In the early twenty-first century, Indonesia is one of the world's pivotal countries. It occupies a geo-strategic position between the oil-producing Middle East and the energy hungry-East Asian economies, is an important trading partner for India and China, and has the world's largest Muslim population, with long-established Christian and Hindu communities. Indonesia has also become a critical battleground between two of the forces shaping the early twenty-first century - globalization and militant Islam. Caught in the middle is Indonesia's rich culture, partially based on Javanese and non-Islamic traditions. At stake is the country's future as defined by what type of socio-economic and political systems its people will select and how those choices will impact the region.
Considering the growing role of Islam in Indonesian politics and society, it is increasingly important to have an understanding of how the small-in-number, but increasingly more influential radical Islamists think and act and what they are planning for their country's future. With more than an echo of V.S. Naipaul's Among the Believers, another Indian writer Sadanand Dhume's My Friend the Fanatic takes the reader on a voyage through parts of this militant Islamic world. What gives Dhume's opus an inner sense of tension is that the narrator is torn between the dangers arising from radical Islam in Indonesia and his friend the fanatic, Herry Nurdi, then the managing editor of the fundamentalist mouthpiece Sabili. Sadanand captures the difficulty that many of us face in seeking to resolve tough issues - it becomes more of a challenge when the issue is no longer an abstract, but a person.
Dhume sets the tone of the book by noting that he regards himself as open-minded, but is a "life-long atheist", who "had little sympathy for organized religion." Of fundamentalist Islam in particular he observes "...it was hard to think of many things more daft or dangerous than the utopian idea of running a modern society by the medieval norms enshrined in the sharia. The experiment had failed in every country that tried it - Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Taliban-era Afghanistan." Despite these views, the author states he would "do his best to understand its followers." And so the tone is set, an unbeliever traveling with a believer through Indonesia from 2002-2004.
What Dhume discovers once he travels outside of the decidedly more liberal circles of Jakarta (where he enjoys the company of the country's literary and entertainment elite who are portrayed in a relatively hedonistic fashion) is a world tilting increasingly in an Islamist direction. That is a world in which there is growing segregation between men and women, the jilbab (long and loose-fitting garments meant to maintain a devout Muslim woman's modesty), and a sterile and un-imaginative education system. Mind you, Dhume spends most of time visiting several pesantren/radical Islamic schools such as Ngruki and Gontor in Java and Hidayatullah in Kalimanten. He also met with a number of the major voices in the movement, including Abu Bakar Bashir (best known as Jemaah Islamiyah's spiritual head and linked to the 2002 Bali bombings which killed 202 people).
Dhume makes several key points about what he discovers in his travels. First, Islam in Indonesia is changing to a more conservative strand, with a radical fringe pushing hard for greater changes. Although the government has rooted out Islamist terrorist groups, elected a woman president, and kept the Islamist vote to a little under eight percent in recent elections, Indonesian society is becoming more conservative and Islam is a more significant factor in how the population identifies itself.
Second, the substantial societal upheaval caused by rapid economic growth in the late 20th century, the ensuing turmoil of the economic crisis in 1997-1998, and the political shift from the authoritarian New Order regime of Suharto to elective government have been unsettling. As he aptly notes: "The policies that brought tarred roads and power pylons, town hospitals and village clinics, motorcycle factories and Japanese businessmen also spawned migration and urbanization, karoke bars and massage parlors, drug addicts and petty criminals on street corners. Amid this upheaval, the first generation formally schooled in the faith turned to the mosque for answers."
Third, the turning to Islam mirrored changing political currents in Indonesia and outside. Internally, there was a shift during the last years of the Suharto regime to provide more space for Islam and move away from the official state philosophy of Pancasila (which helped promote of tolerance of all of the country's religions). At the same time, Islam in the Middle East underwent radical changes, commencing with the Arab oil embargo in 1973-74 and the overthrow of the Shah in Iran in 1979. Those changes continued with the joint U.S.-Saudi arming of the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s (which brought about Arab involvement) and culminated with the rise of al-Qaeda and its attack on the United States in 2001. The weight of these forces was to give a more direct action formula for Muslims. The political and social upheaval that accompanied Suharto's ouster in 1997 and the birth of democracy further opened the door to the spread of Islamist groups, including the rise of militant groups like Jemaah Islamiyah, which have few qualms about resorting to acts of terrorism in the pursuit of creating societies based on sharia.
