By Muhammad Cohen
December 26, 2018
Yenny Wahid, the daughter of late president Abdurrahman Wahid, has
emerged as a prominent female proponent of moderate Islam in the increasingly
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
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 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
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.
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
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.
“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
“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.
“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