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.