Vol. 5, Issue 23, Dated June 14, 2008
Sadanand Dhume tells ANASTASIA GUHA that looking at the freshly brewing fundamentalism in Indonesia, he is more optimistic about India
In 2002, Sadanand Dhume, a Washingtonbased journalist, travelled to Bali just as the waters were receding from the tsunami.* In his first book, My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist, Dhume crisscrossed the country with a young self-confessed fundamentalist, Herry Nurdi, to chart the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, and one long considered the least hospitable to any kind of religious fundamentalism:
How did you first meet Herry Nurdi? What did he represent?
I first met Herry though Santi Soekanto, a journalist who spoke impeccably with a faint English accent, cloaked herself head to toe in a black abaya and occasionally wrote about Islam in The Jakarta Post. I originally asked her to travel with me but she declined, pointing me instead towards Herry. At the time, Herry was the managing editor of a weekly magazine called Sabili, a fundamentalist mouthpiece that eulogises Al Qaeda and the Bali bombers. Herry represents the profound changes in Indonesian society over the past 30 years. This was a country long considered immune to any kind of fundamentalism — an island nation whose culture was more Southeast Asian than Middle Eastern and whose politics was firmly non-sectarian. In his hostility toward Christians and communists, his partiality toward conspiracy theories and his belief that sharia law offers real solutions to his country’s problems, Herry represents the changing face of Indonesia. Yet he is much more than the sum of his political views. He’s also a curious, intelligent and often kindhearted human being. At one stage in the book, he declares that he’s really only a Monday- to-Friday fundamentalist and that’s how I like to think of him.
How would you characterise Indonesian pluralism, how is different from the Indian or American experience?
In America, historically, the debate has hinged on race rather than religion. India and Indonesia both contain striking racial diversity, but the debate about pluralism hinges on how members of the majority faith treat those in the minority. Furthermore, both countries opted for non-sectarianism rather than secularism in the French or Turkish (Kemalist) sense of the word. For the first 40 years of Indonesia’s independence, its record of protecting religious minorities was probably superior to India’s. This began to change in the early 1990s. Violence against religious minorities — primarily Christians, but also Ahmadiyya Muslims — has ceased to be an aberration. On the whole, I am more optimistic about India than about Indonesia. The majority of Indonesian Muslims remain moderate and essentially tolerant people. But the Islamist movement has a powerful idea, momentum and organisation on its side. Moreover, in India — for both cultural and constitutional reasons — there’s space for scepticism about religion and even formal atheism. In Indonesia that space doesn’t exist.
You talked of how society in Indonesia went from broad inclusiveness to intolerance in one generation. Do you see parallels in India?
Yes, but to a much more limited degree. In India — especially among the left-leaning, liberal intelligentsia — there’s a glib and comforting equation of Hindu nationalists with Islamists. There are superficial similarities. Hindu nationalists and Islamists both hark back to a golden age when their civilisation flourished. Indonesian Islamists assault the offices of the local (and rather tame) edition of Playboy magazine; Hindu nationalists attack MF Hussain. Neither movement is comfortable with the cultural changes wrought by globalisation. But there are also significant differences. For one, there’s simply nothing in Hindu nationalist thought that compares with the Islamist drive to order all aspects of the state and society according to the medieval precepts of sharia. No BJP government in New Delhi will ever order all women to don nine-yard saris or strive to bring the Indian penal code in line with the laws of Manu. So the comparisons are overblown and for the most part reflect either political correctness or ignorance of the depth, breadth and determination of the modern Islamist movement worldwide.
How have the people of Indonesia reacted to the changes?
As you would imagine in a country of 220 million people, the reactions have not been uniform. Some people are alarmed. Others are exultant. Still others feel that the changes haven’t gone far enough.
You have been exploring whether Islam is compatible with democracy. What have you found?
If by democracy one means elections and the peaceful transfer of power then, as the recent experience of both Turkey and Indonesia shows, there’s no question that Islam and democracy are perfectly compatible. But if your definition of democracy equals rights for minorities and women, freedom of conscience (including the right to leave Islam) and freedom of speech (including the right to criticise religion) then the jury is still out. Turkey and Indonesia are the places to watch. As for India, it’s hard to say. There’s reason for both pessimism and optimism.
*They mean the 2002 Bali bombings. There was no tsunami in Bali.