One Foreigner's Appreciation of Gus Dur

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 peace.

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 justice.

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.