Foreign Exchange with Daljit Dhaliwal
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Foreign Exchange with Daljit Dhaliwal
Interview with Manisha Tank
The Book Show
ABC Radio National
This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.
Ramona Koval: Yesterday marked six years since the Bali bombings. That’s the day when 202 people, including 88 Australians, died when terrorists attacked two nightclubs in Kuta. Hours after the bombings, thousands struggled to leave the island with airlines unable to cope with the mass exodus, but as tourists fled, journalists flocked, like Sadanand Dhume. He was on assignment for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Asian Wall Street Journal. It was in the darkness of the Bali aftermath that he wrote his first book My Friend the Fanatic, a travelogue and memoir that charts the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia. His story begins in the devastation of Kuta and that’s where The Book Show’s Linda LoPresti asked Sadanand Dhume to begin reading from My Friend the Fanatic.
Sadanand Dhume: [reading from The sun had barely set when I reached Kuta... to ...leaving behind only ash and glass and plastic.]
Linda LoPresti: That’s a very disturbing scene you paint there, Sadanand. Was that a defining moment for you in terms of wanting to know more about why this happened and I guess how this could happen in a largely secular nation like Indonesia, because it wasn’t long after those attacks that you quit your job as a journalist with the Far Eastern Economic Review and you began travelling around Indonesia and began writing this book.
Sadanand Dhume: It’s true. You know, the scene, it was a haunting scene and it would not leave me. I felt that what was behind this, the engine, what could produce such mayhem in a country that was really famous the world over for being so easygoing and tolerant, the last place in the Muslim world you would expect to have something like this happen. What I sensed was that this was much deeper than just a random group of violent young men, that the terrorism was a symptom of a much larger and much deeper social churning, and that’s what I set out to discover in this book.
Linda LoPresti: It’s interesting though that six years on we have the bombers Imam Samudra, Mukhlas and Amrozi…Amrozi, once dubbed ‘the smiling assassin’…they’re still laughing and talking freely about revenge attacks if they’re executed, saying it’s the religious duty of Muslims to wage jihad…almost acting like pop stars instead of prisoners, and it’s a disturbing paradox and yet I saw one which is quite common in your book My Friend the Fanatic because you introduce us to characters like Djenar whom you describe a wild-child of Indonesian literature; she smokes, she drinks, she’s not shy about her sexuality. And then of course there’s the protagonist, Herry Nurdi, the Muslim fundamentalist. Do they represent the real Indonesia?
Sadanand Dhume: Yes, they do, and I think it’s important not to generalise too much but at the same time not to shy away from the fact that there are very, very diverse and dizzyingly opposite characters of this large country of 220 million people. So on the one hand you have a kind of free-for-all, anything goes form of westernisation, but on the other hand you have some of the darkest currents of the Arab Islamic world that have also found a home in Indonesia. What I’ve tried to look at was to look at both of these and see how they come together in this country.
Linda LoPresti: Tell us about Herrry, who is your friend the fanatic, who hero-worships Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakar Bashir, the leader of Al-Qaeda local franchise Jemaah Islamiyah. What made you decide to make him the focus of your story?
Sadanand Dhume: Herry was really entry into this very strange world, a world to which, as you would imagine, foreigners and especially non-Muslims don’t normally have access. At the time he was the managing editor of a fundamentalist Saudi-funded magazine called Sabili which put Bashir on the cover and named him Man of the Year just a couple of months after the Bali bombing…just to give you a sense of where they’re coming from.
He himself is an interesting character, and in some ways he is emblematic of the changes in Indonesia in the sense that somebody who holds such violent political views would not have existed, say, 30 years ago. But on the other hand he’s also different from some of the other fundamentalists I met in the sense that he was, I found, somewhat less dogmatic. At one stage he tells me that he’s really just a ‘Monday to Friday’ fundamentalist and on the weekends he likes watching Hollywood movies.
Linda LoPresti: There’s a real difference though between fanaticism and terrorism, isn’t there. Would you agree that one doesn’t necessarily translate into the other? For me, that point was brought home through Herry. As you say, he’s a fundamentalist Monday through to Friday but not on the weekend.
Sadanand Dhume: I’m not any kind of fundamentalist any day of the week.
Linda LoPresti: No, no! But do you think that there is a Western misconception that fanaticism equals terrorism?
Sadanand Dhume: To a large extent, and my concern really is we don’t worry enough about the non-violent fundamentalists and we worry too much about the terrorists. In the end, a small percentage of the Muslim population is fundamentalist, and an even smaller percentage of the fundamentalists are terrorists. It’s the people who really would never themselves strap a bomb on and go to a bar but who in many ways would approve of such behaviour or, in Herry’s case, egg it on, who occupy this grey zone. A lot of journalists and a lot of people in the think-tanks and so on don’t pay that much attention to that element, but that’s the element that, to me, is growing very rapidly and that is cause for the greatest concern. These are not people who are violent themselves but they certainly don’t have any problem with violence committed in the name of Islam.
Linda LoPresti: You spent a lot of time with Herry, he opened doors for you and you crisscrossed Indonesia with him. Were you frustrated by his fundamentalist view, because you yourself say you’re an atheist, in the book you say; ‘My atheism arrived at by instinct was largely unexamined. Surrounded by the pious for the first time in my life, I couldn’t help but revisit my own attitudes towards God and religion.’ Did he make you think twice?
