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On Indonesia's Islamic road: Fixing the responsibility of moderate Muslims

My Friend the Fanatic by Sadanand Dhume

Reviewed by Ioannis Gatsiounis

Oct 17, 2009


It can be counted on. First, Islamists in Indonesia leave their mark, through, say, a bombing of a foreign hotel, or by successfully pressing a province to introduce public canings. Then the international media report the incident, before a handful of Indonesia observers bristle that the media have distorted Islam's threat.

They point to opinion polls and election results and a long history of moderation. But, then, the cycle repeats itself and the discomforting fact of the matter becomes impossible to ignore: that Indonesia has undergone an up-tick in religious consciousness over the past few decades - and pronouncedly so since September 11, 2001.

The travelogue My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist thus could not be more timely. Author and former journalist Sadanand Dhume crisscrosses Indonesia's archipelago, searching out the prime movers and shakers of a movement that believes Islam holds all of life's answers and aims to impose its intolerant version of Utopia on the country's fledgling democracy.

Dhume's access card is Herry Nurdi, a 27-year-old managing editor of an influential Islamist magazine who counts Jews and America as his enemies. He prays "to make every member of [my] family either the pen or the sword of Islam", believes "every Muslim must know how to fight”, and is later scolded by a local journalist for helping Dhume enter "places that might not have been as easily accessed otherwise".

The eclectic main cast includes a televangelist, the soon-to-be head of Indonesia's most influential Muslim organization, and the notorious militant Abu Bakar Bashir, the reputed spiritual head of the Jemaah Islamiyah terror group that has been implicated in various attacks. The book is, ultimately, a sad and disquieting portrait of blind faith, rage, paranoia, personal imprisonment, envy and confusion festering amid the long shadows of globalization.

Dhume is a self-consciously graceful writer who says he falls between two types of observers of Islam: those who quote the Koran and episodes from the Prophet Mohammad's life to prove that Islam is intrinsically violent; and the apologists who subscribe to the tourist-brochure version of Islam as a "religion of peace".

Insofar as he does straddle that divide, Dhume does not disassociate moderate Muslims from orthodox ones. While moderates may not yearn for the imposition of Islamic law, as all Islamists do, they share the dualistic conviction that the Koran is the irrefutable word of God, making for a sometimes blurry and tenuous divide that has abetted extremists around the world in their pursuit of power.

As Dhume notes, "One couldn't escape the irony that on the whole the deepening of democracy [in Indonesia] had gone hand in hand with a darkening intolerance."

The author does not hold all Muslims accountable for the mess in which Indonesia finds itself: "Most Muslims of my acquaintance ... were as open-minded and as averse to violence as anyone else. For the most part I felt, with the light condescension of the atheist, that practicing Muslims, like people of any religion, turned to faith for what solace it offered in an imperfect world."

But he is not so naive or politically correct to give Islam a free pass. Moderation in religion can be a slippery slope; moderates are the well from which extremists draw. And, as Dhume implies, Islam, demanding total submission to God and a literal interpretation of the Koran, is arguably more susceptible to extremism than the world's other major faiths. He knows that insofar as the cliché that Islam has been "hijacked" by extremists is true, their swift advance in Indonesia could not occur without indifference, if not ambivalence, among moderates.

Dhume grants that while by comparison to other Muslim countries Indonesia may be a beacon of tolerance - in Jakarta "a certain boldness still belonged in the public square" - he warns that moderation in Islam has been granted a special yardstick and the world would do better by itself to drop its fear of offending Muslims and fix the discrepancy. Dhume asks pertinently, "[Is] a moderate Muslim simply anyone against settling religious and political grievances by flying an airplane into a skyscraper or blowing himself up in a bar full of tourists?"

The same question needs to be asked in neighbouring Malaysia, where a Muslim woman was recently sentenced to caning for drinking a beer. Rather than appeal, she has requested that the caning be done in public, to instil in others the importance of being a "good" Muslim. By universal standards, it is the victim's response as well as the punishment that warrants scrutiny.

Like the literary giant V S Naipaul before him (an obvious influence on the author), the point for Dhume is that left unchecked Islamists will strip Indonesia of what's left of its essence and potential, and they need not seize formal power to do so. The difference is that Naipaul's contempt for blind faith was tempered by a great deal of empathy for his subjects. Dhume's fierce determination to understand Islamism tends to crowd out the non-Islamic identity markers of his fanatical companions, discolouring the portrait slightly.

Dhume's preoccupation with the rise of Islamism may also have led him to underestimate the resilience of neutralizing forces at play in Indonesia. Time will tell. For Dhume, the point is not to leave it to chance. As he puts it, "Indonesia was Southeast Asia's pivotal country and no single issue mattered more to its future than the movement Herry had helped me unlock."

One of the more endearing aspects of the book is Dhume's struggle to become a writer in the truest sense of the word - nearly a lost pursuit in the Internet age, where blogs and Twitter feeds manufacture stars at the expense of literary substance.

Dhume's living room sofa is cluttered not with newspapers but short stories from heavyweight literary journals like Ploughshares. He quit his job at the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far East Economic Review to pursue his book. He references D H Lawrence, quotes Naipaul and gets lost in Ernest Hemingway beside the Indian Ocean.

Inspired by greatness, Dhume yearns to spool together golden sentences, at once muscular and touching, and occasionally the aspiration leads him to overwrite. But on the whole those influences have given rise to a vivid, graceful and astute travelogue, offering an inside look at the high toll politicized Islam is exacting on the world's third-largest democracy.

My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist by Sadanand Dhume. Skyhorse Publishing, April 2009. ISBN: 978-1-60239-643-2. US$24.95; 288 pages.

Ioannis Gatsiounis is the author of Beyond the Veneer: Malaysia's Struggle for Dignity and Direction, and, later this month, Velvet & Cinder Blocks (ZI Publications), a collection of politically-tinged short stories set about Asia and the West. His blog is

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