Abdurrahman Wahid has just died. I knew him a bit during the mid-1990s, when the Suharto regime was still well entrenched and “Gus Dur” – as he was known – was a focus for the hopes of democrats and liberals. His position as a key figure in the opposition to dictatorship was made easier by the fact that he was descended from a long line of Muslim leaders, with deep roots in Java. But Wahid was anything but a parochial or forbidding figure. On the contrary, he was culturally tolerant, funny, liberal, fluent in English and intellectually-sophisticated.
I once travelled with him into Central Java to watch him preside over a religious ceremony, in a village that claimed to have just manufactured the world’s largest Koran. On the way there, he told me a joke that marked him out as an unusual Muslim leader. “Have you noticed,” he said, “that when the Jews pray, they stand by a wall and whisper. The Christians kneel and speak very quietly. But we Muslims stand in a tower and shout through a megaphone. It makes you wonder who is closer to God.” At this, he roared with laughter. Read more