Sadanand Dhume: I developed a real fondness for him, and this partly because I really did some to agree with his self-description that he was a ‘Monday to Friday’ fanatic and then a liberal on the weekend, though I’m not sure I’d use the word ‘liberal’. But he was certainly…there was more to him. He didn’t have a closed mind. He had some pretty disturbing views and he had a vision of his country which I disagree with profoundly, but he was a person who, in the end, I could have a conversation with. There were many other people I met during the course of my journeys who were people you couldn’t really have a conversation with because they didn’t have any more questions, they had only answers, and so those people were much more disturbing to me than Herry, even though Herry is the central character.
Linda LoPresti: People, I guess, like Abu Bakar Bashir, who you met through Herry, he opened that door for you to meet him. Bashir, as we said, is the leader of the Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah. You describe your meeting with him halfway through the book. Can you read us that passage?
Sadanand Dhume: Yes, he was in prison at the time and it was very difficult to see him, but Herry, having impeccable connections with the likes of Bashir, managed to smuggle me into his jail cell, and here’s a description.
[reading He wore a green sarong... to ...a caliphate for all Muslims.]
Linda LoPresti: It’s that ‘them and us’ mentality, isn’t it.
Sadanand Dhume: Entirely. He says it’s between Satan and God or, as he put it, between carrots and steak, the choice.
Linda LoPresti: And did you find that a recurring theme as you travelled through Indonesia?
Sadanand Dhume: Well, Bashir is of course one extreme, he’s emblematic of this, and by and large I would say that Indonesians…that kind of black and whiteness that Bashir represents does not come naturally to Indonesians. They’re much more comfortable somewhere in the middle. But what I did see was that more and more people were receptive to Bashir’s kind of message, even though they themselves would not have approached his fanaticism.
Linda LoPresti: Yet it’s that black and white image which you’ve just described that I found quite recurring in your book. For example, the former actress Astri Ivo, you described her; ‘She she looked like a cross between a Palestinian suicide bomber and a prosperous Punjabi house wife.’ As you were writing it, did you find that there was a theme happening?
Sadanand Dhume: Yes, the theme really is that how can a country that is so vast and so known for its tolerant, easygoing folk Islam become home to this Saudi-ised version? And of course that’s not the majority, even now it’s a minority, I have to stress that, but it’s a minority that a generation ago people would have laughed at you if you said that it would take hold in Indonesia.
Linda LoPresti: I’m curious to know what Herry thinks of the book. In the final pages you write; ‘A few shreds of the personal bond remained but our political differences had grown starker.’ Is Herry happy to be known as ‘your friend the fanatic’?
Sadanand Dhume: No, he’s quite unhappy with the book. He feels that…I guess his main problem was that he feels that there is too much about him and that I haven’t been kind…and that’s of course true, that I haven’t been kind to the Islamist movement.
Linda LoPresti: Were you kind to him?
Sadanand Dhume: I believe I was fair to him, and if you go by the reviews, both in the Australian and in the Asian press, they’ve overwhelmingly said that I have been sympathetic to him, yes.
Linda LoPresti: And have you seen him since?
Sadanand Dhume: I haven’t. We’ve spoken on the phone and we’ve exchanged emails but I haven’t seen him face to face since.
Linda LoPresti: You’re now in the throes of writing a new non-fiction book about India. Are you more optimistic about India than you are about Indonesia, or do you see some parallels between these two nations?
Sadanand Dhume: Yes to both. I am more optimistic. I think India is opening itself up to the world after shutting out the world for about 35 years, and I think this process of India being knit back into the English-speaking world is very good for India and very good for democracies. On the other hand, I am not nearly as optimistic about India as most Indians are. It’s a tremendously poor country and it is struggling to surmount very, very large problems. So I think that the sense of euphoria and the sense of giddiness that comes through in much of the coverage of India is something that I certainly do not share, though I am broadly optimistic.
It really comes down to a question of what you’re comparing it with. When you look at a very large country like India, it’s still for the most part an inward-looking culture, it’s got its own movies and its own obsessions with sports and everything else. The tendency is to compare India with its own past, and if you make that comparison, clearly things are better than they were before. However, if you compare India with the countries of Southeast Asia and North Asia, you realise that India is still a very poor place that’s struggling in many, many ways, and I think many Indians are not quite aware of that.
Ramona Koval: Sadanand Dhume speaking from Washington DC to our Linda LoPresti.
Title: My Friend the Fanatic: Travels With an Indonesian Islamist
Author: Sadanand Dhume
ISBN-13 9781 9213 5140 2
MY FRIEND THE FANATIC: TRAVELS WITH AN INDONESIAN ISLAMIST
by Sadanand Dhume
Text Publishing, 320 pages, A$34.95
Reviewed by ROBERT W. HEFNER
In April 2003, Sadanand Dhume quit his job with the FAR EASTERN ECONOMIC REVIEW and The Wall Street Journal Asia to turn full-time to writing a book about the growing influence of militant Islam in Indonesia. Over the next 16 months, and again in February 2007, Mr. Dhume traveled across Indonesia to meet with celebrity preachers, Islamist teachers, jihadi fighters and a host of other denizens of the conservative wing of Indonesia’s vast Muslim community.
During some of his travels, Mr. Dhume was accompanied by Herry Nurdi, then the 27-year-old editor of Indonesia’s most influential hard-line Islamist journal, Sabili. Mr. Nurdi’s contacts provided the Indian-born and United States-resident Mr. Dhume with access to circles otherwise unlikely to have extended a welcome. Earlier, Mr. Dhume’s reporting at the review had established his reputation as a sharp-eyed observer of Indonesian culture and politics, and a consistent critic of all things Islamist.
