IBRAHIM ISA'S – SELECTED NEWS AND VIEWS
Monday, 25 January 2010
*One Foreigner's Appreciation of Gus Dur *
*Why Indonesia's book bans should not be shrugged off
*One Foreigner's Appreciation of Gus Dur
*Written by Philip Bowring
Sunday, 03 January 2010
ImageNot just Indonesia but the Islamic world lost an irreplaceable figure
Symbolism matters. By most measures Abdurrahman Wahid - known universally as
Gus Dur - was a disaster as Indonesia's president. Even Megawati's years of
doing nothing appear an achievement in comparison with Gus Dur's chaotic 21
months in power as Indonesia's fourth leader.
Yet is it possible to argue that the almost blind head of the Nahdlatul
Ulama, who died on Dec. 30, contributed not just more than anyone to
Indonesia's nearly peaceful transition from the Suharto era, of which he was
a part, to plural democracy. Even more important, he embodied a tradition of
tolerance which is as essential as a common language to the survival of
Indonesia, a nation which is not merely multi-religious but harbours a wide
variety of interpretations of the religion of the majority.
His most obvious contribution as president to inclusiveness and tolerance
was his ending of overt discrimination against Chinese people and language.
But that was only one aspect of a career built on a profound belief in the
importance of common values transcending religious divisions. Despite an
unprepossessing physique, he was an effective leader because he combined
several elements. He inherited leadership of the NU from his father and
grandfather, and hence the quasi-feudal authority that went with the grass
roots Muslim organisation.
But he added to that true intellectual weight, a profound knowledge not only
of Islam but of other religions and philosophies combined with an ability,
learned through his years in journalism, to express himself simply and
directly. And to those he added an earthiness to which people at large, be
they peasants from east Java or politicians in Jakarta could easily relate.
The Gus Dur who loved retailing gossip about the sex lives of the first
family was the same Gus Dur who was treated with reverence both by his
fellow kiai - the religious leaders of Indonesian Muslims - and by attendees
at international gatherings.
His failings were obvious too and rather typical of one born to high office.
To those were added physical decline in the wake of his stroke and what
amounted to almost an addiction to politicking which left friends and allies
exasperated. If he had been directly elected as president, things might have
been different. But he proved temperamentally incapable of the managing the
coalition of entrenched interests necessary when the presidency was the gift
of the MPR, the country's fractured House of Representatives. His liberal
views on separatist issues such as Aceh and Irian Jaya also contributed to
his downfall - though in the case of Aceh they paved the way to post-tsunami
His failures do not undermine his importance as religious leader and
politician in keeping religion and politics separate and ensuring that
mainstream Islam in Indonesia remained tolerant and plural, where religion
was a matter of private conscience and where the secular state kept out of
religious affairs - and vice versa. He also reconciled Islamic teachings
with pancasila, Indonesia's amorphous, five-sided state philosophy of belief
in one god, humanitarianism, national unity, popular sovereignty and social
It was this belief in pluralism which enabled him to be a moderating
influence in the latter Suharto years and play a central role in the
democratic transition. That a nearly blind cleric who had already suffered
strokes was elected president at all was a reflection of his symbolic role
in a nation searching for a new basis for harmony.
Many Muslim-majority countries (not least Malaysia) could learn much from
the liberal intellectual traditions which Gus Dur embodied. Indeed, the
physical infirmity of his later years largely prevented him from playing an
international role, providing a coherent and good-humored counter to the
exclusivism and extremism displayed by religious and political authorities
in countries as diverse as Iran, Malaysia and Pakistan.
The world, not just Indonesia, needs more Gus Durs.
The books of slaughter and forgetting*
Jan 21st 2010
*Why Indonesia's book bans should not be shrugged off*
THE past, even in Indonesia, is a foreign country: they did things
differently there. The downfall in 1998 of the 32-year Suharto “New Order”
regime seemed to mark the border as clearly as would a checkpoint and a
queue for immigration. This side of the boundary, Indonesia enjoys
liberties, a raucous free-for-all of competing ideas and the luxury of
democratic choice. On the other side lurked repression, rigged elections,
stifled opinions and a long list of banned books. So it is odd and not a
little disturbing, in this last respect, to find the freely elected
government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono not doing things
differently at all. In December the attorney-general’s office banned five
books. The government is looking at proscribing a further 20, which might,
it frets, prove a threat to “national unity”.