While acknowledging that Indonesia's Islamic organizations often provide social services (hence one factor in their emergence as an important social force), it is the issue of "education" that overturns Dhume's effort to be open-minded. The problem is that there is nothing open-minded about Islamic fundamentalism - it is the holder of truth and nothing else can prevail. Belief is everything. At one compound school Dhume observes: "We began to trek back to the guesthouse, stopping briefly by an empty classroom with concrete floors and chicken-coop windows and graffiti-less desks that took me back to Gontor. Their surfaces reflected the minds that sat behind them each day, wiped clean of imagination and individuality, and left only with an unquestioning obedience to faith and faith alone....It was rooms like this that they emerged from the wilderness equipped only to repeat themselves or, if opportunity arose, to battle kafirs."
At another fundamentalist school Dhume puts the issue of Islamism into a broader context of Indonesia's ability to compete in the world linked to learning. He observes that the little campus has no sports fields, basket ball or tennis courts, a broken solitary computer, a run-down science lab. However, the school was building a mosque within its walls, even though there was a large mosque across the street. Dhume comments: "While Indians learned computers and maths, Chinese crammed English, and Vietnamese ratcheted up worker productivity in factories, here they were building a little mosque right next to the big mosque. Who dares oppose it?"
Although Dhume was generally welcomed by Indonesia's various Islamists, he increasingly is ill-at-ease with their experiment and his fanatic friend. After spending an evening at one Islamist compound, he notes: "Nobody had threatened me even remotely, yet a certain disquiet had gripped me from the moment we stepped inside the gates. Perhaps it was the shadow of violence, perhaps the remoteness, perhaps the extreme segregation of the sexes, the striving to create a little Saudi Arabia in the rain forest, or the unending chatter of global Islamism - al Qaeda, America, Jerusalem."
Dhume leaves the reader wondering how much further Indonesia will tilt toward a more conservative and possibly limiting society. He commented earlier in the book that the battle over Indonesia was a split between nationalists "who thought of religion as a largely personal matter" and "the sharia-minded, who believed that Islam ought to regulate society and the state." Although he used this to discuss modern Indonesia, it is defines the fault lines for the country's future. In this, Indonesia is hardly alone. It is the same balancing act that many other predominately Islamic societies have struggled, as with Algeria, Egypt, Malaysia and Pakistan.
If Dhume wanted to peak over the horizon and put the matter of Indonesia's Islamic question into a future scenario he could have looked to other Muslim countries. Along these lines, Indonesia could head toward the politico-socio-economic system that defines Turkey, with a relatively developed economy and elective governments balanced between nationalists (supported by the military) and moderate Islamists willing to play by constitutional rules. The other option is the more radical approach of imposing sharia as embarked upon by the Taliban in Afghanistan (with disastrous results), something admired by some of the Indonesians to whom Herry introduces Dhume.
Dhume leaves the reader at this doorstep of uncertain future directions, pondering that although the Islamists and their orthodox allies are still a minority, albeit a much larger one than generally assumed, they have momentum on their side. As for his friend Herry, he has become a minor celebrity writer in Islamist circles. Dhume's final scene is of Herry: "Then it was time for Herry to autograph books for his fans. That was how I left him, my Javanese friend, seated amid a throng of admirers signing copies of a book about Zionists, Freemasons and the coming end of the world."
Dhume has provided an excellent and engaging book, written with sensitivity and considerable insights about Indonesia and Islam at a time when there needs to be far greater understanding of this pivotal nation. The book is strongly recommended for readers interested in Indonesia, Islam in a non-Arab society, and current affairs.