As signaled in the book’s title, Mr. Dhume uses the evolution of his relationship with the tough-talking Mr. Nurdi to provide a light-hearted point of entry to a community and issues unfamiliar to most Western readers. Mr. Dhume has an eye for nuances of personality, bearing and vocal expression, and he uses his literary gift to introduce readers to the diverse personalities he encounters. Whether it is factory girls in Batam or radical Islamist veterans of Ambon’s sectarian wars, Mr. Dhume provides a sense of contemporary Indonesia through evocative and sometimes touching portraits and settings.
Drawn in through these close-ups, readers are then effortlessly guided through Indonesia’s broader political, religious and historical landscape, touching on everything from the coming of Islam to Indonesia centuries ago to the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in hard-line Islamist circles today.
Rather than hiding his views of religion, Mr. Dhume juxtaposes them with those of his Islamist interlocutors, not least of all Mr. Nurdi. Western-educated and the son of an Indian diplomat posted to Indonesia in 1980, Mr. Dhume makes clear early on that he is a nonbeliever, albeit one who arrived at his lack of faith in a “largely unexamined” manner. For most of the book, Mr. Dhume’s often humorous juxtaposition of his own cool disbelief to the ardor of the people he meets enhances rather than distracts from the broader story Mr. Dhume has to tell.
At a few points, however, the author’s views narrow rather than open up the reader’s portal on the world of Indonesian Islam. In a book notable for sensitive portraits of Indonesian women, the author speaks dismissively of the way in which Muslim women’s wearing of the headscarf (jilbab) provides a “cheaply earned moral smugness.” There are tens of millions of Indonesian women who choose to wear headscarves, and they are anything but uniform in their politics and personalities. Or similarly, when describing an Islamic boarding school in East Kalimantan, he writes of “minds… wiped clean of imagination and individuality, and left only with an unquestioning obedience to faith and faith alone.” One knows what Mr. Dhume hopes to get at with this characterization, but it is too sweeping to ring true.
These slips of the pen aside, Mr. Dhume captures well the darker current running through radical Islamist politics in Indonesia today. He observes that “the deepening of democracy had gone hand in hand with a darkening of intolerance,” which has “continued to batter heterodox Muslims, non-Muslims and women, and to undermine such bedrock democratic values as freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.” Sadly, all this is true. Mr. Dhume salutes the economic and educational achievements of the Suharto’s New Order government (1966-98), but correctly emphasizes the New Order was “never truly secular” and that the Islamist turn taken by the regime in its last 10 years set the stage for the sectarian violence of the early post-Suharto period.
In the book’s final pages, Mr. Dhume stands back and offers a sobering assessment of the future of Indonesia and Islamism. “The more I saw of the Islamist movement the more its totalitarian cast became obvious.” Although a number of Western observers have suggested that the moderately Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) may be a force for liberalization akin to Turkey’s AK party, Mr. Dhume sees the party as “intrinsically discriminatory towards women, secular Muslims, and non-Muslims,” and thus potentially “as dangerous as the [terrorist] Jemaah Islamiyah.” I personally find this conclusion unduly dire. For foreign governments and businesses alike, a first step toward helping Indonesia through its unfinished transition is to recognize the great diversity in the Muslim camp, including the PKS, and to realize that some of its broadest streams are struggling to devise a sustainable synthesis of democratic and Islamic ideals. Unfortunately for my position, however, for the moment actions like the violent campaign against the Ahmadiyah sect confirm Mr. Dhume’s claim that thus far Indonesia has proved more successful at consolidating a system of competitive national elections than it has protecting human rights.
Readers of this book will inevitably compare it to that of another writer of Indian descent, V.S. Naipaul’s Beyond Belief. The latter work provided an account of the author’s five month journey in 1995 through the non-Arab Muslim nations of Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia. Mr. Naipaul’s literary fame guaranteed his book a broad and eager readership. My Friend the Fanatic is the first book of a younger author, and it appears at a time when the Western public’s fascination with Muslim culture and politics may be dimming. It will be unfortunate if that means this book is less widely read than Mr. Naipaul’s. Mr. Dhume has a much subtler sense of the ironies of Islamism, globalization and Western capitalism than his predecessor. At once funny, sad and unpretentiously intellectual, this fine book tells us much about Indonesia and about Islamism, one of the most important political phenomena of our age.
Robert Hefner is director of the Program on Islam and Civil Society at the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, Boston University.
By Walter Lohman
Long-time observers of Indonesia’s politics and economy are a hardy, stubbornly optimistic crowd. That’s because we’ve seen through too many dire predictions of collapse, disintegration and chaos to believe the scares.
Our vulnerability is the other side of the coin: Complacency.
Indonesia is vast in every sense. But simply realizing that doesn’t mean we haven’t overlooked one of the most important implications: There are worlds in Indonesia that are completely removed from the eyes of most analysts — particularly Western ones. Many of these worlds are harmless. Some, however — if allowed to come to full bloom — bode very ill for Indonesia’s future.
In My Friend The Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist, Sadanand Dhume takes the reader into one of these dangerous worlds. His encounter is facilitated by Herry Nurdi, then managing editor of the fundamentalist Indonesian magazine Sabili. Sabili, Dhume reminds, declared Abu Bakar Bashir, the head of terrorist group Jamaah Islamiyah, its “man of the year” a few months after the 2002 Bali bombing.
