Travelogue of Indonesian Islam

Dhume, Sadanand: My Friend the Fanatic, Travels with an Indonesian Islamist. Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2008

My Friend the Fanatic 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.

Sadanand Dhume's website

Shahram AkbarzadehAssociate 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.

Topic tags: Shahram Akbarzadeh, My Friend the Fanatic, Travels with an Indonesian Islamist, Sadanand Dhume



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