Posted by: mel | January 1, 2010

Remembering the Dragon Spirit of a Wise and Noble Indonesian Leader

Jakarta Globe | Johannes Nugroho | 1 January 2010

The late former President Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, was born in 1940, in the Year of the Dragon according to the Chinese zodiac. The mythical dragon is a symbol of strength, luck and success. The dragon is a also a guardian of celestial and terrestrial spheres.

In many ways, Gus Dur’s life bore out the fact that he was indeed a dragon. He was a “dragon of ideas,” a pioneer of philosophies that represented a leap into a more civilized future. His total opposition to discrimination and the persecution of minority groups is still etched in our minds. Throughout his service to the nation, he embraced all marginalized people from all walks of life — Muslim minority sects, communists, atheists, Chinese-Indonesians, Jews, gays, transgenders and many others — as his brothers and sisters.

What Gus Dur saw was not the exterior that made these people different from him. Nor did he see the different ideas these people represented. Instead, he saw the common humanity that he shared with them. In this, we can all witness Gus Dur’s advanced spiritual development, for he was capable of seeing people at the spiritual level, beyond the physical and ideological boundaries. He was interested in the soul, not in the trappings of the flesh.

As a person plagued with physical disabilities after his stroke, he perhaps recognized that what defined a person was not what he or she could physically do. A person’s true worth is what resides within his or her fragile physical temple. In his case, his own temple may have been deteriorating, but the spiritual dragon that inhabited the temple was as bright as ever, restless because his task of paving the way for a better Indonesia, and indeed a better world, still had a long way to go.

Gus Dur was also a “guardian dragon” of morality and ethics for Indonesia. Yet, he was not a guardian of prudish morality, as his defense of dangdut singer Inul Daratista against the religious censure of Rhoma Irama showed. Instead, in his own way, he represented our conscience. When masses brutalized Ahmadiyah mosques, he spoke up in condemnation while the government and other Muslim leaders turned a blind eye. When anti-Chinese sentiment was rife, he championed this persecuted group, regardless of the criticism he faced .

Gus Dur never spoke in support of something because it was popular or politically expedient. Instead, he always spoke and acted on his own conscience. In this, he was definitely not a politician, which may explain why he was unable to survive in the din of unscrupulous Indonesian politics. Gus Dur’s impeachment in 2001, if anything else, proved that politics in our country is not based on ethics, let alone conscience. At the end of his presidency, he may have discovered that the souls of our politicians were less pure than those of the ordinary Indonesians he met on the streets.

Gus Dur’s fatal flaw as a politician was that he was too optimist about the essential goodness of people. His conscientious decisions were based on what he considered morally right, but not necessarily politically prudent. Yet he made them anyway, believing that eventually others would see the spiritual correctness of his decisions. He believed with all his heart that an act of the state must be spiritually and morally just and accountable, no matter how disadvantageous it may be to politicians or how it may offend powerful groups within the populace.

In a more enlightened society, Gus Dur would have become a great leader, a true “dragon king.” But the society he reigned over was unprepared for such radical examinations of its own follies, bigotries and fears. So, instead of extolling him, they crucified him on the altar of politics in order to immortalize their ill-guided ways.

Gus Dur was also a “dragon of wisdom.” As a messenger of tolerance and love, he was not unlike Gandhi. In fact, the reverent title of mahatma is equally apposite for Indonesia’s own “great soul.” It is even tempting to argue that Gus Dur was an even greater soul than Gandhi. Toward the end of his life, Gandhi became more and more immersed in mysticism that baffled even Jawaharlal Nehru. Instead of s w araj (self-rule), Gandhi started talking about r a m r a j (rule of the Lord, God).

By contrast, Abdurrahman Wahid stayed true to his belief that a pluralistic Indonesia should always remain secular in order to survive as a nation. Our own mahatma was not only deeply grounded in spirit, but also in reason. When Gandhi wanted to make a point about his belief, he would choose the rather masochistic fast-to-near-death to force his way.

Gus Dur never emotionally blackmailed his fellow countrymen and women. If he had wanted to drive a point home, he would have taken the matter to court, and at the same time taught Indonesians that to protest against something, reason must precede emotion.

Wahid was also a “dragon of hope.” His willingness to grant the former Irian Jaya the native name of Papua was a beacon of hope for peace in Indonesia’s westernmost province, which still serves the country’s integration well today. His controversial lifting of the ban on expressions of Chinese culture among Chinese-Indonesians was also another beacon of hope for the much sidelined ethnic minority. He even went as far as listing an ethnic Chinese among his ancestors to prove that in a multicultural country, being Indonesian is a psychological condition regardless of racial identity.

We all mourn Gus Dur’s death. But now that Gus Dur’s physical temple has crumbled, his great dragon spirit can now finally be revealed. In the realm of mythology, we would say that he has left his physical body and metamorphosed into a radiant azure dragon. And in this, he has reached the pinnacle of glory, for the limitations of the flesh no longer burden him. He has now gone into the pure realm of spirit, where he always shone brighter than most.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer based in Surabaya.

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