Herry, in his conversations with Dhume, takes credit for bestowing on Bashir this honor, which was offered with the proclamation, “If Bashir, most of whose life has been devoted to upholding Islamic sharia law, should be called a terrorist, being terrorists might as well be our goal.” In another interview, Bashir himself connects the dots of the global Islamist network by invoking the most famous terrorist of all. “Osama bin Laden,” Dhume quotes Bashir, “is a soldier of Allah. His bombings are not action, but reaction.”
It is easy to dwell on terrorism. The price it exacts in human misery is so dear. Indeed, the reference to bin Laden in Dhume’s book is chilling. But in the case of Indonesia, which has not had a major terrorist attack in three years, terrorism is not the only radical threat it faces. As a prominent Indonesian Muslim political figure recently told me when I asked about the threat from terrorists and political extremists, “What’s the difference? All of them want to establish an Islamic state.”
Sabili’s affinity for Bashir goals, regardless of his tactics, and Bashir’s apology for bin-Laden’s terrorism should be seen in this light. They know what many Indonesians know: In and of themselves, tactics don’t matter. What matters is achieving their totalitarian political vision. And it is, indeed, a grim vision for all but their leaders.
Party chieftains, office holders and supportive intellectuals will win the same trappings of power enjoyed by their pancasila-abiding counterparts. Individual Muslims — abangan, santri, modernist, conservative, liberal — who hold different views of their faith will be the ones to suffer. Christians and other minority groups will be shunted to the vulnerable edges of society. And peculiar Islamist priorities will undercut the competitiveness that is the currency of prosperity.
Dhume gives us a glimpse into the future on a tour of a “sharia-minded” government school in South Sulawesi. Conveniently across from the school in Bulukumba stands an old mosque. On the school grounds, despite its extreme educational needs (one broken computer for 450 students) another mosque is under construction. Dhume sees in this ordering of priorities a broader lesson. He is not gentle in his commentary: “While Indians learned computers and maths, Chinese crammed English, and Vietnamese ratched up worker productivity in factories, here they were building a little mosque right next to the big mosque. Who would dare oppose it? Who would say, ‘Excuse me, but might there be a better way to spend this money?’”
Although Indonesia’s famous easy-going everything-will-work-out attitude may rub off on visitors, the secret is it is not entirely what it seems. In fact, many Indonesians are worried about the future of their country. And much of their anxiety has settled on Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), its electoral prowess and its ability to obfuscate its real agenda. Dhume’s insight into the PKS is the most important part of the book.
For anyone uncertain about the PKS agenda, Dhume’s interview with PKS Secretary General Annis Matta is revealing. When asked about sharia, Matta responds, “Indonesia is not ready. All laws should be applied only after society is ready to accept them. I can’t say ‘cut off a thief’s hand’ if people are poor and there is no food. We have to remove obstacles in society before implementing it. If you have laws without conditioning the people first, it will fail.” A similar thought is expressed to Dhume by Irfan S. Awwas, executive chairman of the extremist Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI): “In Indonesia there are too many prostitutes to stone and thieves with hands to be chopped off. We can’t implement it immediately.” He goes on to identify democracy itself as sharia’s biggest obstacle.
“My Friend the Fanatic” is very honest. Rarely does a journalist reveal as much about his personal perspective. You learn a few things about Dhume from reading the book: One, he has an appreciation for the Jakarta night scene, and two, he is an atheist. The honesty is admirable. But it opens him up to criticism. And it’s only his personal perspective and its implications with which I have any major disagreement.
The choice in Indonesia is not as stark as between the excesses of Jakarta’s nightlife and the nightmare of Islamist government. One can be fully a democrat and at the same time opposed to libertinism. The question becomes where one draws the line and how to do it in a way that preserves universal fundamental freedoms.
An atheist point of view is not going to carry the day in Indonesia — any more than it will in America. Only faith will successfully compete with Islamism for the Indonesian hearts and minds. For this reason I disagree with Dhume’s dismissal of Indonesia’s Muslim moderation. The well-springs of Indonesia’s rich spiritual traditions and tolerance are deep. And only these — and institutions to support them — can hold back tyranny. Unfaith is not up to the task.
The writer is Director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
Noor Huda Ismail, Contributor, Palembang, South Sumatra
Raised in the Hindu tradition in India, Sadanand Dhume is a self proclaimed atheist who candidly says he has “little sympathy for organized religion” and believes he “could never really be understood by someone whose life was regulated by faith”.
My friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist is the first book from Dhume, former full-time correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Asian Wall Street Journal.
Dhume lived in Indonesia from 2000-2004 and currently lives in Washington DC. Having experienced life in Indonesia, Dhume compares it to life in India.
Of India he says, “We could at least claim Nobel-winning economists and booker-winning writers and legions of engineers with stock options at Microsoft and Oracle. In Indonesia you had nothing — no accomplishments on the world stage to speak of, and only Islam to fill the void”.
Thus, in reading the book, one can quickly learn at least three significant points.
First, it was hoped that a deep hunger for knowledge about Islam in Indonesia in a time of dynamic and unpredicted change could be fulfilled through the travels of Dhume and his fixer, Herry Nurdi, a young Islamist journalist who made no secret of his support for Bin Laden’s call for Jihad against “Western infidels” and “Jews who always want to destroy Islam”.
However, Herry says, the book violates one of the basic rules of journalism and is a rude penetration into his personal life.
