Yenny Wahid is a voice of moderation amid a rising tide of Islamic intolerance in Indonesia. Photo: Youtube
Yenny Wahid is a voice of moderation amid a rising tide of Islamic intolerance in Indonesia. Photo: Youtube

Indonesia will hold national legislative and presidential elections in April 2019, and although the official campaign has not yet begun, the political scene is already noisy.

On the surface, the platforms scarcely differ for the two presidential candidates, President Joko Widodo (known colloquially as Jokowi) and retired army general Prabowo Subianto. Jokowi’s slogan is “Work hard, work hard, work hard.”

Prabowo’s followers chant “Change the president.” A recent television debate was entitled Kerja keras vs Suara keras (Hard work vs Hard talk).

But hidden in plain sight within the presidential race is a contest over the role of Islam in Indonesian society. Widodo is considered a moderate Muslim while Prabowo is courting the religious right.

To make things more interesting, Jokowi has chosen leading conservative Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his vice-presidential running mate. In the midst of this debate, Yenny Wahid, daughter of the late president Abdurrahman Wahid, is a particularly important player, perhaps the most prominent female political proponent of moderate Islam, once Indonesia’s religious calling card.

Yenny Wahid speaks with a portrait of her deceased ex-president father Abdurrahman Wahid in the background. Photo: Facebook

Yenny Wahid is a princess of the Indonesian Islamic establishment. Her father, nicknamed Gus Dur, was a much admired but controversially progressive Islamic cleric. Her grandfather Wahid Hasyim served as Indonesia’s first minister of religion.

Wahid’s great-grandfather Hasyim Asy’ari founded the world’s largest Muslim membership organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) that still thrives today – with Ma’ruf Amin as its leader.

But Wahid, 44, is more than NU royalty. She is an energetic activist for moderate Islam, the acknowledged heir of her father’s mission to fight intolerance in Indonesian society.

Gus Dur, president from 1999 to 2001, was a voice of inclusiveness and moderation in the face of the sudden rise of the religious right when Suharto’s three decades-plus of repression ended in 1998. That quest goes forward through the Wahid Institute, founded in 2004, with Yenny Wahid now its director.

Wahid has prepared for this mission to win hearts and minds through education and practical experience. She has a bachelor’s degree in design and visual communication from Trisakti University in Jakarta and a master’s from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Between earning these degrees, she worked as a correspondent for Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, reporting on separatist movements in Indonesia’s Aceh and East Timor.

Her team won journalism’s Walkley Award for covering the violence in East Timor following the 1999 independence referendum. Wahid left and moved across the table as a communications adviser in her father’s administration and to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2005–2007.

President Joko Widodo (L) and Yenny Wahid (R) in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

At the recent Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2018 in Bali, Yenny Wahid arrived fresh from a United Nations engagement and got the rock star treatment, drawing packed houses of predominantly young Indonesians.

In response to a question about the most important thing Gus Dur taught his four daughters, Wahid said, “He taught us to read widely and critically. It enabled us to be able to question things and get many perspectives, to form our own thoughts about foreign ideas.”

Gus Dur was remarkable for his own broad perspective, Wahid noted.

“Despite being raised in a conservative Islamic background with very strict teachings and lifestyle, he was exposed to many thinkers, including a German priest who taught him to love classical music,” she said. “He looked at the world in a deeper way. He exposed us to people from different cultures and taught us to be open to ideas and brave in confronting the truth.”

In contrast with that tradition of openness sits Indonesia’s controversial blasphemy law – actually a web of legislation, presidential decrees and ministerial directives – a sharp dividing line between moderate and right-wing Muslims.

Islamic hardliners brought blasphemy charges against popular but outspoken Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, a Christian of Chinese descent. The governor lost his bid for a new term while battling the legal case, then was convicted of blasphemy and is now serving a two-year prison sentence.

Hardline Muslim groups protest against Jakarta’s then governor Basuki Purnama The sign reads: “Reject Ahok.” Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

“We didn’t create the law,” Wahid said. “We inherited it from the Dutch.” She explained that many European countries, such as Denmark, have similar statutes on their books.

In Indonesia, as in Europe, the blasphemy law is routinely ignored – until it can be used for political purposes. Her solution is to work through legal processes to overturn the law, an effort now winding its way though Indonesia’s courts that hasn’t yet paid off.

Wahid offered a practical political perspective about Jokowi’s running mate, Ma’ruf Amin. As head of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), an Islamic oversight board, Ma’ruf has taken extreme positions on social issues, including supporting the blasphemy law and banning of Ahmadiyah, a Muslim sect.

Many moderate Muslims were aghast that the moderate Jokowi appointed the hardline Ma’ruf, once a presidential adviser to her father.

“Political wisdom says that when a presidential candidate is a nationalist, the running mate should come from the Islamic camp,” Wahid explained. She dismissed fears that the vice president would exert conservative influence on the government.

Indonesian cleric Ma’ruf Amin heads Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest mass Muslim organization. Photo: Youtube

“President Jokowi is committed to more openness in society, and he has the final call on government policy. Knowing him, I don’t think it would be easy for anyone to influence him.

“Besides, Ma’ruf Amin is a politician. And politicians have a wonderful ability to adapt when the situation dictates that you must be friends with people you once opposed. A good politician is always open to this.”

Despite the unsettling cocktail of Islam and politics that Indonesia has experienced, Wahid contends there is a constructive role for religion in affairs of state.

“Eighty percent of the world’s population belong to some religion. You need to work with that,” she said. “We’re seeing religious interest groups promoting social issues based on religious tenets, such as Christians for Fair Trade, Muslims for the Environment.

“The problem is when religion is used to attack people, even people of the same belief. We need religious people to bring more kindness and goodness into society.” Amin (amen), her father would undoubtedly add.

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