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
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