“There was no agreement between Dhume and I, that I would be the main character in the book” he says with great anger and regret.
Second, the book is based on extensive and painful field work. As a journalist, Dhume is neither lazy nor complacent. He did not merely sit in an air conditioned office checking newswires and writing up stories based on other people’s work.
Instead, he hit the road. He talked directly to different people ranging from alleged spiritual leader of Jam’ah Islamiyah Abu Bakar Ba’asyir in a prison in Cipinang, East Jakarta, to Inul Daratista, the controversial dangdut singer who invented the gyrating “drill dance”.
Dhume traveled to the Hidayatullah Pesantren in Balikpapan and also to Ambon, a zone of conflict between Muslims and Christians. His ability to do so safely was attributed in part to his Indian looks.
Without hesitation, I can say this is a timely book which serves to bridge the “clash of civilizations” perceived to exist between Islam and the West, particularly the U.S. and its allies.
But, unfortunately, it fails to fairly portray the perennial struggle among adherents of Islam in Indonesia which has colored the country’s political and religious complexion for centuries.
The book is full of disturbing arguments, examples and descriptions. For example, Dhume does not appreciate the achievements of the most modern Islamic boarding school, Gontor Pesantren, in Ponorogo, East Java. For Dhume, Gontor is like an amoeba which is only able to reproduce clones of its own kind; graduates who understand only a narrow scope of religious affairs.
To support his argument, Dhume writes, “No great writers or painters or scientists, let alone chess masters or orchestra conductors come from that school” (page 15).
Well, it is clear Dhume’s yardstick for the success of a school is a completely unfair.
One should understand Gontor is a modern religious school. Most parents send children to this school to deepen their understanding of Islamic teachings with studies of Nahwu Shorof (Arabic grammar and syntaxes), Tafsir (interpretation of the Al Qur’an) and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence)among other things.
Gontor has produced not only religious figures such as Din Syamsudin, the leader of Muhammadiyah who went on to earn his doctorate in political science at one of the U.S. Ivy League universities, but also nurtured poets and writers such as Emha Ainun Najib and Jamal Mirdad.
Mirdad is a dangdut singer married to a non-Muslim actress, Lydia Kandao. The personal decision to make such a marriage required an educated and open-minded attitude.
The worst part of the book is the fact Dhume carelessly equates the PKS or Prosperous Justice Party (perceived to be conservative and Islamist by some) with Jama’ah Islamiyah — whose members have been implicated in terrorist activities in Indonesia.
Like Jama’ah Islamiyah, Dhume writes, the PKS manifesto also calls for the creation of an Islamic caliphate (page 267). Again, like Jama’ah Islamiyah, Dhume says the PKS is based on a secrecy based cell-like structure (page 267).
Such a conclusion is clearly very dangerous and misleading.
Other disturbing descriptions include Dhume’s description of Astri Ivo, a former actress who now wears the Veil (jilbab). He writes, “in a severe jilbab and loose salwar kameez, she looked like a cross between a Palestinian suicide bomber and a prosperous Punjabi house wife” (page 75).
Third, the book is in fact well written. Dhume’s writing is skilled and witty and will lead readers to recall a tradition of excellence in the work of world class Indian writers such as Arundati Roy’s The God of Small Things and V.S Naipul’s Among the Believers.
Despite its clear flaws and shaky arguments, the book is worth reading for those who want to understand the dynamics of the Islamist world in Indonesia. Despite Dhume’s highly critical approach, he told me (after we shared a panel in a TV discussion at Al Jazera’s studios) that Indonesia has a special place in his heart, and I know he said this in all honesty.
My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist
By Sadanand Dhume
Text Publishing, 320pp, $34.95
THE seam between Islam and Western culture is always more or less visible in Indonesia, wiggling down the line of everyday life. There’s the young woman striding down the street wearing a demure Muslim headscarf along with supertight hipster jeans that bare a sexy slice of midriff. Or the Muslims who assure earnest survey questioners they endorse sharia law but then, quixotically, mostly vote for secular political parties and leave the strictly Muslim politicians out in the cold.
Sadanand Dhume has made a valiant attempt at unpicking the knots along this seam. It’s no easy thing to get a grip on: Indonesia is a vast archipelago of teeming millions, and an idea that may seem beautifully right in Jakarta is often flat wrong in the provinces.
Indian by birth, Dhume plunged into the friendly squabble that is Indonesia, hanging out with the local literati, learning the language, making friends, travelling to some of the more notorious destinations, talking, talking, talking. He’s a casually elegant writer with an eye for the big ideas and he’s fascinated by the crunch between Islam and modernity.
As a reporter for The Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review he had already interviewed a number of Indonesia’s political and economic leaders. Then, for this book, he hired an assistant and went further and deeper. The assistant, Herry Nurdi, is the fanatic of the title, and the butt of some of Dhume’s mild teasing (and some outright rudeness — he describes Nurdi’s wife as “plain as a post”).
Nurdi was also managing editor of fundamentalist journal Sabili, and this was part of his charm for Dhume because he wanted to plumb the murky depths of Indonesian fanaticism. But the fanatic was not really very fanatical — for a start, Nurdi was happy to work for an English-speaking secularist. And he read, or perhaps only pretended to read, Western writing.
Many, if not most, of the so-called Indonesian fanatics are like this: fanatical in parts. An Indonesian militant, for instance, may refuse to shake a woman’s hand — something that happened to me many times as this newspaper’s Jakarta correspondent — but then happily offer tea and refreshments. A tiny fraction of Indonesia’s multitudes would consider violence; sadly, those have sometimes been far too successful. And it’s easier to stand firm for religious devotion than it is for liberal ideas.
