Gus Dur, through His Words, Attitude and Actions

housands of people attended the funeral Thursday of former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, a moderate Muslim scholar who courted ties with Israel and staunchly defended the country’s pluralist traditions. Flags flew at half mast around the vast archipelago as a sign of respect for the frail but pugnacious Wahid, who died in hospital on Wednesday evening aged 69 from complications arising from diabetes and stroke.

Popularly known as Gus Dur, he was Indonesia’s fourth president, coming to power in 1999 after the first general election following the fall of military strongman Suharto in 1998. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono praised Wahid’s contribution to Indonesia’s fledgling democracy as he presided over the burial service at a family graveyard in Tebuireng village, East Java.

“Through his words, attitude and actions, Gus Dur made us realise and respect the diversity of ideas and identities brought about by differences in faiths, beliefs, ethnicity and locality,” he said in an address.

“Whether we realise it or not, really, he was the father of pluralism and multiculturalism in Indonesia,” he added, before pouring soil into Wahid’s grave. In the United States the White House praised the father-of-four as a paragon of religious tolerance who helped steer Indonesia through a period of dramatic democratic change.

“A pivotal figure in Indonesia’s transition to democracy, president Wahid will be remembered for his commitment to democratic principles, inclusive politics, and religious tolerance,” spokesman Robert Gibbs said. “He worked for peace and prosperity for all Indonesians, and he sought to be a bridge between people of different faiths.” Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd paid tribute to Wahid as a highly influential moderate Islamic leader.

“Former President Wahid was much admired and respected not only within Indonesia, but also by many Australians and others throughout our region.” China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said the former president had made an important contribution to Chinese-Indonesian relations.

The late leader’s younger brother, Salahuddin Wahid, told AFP the family was “shocked, sad and grieving”. “He was humorous, happy, clever, brave and really cared about the community. He was full of life and his fighting spirit was strong. Even when he was sick, he would fight on,” he said.

Wahid rose to political prominence as a leader of one of the country’s biggest mass Islamic movements, the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), having been a critic of Suharto during the general’s three-decade rule. He defeated Megawati Sukarnoputri to scoop the presidency in a parliamentary vote, only to be replaced by her two years later when the national assembly sacked him amid unproven allegations of corruption and incompetence.

His time in government saw Indonesia emerge from the 1998-1999 Asian financial crisis and stake its claim to membership of the club of democratic nations following the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship. But there were fears the unwieldy archipelago of 234 million people would crumble under the weight of separatist and sectarian conflicts in places such as Aceh, Papua and the Molluca.

Violent Islamic extremism also reared its head with the coordinated Christmas Eve bombings of churches in Jakarta and other cities in 2000, which killed 18 people. Wahid’s response was to crack down on Islamist extremists while seeking conciliation with ethnic separatists, the latter strategy putting him at odds both with the military and the Jakarta elite.

He also broke taboos by calling for diplomatic relations with Israel and an end to a Cold War-era ban on communism. Despite his ailments — he was practically blind and in later years used a wheelchair — Wahid considered a comeback for the 2009 election, even though he was often photographed snoozing at conferences and meetings. NU vice-president Maskuri Abdillah said he would be remembered as a “pluralist” who stood for tolerance in the most populous Muslim-majority country.

“His death is a big loss not just to Nahdlatul Ulama, but also to Indonesians from all races and faiths,” he said.