Posted by: mel | January 14, 2010

Gus Dur, the word ‘Allah’ and radicalism

Jakarta Post | Khairil Azhar , Jakarta | Opinion | 14 Jakarta 2010

Soon after he stepped down as Indonesia’s fourth president, I met Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid at a drugstore in Pamulang, and would frequently do so up until his death. There, on the wall next to the entrance, was a big picture of Gus Dur in shorts and a T-shirt.

The owner of the drugstore, a Chinese-Indonesian and a Christian (if the crucifix on the wall was anything to go by), was pictured standing next to the sitting Gus Dur.

In the picture, the former president is smiling as though he had no worries in the world, or possibly letting visitors know that no obstacles are impossible to overcome.

He may as well be saying, “All illnesses have their own medicines. There is also a panacea, a medicine for all kinds of illnesses, and that’s our willingness to smile and make ourselves and others around us relaxed.”

The drugstore owner stands proudly, possibly with a feeling of deep peace or gratitude. Never for a moment does the picture come across as an attempt by the drugstore owner to draw more customers. No, it is more about a son feeling at peace in the presence of his father.

But now the son seems to be in angst. He has just lost his guardian father and I am not sure whether he has found another one to ensure things remain on right track as before.

The father has gone and the son is now likely to be an orphan for the rest of his life if a (hopefully good) stepfather does not come into his life.

The drugstore owner is not alone in facing that destiny. I vividly remember the greengrocer from my previous housing complex. Because I was not watching TV the night Gus Dur passed away, it was she who told me about his death. I did not believe her at first, because we always joked as Gus Dur used to. But she was not joking this time. It was true, Gus Dur had passed away.

The greengrocer’s family, Muslim and Javanese, seemed to need another great figure as soon as
possible. I do not believe they are floating voices socially, culturally or politically.

Gus Dur was someone special for them, mostly spiritually. Given the opportunity, they would have left for Jombang, where Gus Dur was buried, and taken soil from around his grave as a talisman.

There was another story. A close friend, a financially less well-off government employee (a division head), told me the movements for a multicultural and pluralist Indonesia were in difficult straits.

The activists now face a big problem after having just lost a powerful guard who was able to defend them before the religious radicals and the oppressive government.

He may have exaggerated a bit, but there was some truth to it. First, even though it has only happened in Malaysia so far, the ban on non-Muslims from using the word “Allah” seems to reflect the escalation of religious radicalism stemming from trivial affairs in Southeast Asia.

In Indonesia, the word has been in use for a long time, albeit with a slightly different pronunciation, and it is not impossible that the radicals are going to issue a similar monopoly on its use or that of any other words, claiming them as exclusively Islamic and not applicable for non-Islamic use.

If Gus Dur were still alive, he would joke about it as he did about other incidents related to misunderstanding and exaggerated possessiveness of religious symbols, which are actually profane.

The word “Allah” is an Arabic word that predates Islam. The late Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005) translated it as “Tuhan” in Indonesian, equivalent to “God” with capital G. It is merely a linguistic phenomenon.

What matters, in this case, should be the consequences of the belief of the presence of “Allah” in a person’s mind; that his presence, for instance, would steer the believer away from negative thinking about others, or, in Indonesia, from a corrupt way of thinking.

The word should be a symbol of the presence of a guard who guarantees peace while reminding against not committing wrongdoings. What use is it, after all, if the word is uttered all the time or possessed exclusively but has no effect at all on the claimants?

If Gus Dur were still here, he would also joke about how the radicals are now haunting the mosques, not just in Surakarta (as revealed in a recent study) but also in other cities, towns and remote villages.

“Why do these people make a living through planting fear in the hearts of the people?” he might say.

Or perhaps he would get mad at the fact that some of the mosques are managed by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s biggest Islamic organization, and one that he once led. Gus Dur, who opened many alternatives to facilitate the need for modernization of his previously “very traditionalist” people, would have seen it as a setback, a move to the Wahhabism of the 18th century.

But these are the facts: After the deaths of Harun Nasution (1919-1998), the former rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University and founder of the Islamic thought reform in Indonesia, and Nurcholish Madjid, the death of Gus Dur seems to have eased the way for radicals to radicalize Indonesian Muslims and therefore generate more conflict in a religiously and culturally diverse Indonesia.

Hopefully this is all just a though experiment rather than the country’s destiny. Yet, as in the Ko Ping Ho series, the Chinese kung fu stories written and published by a Chinese-Indonesian whom Gus Dur was very fond of during his youth, there are always hidden weapons or secret steps available to defeat a knight’s enemies.

And if the knights should be defeated, hopefully they can find other gurus of greater skill to overcome the offending disturbers and bring back the peace. Rest in peace, Gus Dur.

The writer is a teacher in Jakarta.

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