Although he doesn’t spell it out, Dhume believes Indonesia is doomed to become increasingly fundamentalist. In the race between McDonald’s and the jilbab (the Islamic veil) , he says, the jilbab is streaking away. In the years I lived and worked in Jakarta (2003 to 2006, partly overlapping the years Dhume lived there), the Marriott Hotel was bombed, the Australian embassy was bombed, Bali was bombed again and we sat through the trials of the first batch of Bali bombers. And yet I’ve never believed Indonesia was on the path to an arid, Arabic stream of religious austerity.
Indonesian Islam has been influenced by the religions that preceded its march across the archipelago, Hinduism and even earlier, animism. The Indonesian Government is careful to (at least technically) promote religious freedom. Rather than being hostile, Indonesians are almost without exception friendly and curious about life in Australia.
It is undoubtedly true that the jilbab has seen a resurgence, and there are more veiled women to be seen, even in the universities, than ever before. Yet it’s likely that’s at least partly because the tyrant Suharto for a long time suppressed the jilbab. It’s also undoubtedly true that the devoutly Islamic PKS — the Prosperous Justice party — has won a substantial following in parts of Indonesia, and 7 per cent of the vote at the most recent election.
This seems to me largely because of the party’s insistence on sea-green incorruptibility (a welcome novelty in one of the most corrupt nations on earth) and its ability to turn out the troops in times of disaster.
And even the most ardent of Islamists, those with USA carved into the sole of a thong so they can spend all day stamping on it, would hesitate long and hard before inflicting violence on anyone. The canings in Aceh are symbolic rather than violent, and even so, the religious police are riding a wave of popular dislike. In strict Islamic madrassas (even in the notorious militant Abu Bakar Bashir’s Ngruki school), the students are ordered to speak as much English as possible. And Indonesians happily elected a woman president –something remarkably out of sync with Islamist thinking.
Dhume occasionally appears to conflate Islamism with violence, but if Indonesia is infected with Islamism, it still remains one of the safest places in the world, say, for a lone woman late at night. As the white face of the enemy, venturing into small Islamist strongholds in Central and East Java and Aceh, I was never in the slightest bit worried that anyone would beat, shoot or abduct me.
There is a lot more to the story of Indonesia than the sliver-thin slice of violent fundamentalism found in the madrassas, but Dhume’s book is an interesting addition to the already bulging shelf of fundamentalist literature.
By C. HOLLAND TAYLOR
My Friend the Fanatic
by Sadanand Dhume
Text Publishing, 271 pp., A$34.95
Terrorist acts perpetrated in the name of Islam have dominated news headlines for years, yet Western readers are often left wondering what motivates such radicalism, and how it spreads. Few nations are more strategically vital to the struggle for the “soul” of Islam than Indonesia. Home of the world’s largest Muslim population and democracy, Indonesia’s ancient traditions of pluralism and tolerance are under siege by a well-organized and heavily financed extremist movement.
The current radical trends in Indonesia are inextricably linked to Islam’s 700-year history in the East Indies. Sunni Islam arrived peacefully in what is now Indonesia, brought by Arab, Indian and Chinese merchants active in the fabled spice trade. Once they acquired sufficient economic power, such merchants established Islamic city-states that rebelled against, and ultimately destroyed, the pre-existing Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Majapahit. It was only the subsequent military and political triumph of indigenous Javanese in 1586 – following a bloody, century-long struggle – that preserved the region’s pluralistic and tolerant traditions, in the form of a deeply spiritual understanding of Islam that did not conflict with pre-existing faiths.
In “My Friend the Fanatic,” journalist Sadanand Dhume guides the reader deftly through the whirlpool these currents have created. Descriptions of a young, charismatic author titillating avant-garde audiences in the nation’s capital – with her sexually provocative short stories and performance art – alternate with on-the-scene reportage of Muslim radicals’ success at mobilizing grassroots support throughout the vast archipelago. Mr. Dhume took an unusual trek through Indonesia’s lush, tropical landscape with Herry Nurdi, the “fanatic” of the book’s title and editor of Sabili, a mass-circulation extremist magazine whose explicit goal is to undo radical Islam’s history of failure in Indonesia and assure its final triumph.
By some counts at least, Mr. Nurdi and his ilk are winning. In recent years, extremists have taken advantage of regional autonomy to impose Shariah-based regulations in nearly 70 of Indonesia’s 364 local regencies. These laws, among other things, compel women and girls to wear so-called “Muslim” clothing that reveals only the face, hands and feet, even if they are Christian; require students, civil servants and even couples applying for marriage to demonstrate an ability to read the Quran; and effectively restrict women from going out at night without a male relative.
Mr. Dhume’s description of the extremists’ rise will be dispiriting to those who view democracy as an antidote to radicalism. Indeed, one of the most striking facts he reports is the extent to which those leading the charge to institutionalize radicalism in Indonesia today are directly linked to postindependence rebellions and failed extremist movements from the past. Whereas their ideological forebears (and literally, in many cases, their fathers or grandfathers) were crushed by Indonesian nationalists committed to upholding Indonesia’s secular constitution and pluralist state ideology, the new generation of radicals use democracy and the symbols of Islam to erode and ultimately destroy Indonesia’s heritage of religious pluralism and tolerance. This phenomenon is rendered possible and dramatically accelerated by the tendency of opportunistic politicians and political parties – often corrupt and lacking in Islamic legitimacy – to engage in a “chase to the lowest common denominator” of Islam, in a cynical attempt to prove their Muslim bona fides.