If this is continuity, it is also an attempt to disguise it. Most of the
books in question are histories; guidebooks to parts of that foreign country
which the government still wants to keep out of bounds. One tackles the
mysterious atrocities that still haunt Indonesia: the massacre of hundreds
of thousands of alleged communists and others as Suharto consolidated his
power in 1965-66. Few horrors have been so unexamined. In Cambodia a flawed
judicial process is at last asking questions about the Khmer Rouge terror
from 1975-78. Even in China the show-trial of the Gang of Four served to
hold a few responsible for the crimes of the many in the Cultural Revolution
(1966-76). But in the villages of Java and Bali people still live
side-by-side with their parents’ murderers or their families. And the
torrent of bloodshed in which they were bereaved has never been officially
acknowledged, let alone subjected to a truth-and-reconciliation commission.
Back in 1998 the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s greatest novelist,
a prison-camp veteran who was by then a deaf and cantankerous but still
eloquent old man, enjoyed a moment of untypical optimism. At last, he
believed, the truth about 1965 would come out. He dismissed the usual guess
of up to 500,000 deaths, claiming there had been 2m. Now that Suharto had
gone, there was no reason the truth had to lie buried with the many dead.
Today Pramoedya’s books, at least, are unbanned. But had he lived, he would
be raging against the incompleteness of reformasi (“reformation”) and the
resilience of censorship.
Nor is 1965 the only forbidden territory. Also banned (censors do not do
irony) is a book called “Lekra Doesn’t Burn Books”, a reference to a leftist
cultural institute, very influential in the early 1960s, to which Pramoedya
belonged and which was later demonised by the Suharto regime. Another banned
volume covers Indonesia’s controversial annexation of Papua in 1969.
An Australian film has also been banned. “Balibo” presents the story of the
deaths of five Australian journalists during the 1975 invasion of East
Timor. The film is flawed as a work of history. José Ramos-Horta, president
of what is now Timor-Leste, jokingly grumbled to the director that the actor
playing him as a young firebrand was not handsome enough. He can have had
few other complaints about his portrayal. But its basic plot is the one
Australia’s courts have decided is true: that the five were murdered by
Few Indonesians have much time for Australian efforts to dig up this bit of
their country’s past. And some argue that the fuss the usual
civil-libertarian suspects have made over the book bans misses the point.
Far from sliding back to the authoritarian ways of the past, Indonesia now
has arguably the freest and most vibrant press in South-East Asia. “Law
number 4”, passed in 1963 to sanction fierce censorship, was lifted for the
press in 1999.
So, though books, pamphlets and posters remain under the censor’s thumb,
newspapers and magazines have proliferated. They report the latest political
intrigues involving Mr Yudhoyono with little restraint. The
attorney-general’s office is reportedly also mulling a ban on a book
claiming campaign-finance violations by the president last year. But as soon
as this became known hawkers started flogging pirated versions across
Jakarta. Indonesia has more than 30m Indonesian internet-users, with access
to every fact, theory and guess about their country’s recent past. The
censors’ argument—the one used by their peers everywhere—is that the banned
works might divide the nation and lead to bloodshed. That does not hold
water, for censorship no longer works.
By the same token, it does not seem to matter overmuch that censors try to
keep a couple of fingers in the information dyke. The attempt to suppress
recent history, however, does have two serious consequences. One is that the
same mistakes keep being made: not because they are forgotten, but because
there is little public exploration of other options. So the blunders
Indonesia’s occupying soldiers made in East Timor—the dependence on torture,
the co-option of unreliable local thugs, the closing-off of the region and
refusal to discuss it with foreign countries—have been repeated elsewhere,
in Aceh and now Papua.
SBY’s new New Order?
Second, and more fundamentally, the book bans hint at the identity crisis
suffered by the Indonesian political elite. The Yudhoyono regime is rightly
proud of its other democratic and liberal credentials. But it is not willing
to declare a complete break with the past. The president himself is a New
Order general who served in East Timor. Both the main opposing presidential
tickets in last year’s election featured another Suharto-era general (each
with a murkier reputation). It is easy to understand why they are unwilling
to confront the past. But until they have—and have repudiated parts of
it—Indonesia’s democratic transformation will always seem provisional, and
the past not so much a foreign country as the place where its leaders still
* * *