,” he reminds skeptics, “is a liberating religion.”
“I am convinced,” says WAHID, “that the Indonesian silent majority is pluralistic in attitude and tolerant of diversity.” He therefore opposes the idea of using government to enforce the Islamic law code, or Shari’ah, and other manifestations of an Islamic state. He prefers, instead, a secular state in which the law applies equally to everyone and in which the values embodied in the Shari’ah become the standards by which Muslims choose to live. In an ultra-diverse nation, he believes, religious politics are dangerous and mitigate against the achievement of democracy. And he is convinced democracy is the best hope for Indonesia.
While WAHID supports government programs that benefit the people and pledges loyalty to Indonesia’s national ideology and the Constitution, he also speaks critically about the indefinite postponement of individual rights in the country, such as freedom of speech. In 1991 he courted official displeasure by agreeing to lead the Democracy Forum, a grouping of Muslim and Christian intellectuals convened to “discuss and reflect on the parameters of democracy” and to explore possible frameworks wherein the country’s citizens can be more effectively enfranchised. He hopes, thereby, to enlarge incrementally “the constituency for democracy” among Indonesians.
Multi-lingual WAHID is a gregarious, cosmopolitan man, equally at home in the village mosque, before the press in Jakarta, or addressing international meetings. Known for his humor, deft maneuvering, and outspoken views, he is sometimes at odds with the conservatives among NU’s vast membership. But in an old organization where many people want to put on the brakes, he says, someone has got to step on the gas.
In electing ABDURRAHMAN WAHID to receive the 1993 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his guiding Southeast Asia’s largest Muslim organization as a force for religious tolerance, fair economic development, and democracy in Indonesia.
In accepting the 1993 Magsaysay Award, I would like to express my gratitude to the board of trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for awarding this outstanding recognition and prestigious acknowledgment of achievements of fellow Asians.
The award is not merely a great personal honor to me and my family, it is also a recognition of the achievements of the Muslim community in Indonesia, at least as expressed by my organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. But it can also be seen as an acknowledgment of the fact that Indonesia as a nation displays currently the remarkable ability to sustain its commitment to a strong and highly pluralistic society without sacrificing the idea of progress. At the present, it often seems as though development should be attained by the splintering of societies and the dismantling of national entities to reemerge as new, smaller ones in the form of narrow-based “ethnic nation-states,” such as is now happening in some parts of Africa and central and eastern Europe. Indonesia’s ability to maintain its unity—which encapsulates within its borders hundreds of ethnic groups and local languages as well as separate geographical territories consisting of more than thirteen thousand islands inhabited by more than 180 million people—is indeed an achievement in itself. The remarkable fact is that, today, this unity is being achieved without significant religious misunderstandings or racial outbreaks.
The main reason for this fact is the country’s ability to avoid the trap of a protracted confrontation between religion and ideology. Islam, as the religion of the majority of the country’s population, is developing into a nonideological identity of Indonesia’s important religious movements within the community of Muslims. Initially, there was a confrontation between Islam, which was then presented in an ideological form, and Pancasila, the five principles of statehood of the Republic of Indonesia. The results of that confrontation were, on the one hand, the rebellion of the militant Muslim groups known in the 1950s as Darul Islam and, on the other, the deadlock in 1959 of the Constitutional Assembly entrusted with the task of drawing up a permanent constitution for the young republic.
As a nation, Indonesia was able to settle the matter by thrashing out the problem in the open. This resulted in the formulation in which Pancasila became the constitutional and ideological base for all Indonesian organizations, including religious ones. At the same time, religious organizations retained religion as their credal base. This acknowledgment of the different “spheres of influence” between religion and national ideology ensures the liberty for people of all religions to respect and follow the teachings of their respective faiths.
The acceptance of Pancasila ensures that all citizens enjoy equal status before the Constitution, regardless of their ethnic, religious, or cultural origins. The liberty to implement the teachings of one’s religion is tempered by the rights of the people from other religions to get full protection from the state against all form of discriminatory acts based on differences in their respective faiths.
My organization takes part in the nation’s gigantic effort to instill this sense of mutual respect among people from different faiths. It is a very complex task considering the fact that political interests of competing power centers and cultural biases inherited from the past tend to nurture sectarian trends and attitudes in the life of a nation, especially in a pluralistic but still poor one like Indonesia. Especially troublesome is the legacy of religious laws that govern all aspects of life. A politically motivated call for the “Islamization of national law,” for instance, would create havoc in the fundamental task of ensuring just treatment and equal status before the law for all citizens. That is why we in Indonesia are still faced with the task of educating the population at large to nurture this very fundamental and basic notion.
But that very task brings with it the imperative of establishing democracy as the main societal framework of the nation’s life. Only in a democratic society can just treatment and equal status be realized, although not all democratic entities do, in fact, deliver these noble ideals. In this sense, the strenuous efforts to develop religious tolerance in a society necessitates a consistent and strong commitment to the democratization process. Between democracy and religious tolerance, there exists a symbolic relationship; one is necessary for the life of the other.
At another end of the rope that binds democracy to religious tolerance is the equally difficult and complex task of socioeconomic transformation: lifting the citizens from poverty. Without a more equitable distribution of wealth, all efforts to promote religious tolerance and democracy come to nothing. Widespread poverty, which leaves people tied to ignorance, backwardness, and deprivation, sustains all kinds of age-old prejudices and injustices. It is clear, then, that socioeconomic transformation, which improves common people’s living standards, is a conditio sine qua non for democracy and religious tolerance.
I would like to conclude here by expressing my satisfaction that so many people—especially the young generation—now participate in this endeavor to serve those three noble virtues in an interrelated way, with great pride and firm confidence that history will redeem the value of mankind through their efforts.