Unfortunately, the current government in Jakarta – led by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – has done little to retard the rapidly metastasizing phenomenon of political Islam. This threatens not only religious minorities such as the Muslim Ahmadiyah sect and Christians, but also the safety and security of the Indonesian nation-state itself. Just this month, in fact, religious extremists beat a group of moderates marching for religious freedom on the grounds of the national monument, in full view of onlooking police and the nearby state palace.
While Mr. Dhume argues convincingly about the radicals’ current strength and momentum, he is strangely silent about their most vocal and effective opponents, who represent the world’s best hope for a truly democratic and tolerant Islam. Virtually absent from Mr. Dhume’s book are the valiant efforts of Indonesian Muslim leaders to stem the Arab petrodollar-funded tide of radical Islam, and thereby uphold the secular foundations of the Indonesian nation-state. Former President Abdurrahman Wahid, a member of the LibForAll Foundation which I head, has vigorously opposed the Islamist agenda and succeeded at blocking many of their initiatives. So, too, have other key leaders of the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the world’s biggest Muslims organizations, which are based in Indonesia and boast 70 million followers.
Islam’s future – as a religion of peace and tolerance, or of hatred, violence and supremacy – may well hinge upon Indonesia’s destiny, as Middle East financial backers and their indigenous allies well know. Mr. Dhume is pessimistic, sensing that the “totalitarian cast” of the extremist movement will “grind what remained of a once proud culture to a hollow imitation of Arabness.” Yet while the situation is undoubtedly grave, it is far from hopeless. Indonesia boasts a moderate public and self-confident Muslim leaders who do not conflate Islam with arrogance, extremism, supremacy or violence. Mr. Dhume’s book shows that the battle is raging, but its conclusion is far from preordained.
Mr. Taylor is the chairman & CEO of the LibForAll Foundation, a nonprofit that works to reduce religious extremism worldwide and discredit the use of terrorism.
My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist. By Sadanand Dhume. Melbourne, 2008, 271 pages.
Since horrific bombings in Bali in 2002, Indonesia has come increasingly under the microscope over alarm about rising Islamic fundamentalism. The country of 239 million people is 86 percent Muslim, but until the bombings, which killed 202 people and injured 134, its brand of Islam was regarded as largely benign, encompassing about as much animism as Islam. These are Muslims with a fondness, many of them, for pork and beer.
Sadanand Dhume, then a correspondent for the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review, arrived in Bali to find that “ground zero smelled of gasoline and burnt wood. Uprooted tables, blackened beer bottles and mangled red plastic beer crates dotted the ashes of what had been the Sari Club the night before.”
Until the bombings, he said, “every foreign journalist in the country could tell you two things: that Indonesia was the world’s most populous Muslim country and that its Muslims were overwhelmingly moderate.” In his first book, Dhume seeks to answer which Islam is going to predominate, and where Indonesia is going in a new, troubled century.
Dhume has since left the Dow Jones stable and today lives in Washington, DC, where he has been branded as almost frantically anti-Muslim, delivering up a spate of articles on what he regards as the Islamic threat. Typical is one piece that asserts that a “radical Islamic party threatens Indonesia with ballots more than bullets. Does Indonesia’s future lie with the rest of Southeast Asia, or with a backward-looking movement cloaked in religious fundamentalism?” His website can be found at www.dhume.net.
A troubling series of events over the past few months is lending credence to Dhume’s concerns – not the least of which was a June 1 attack by hundreds of bamboo stave-wielding Islamist fanatics on a crowd attempting to celebrate the founding of Pancasila, Indonesia’s moderate, state-sponsored five principles seeking to guarantee religious freedom and a secular society. Religious disturbances have actually been on the increase since 1998 in the wake of economic chaos stemming from the Asian economic crisis, with tempers flaring on all sides.
Following the bombings, Dhume set out, he said, “to understand where things were headed, what Indonesia would look like in 10 years or 20. I would have to pull together the disparate threads that crisscrossed the archipelago”. To do so, he enlisted as a guide a young Islamist named Herry Nurdi. An odd couple indeed, Dhume was educated at Princeton University in the United States, a foreign correspondent who considered himself an atheist sophisticate with an interest in economics. Herry was a worshiper of Osama Bin Laden.
Dhume is a marvelously fluid writer. And, before his travels with Herry begin, he paints an indelible picture of the other side of Indonesian society – of a nightclub class that included a transvestite dance troupe called Tata Dado and the Silver Boys, of a class “the other Indonesia, the part whose aspirations belonged in Vanity Fair rather than the Koran.” His picture of a night watching a Javanese dancer with the stage name of Inul Daratista (“The girl with the breasts”) is simply hilarious. (see Dangdut and Drilling in Indonesia)
In Herry, Dhume would find an unlikely 27-year old friend with a callus on his forehead from hours spent prostrated in prayer, but who was usually as ready with a chuckle as an admonition about the faith. The Indonesia they inspected has plenty of disturbing features, but one in which Muslims could stand three deep in the rain watching wayang kulit, the famed, traditional shadow play that actually hailed back to its Hindu antecedents. And, as he writes, at 4:30 am, “the Mahabharata ended. The words Allahu Akbar rose from a mosque and merged with the shallow revving of motorcycle engines.”
The Islamic world that Herry inhabits is something else again. This is a world that fervently holds the contradictory ideas that Osama bin Laden was the genius who engineered the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, and that the Americans did it themselves; that Jews dominate the leadership of Indonesia’s government; that the Chinese and Jews are somehow related. Herry can put up with Dhume’s atheism. But ultimately, the chuckle would fade. Dhume would find himself attempting and failing to bridge the intellectual gap between Herry and Dhume’s cosmopolitan Jakarta friends.
In the end, he writes, “My own duplicity towards Herry added to the strain. Paradoxically, the American journalist Janet Malcom’s famous assertion…that ‘every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible’ – had only made it easier for me to become what she would have called ‘a kind of confidence man.”
Dhume had pulled his punches, he acknowledges, not confiding to Herry his rising concern over fundamentalism, had emphasized his revulsion at the US backing for anticommunist massacres in 1966 and 1967.
“It wasn’t remorse that lay at the heart of my discomfort — my only shame was in downplaying my godlessness – but that week by week the deception had grown heavier. The contradiction between liking the Herry who longed once more to strum the guitar and loathing the one who dug dirt on (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s) mother could not be settled.”
Ultimately, when Dhume returned to Indonesia in 2007, he met again with Herry at a book fair, where the latter spoke. It was an Indonesia, he writes, that had grown increasingly dominated by the Islamists, but not as alarmingly as most of the rest of the Islamic world. Herry, he said, had gained considerable confidence as a public speaker, ranging “over the Jewish characteristics of the Chinese, the inherent inferiority of the man-worshiping Christianity and race-worshiping Judaism, the religious perfidy of Sukarno, Pancasila, pyramids on US dollar bills, Karl Marx, Henry Kissinger.”
Dhume left Herry, he writes, “my Javanese friend, seated amid a throng of admirers signing copies of a book about Zionists, Freemasons and the coming end of the world.”
He is unsure whether Herry represents the future for Indonesia.
by Shahram Akbarzadeh
Dhume, Sadanand: My Friend the Fanatic Travels with an Indonesian Islamist
Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2008
News from Indonesia has been dominated by reports of bombings and growing Islamic militancy. This month the Defenders of Islam were in the news again, this time not for attacking bars and nightclubs, but for attacking a Muslim sect which they accuse of apostasy.
It sounds like Indonesia is on the same slippery slope as the rest of the Muslim world, with Islamic zealots gaining the upper hand in society and pushing it toward intolerance.
A large body of literature has emerged on the study of Indonesia’s diverse religious make-up and the organic relationship between Islam and pre-Islamic traditions which set it apart from the rest of the Muslim world. While most Muslim societies are dominated by Islam, with all aspects of pre-Islamic traditions either purged or totally absorbed beyond recognition, Indonesia continues to experience a multiplicity of faiths and traditions.
Most observers saw this multiplicity as the best guarantee against Islamic radicalism. The Bali bombings shattered that belief.
The starting point for Sadanand Dhume in My Friend the Fanatic is the question: What is happening to Indonesia, and why? As a trained journalist, Dhume falls on his strength of constructing narratives and relies on his talent to recount the stories of the people he interviews.
His sources include preachers, academics, politicians and pop stars. His most intriguing source is a self-prescribed Islamist Herry Nurdi, who takes Dhume on a journey around Indonesia to meet and talk to a range of Islamic activists. This is the most exciting aspect of the book, offering Dhume access to the political and ideological thinking of Islamists.
The picture that emerges is worrying. Dhume finds Indonesian Islamist thinking to be dominated by conspiracy theories, grossly simplistic and deeply distrustful of the ‘West’.
For example, Dhume meets with Abdul-Rahim, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s 26-year-old son, who argues that Muslims are not free in the United Kingdom. Later Herry tells Dhume how an entire echelon of the Indonesia army has been filled with Christians, and how President Suharto was toppled because of American concerns regarding his links with Islam.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Islamist thinking, as Dhume discovers, is that it is heavily influenced by parochial prejudices and concerns while simultaneously being global in its horizon. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the mobilisation of Muslim volunteers to engage in jihad had an important role in linking Indonesian Muslims with the politics of Islam in the Middle East.
This is not a subject for Dhume to explore. But he does refer to it in his recount of numerous conversations. In one case, Herry confides in Dhume that his second wife will have to be Jordanian because that would give him access to Palestine.
But it would be wrong to assume that Indonesia’s political landscape is dominated by global jihadists. That is certainly not the message in this book, even if the epilogue paints a rather pessimistic picture. Years of reporting from Indonesia made Dhume alert to the tapestry of rich cultural traditions which continue to inform social and communal practices.
Writing in Yogykarta, Dhume tells of an ancient Hindu festival celebrating the Queen of the South Seas. He recounts a conversation with a local Muslim woman who appears to be in two minds about the festival. On the one hand it feels wrong for her to be affiliated with this pre-Islamic event, while on the other hand, she seems happy to adopt some of its aspects.
She assures Dhume that a pawang, or a paranormal shaman, would stop the rain to allow the festivities to proceed. The obvious contradiction of her beliefs seems lost to her.
Dhume has managed to capture the complexity of Indonesian society and produce an easy-to-read travelogue. This may not be a book for experts, but it is good value for those with an interest in how our northern neighbours cope with the growing politicisation of Islam.
Associate Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh is Deputy Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne, and co-author of US Foreign Policy in the Middle East: The Roots of Anti-Americanism.