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My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist [Hardcover]

Sadanand Dhume


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Hardcover, April 2009 --  

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April 2009
Powerful explosions the previous night had ripped through two tourist nightclubs, killing more than 200 people. That evening he visited what remained of the Sari Club and stood amongst piles of ash, and blackened beer bottles, wondering about the future of a country long regarded as immune to such carnage. My Friend the Fanatic is a portrait of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, painted through the travels of a pair of unlikely protagonists. Dhume is a foreign correspondent, a Princeton-educated Indian atheist with a fondness for John Updike and an interest in economic development. His companion, Herry Nourdi, is a young Islamist who hero-worships Osama bin Laden. Does Herry represent the future of Indonesia? By turns disturbing and funny, My Friend the Fanatic fulfills a deep hunger for knowledge about a fascinating land in a time of profound change.
--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Journey Among Indonesia's Believers 30 Oct 2009
By Scott B. MacDonald - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars my friend the fanatic 3 Jun 2009
By Rati - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Sadanand, an Indian journalist, traveled to several cities in Indonesia during 2002-2004 while visiting and interviewing some Islamists, guided by his friend from Sabili, a radical Islamic magazine. He visited several pesantren/ radical Islamic schools like Ngruki and Gontor in Java, Hidayatullah in Kalimantan (Borneo), and talked to their leaders, to famous televangelist, and the founder and leader of the radical Islamist party. He also visited Bulukumba, South Sulawesi, which is prided by the Islamists as a good example toward the implementation of sharia.
Between his travel story, there is a short history of Indonesia since its independence in 1945 and the history of radical Islamist movement in the country, started from the story M. Natsir, the founder of Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah, which played a major part in the early movement, to the latest information about Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and its dream to build an Islamic state in Indonesia.
As an Indonesian, what the author found is not very surprising, although Indonesian media never interviewed them like him because of the sensitivity of the subject. However, it is interesting to know their exact answers about things like the sharia, the possibility to implement it in Indonesia, their long term goal, their view about women, family planning, etc and their daily activities.
Sadanan wrote this book because of his concern that Indonesia could fall to the radical Islamists, like that has happened in Africa. He saw it in the shrinking of Javanese culture in Yogya, the rising number of jilbabed (headscarved) women, the enforcement by authorities in several districts to its implementation, the insistence of Islamist school leaders and party to implement the sharia, their hipocrisy to hide their real intention outside their communities, and the rising growth of radical Islamic party. His visit to their schools and mosques only confirms it.
Sadanand is not alone. Many liberal and moderate religious people in Indonesia share his worry, although the radical Islamic party only gained 7.9% votes in this year election (five years ago 7.3%). Unfortunately, Sadanand did not interview them, like Islamic Liberal Network (JIL), the moderate Islamic organisations, and Women's Journal (Jurnal Perempuan).
He only compares his fanatic friend (and other Islamists) with his own friends in Jakarta: a pop novel writer and the owner of English bookshop, and the life of factory girls in Batam. Sadanand also wrote with the arrogancy of the first world observer to the third world and did not give a proper analysis about the cause of the movement.
Many Indonesian still do not realize the militancy and the success gained by the radical Islamist movement in the last twenty years because they themselves become more conservative, which is the goal of this Islamist. So this book could serve as a reminder of what the Islamists could do in the next twenty years if the moderate and liberal Indonesian do nothing.
It is also confirmed by the latest book by I. Rachmat, Ideology Politik PKS (LkiS, 2008) or PKS Political Ideology, which warns us about the danger of this movement to the pluralism and nation-state of Indonesia.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars My Friend the Fanatic 19 Aug 2009
By DC Reviewer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Until just a few weeks ago, discussions of Islam-inspired terrorism in Indonesia were not much in demand. Things there were on a roll. The stock exchange in Jakarta had recovered nicely from its slump at the end of the last year and was continuing higher. The Indonesian economy had dodged the recessionary bullet, and a reformist-looking president had just been re-elected in a decisive victory that left his rivals in disarray. The sense that Indonesia's moment was at hand was reflected in news stories around the globe.

The bad news is that this triumph was dented with the recent coordinated bombing attacks on two Western-owned hotels in the heart of the Jakarta financial district. A bit of good news, however, is the publication of a new and important document for Indonesia and the world to weigh as they retrench to fight terrorism and reconsider why these attacks persist. This valuable document is My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist by Sadanand Dhume.

The My Friend author is not comfortable with limiting himself to academic musings about how things evolved to their current state. Nor is he someone who delivers reports with a mosque in the background. Sadanand Dhume's achievement is to get inside the proverbial mosque and report on the radical Islamic forces that are shaping the foot soldiers of terrorism. Through his contact with a self-described follower of Osama bin Laden, the author keeps his mouth shut and his eyes wide open as he is invited along to meet Abu Bakar Bashir, who is often cited as the inspiration to terrorists throughout Southeast Asia, and visits Bashir's Pondok Ngruki boarding school and interacts with students there. Here, and elsewhere in his travels with his "friend the fanatic," Dhume takes every opportunity to ascertain the religious depth and breadth of the faithful, to explore the ideology of those who seek to traffic in terror, and to capture the disconnections and disfunctions in what his subjects themselves said. Soon after having these encounters, the author committed to paper all he observed, and we the readers reap the benefit of a well-written, well-presented account with a just-experienced quality that is quite unlike anything else in the existing body of anti-terrorism studies.

Sadanand Dhume's My Friend the Fanatic is the story of being a fly on the wall as would-be terrorists are recruited and indoctrinated. It's the story of those radical Islamic schools and their support networks that serve as training grounds for those who will graduate to violence. Even more interesting, the author examines how all of this occurs within a context where the majority of the Islamic population does not support the methods and goals of terrorists. Throughout the narrative, there is a push-pull dichotomy of a modern Islam well-integrated within an increasingly prosperous society versus a separatist Islam that seeks to impose Sharia on all of Indonesia's people regardless of their religion or degree of faith. It's that sense of straddling two worlds simultaneously, with a privileged glimpse into the personal doings of the inhabitants of both, that gives My Friend its punch.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary reportage, sensitive writing 3 Sep 2009
By Pranay Gupte - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I would rate Sadanand Dhume's work as one of the most readable books on Islam and its contents and discontents. Dhume is a superb, sensitive reporter, and has endless stamina and courage. His narrative flows lucidly. You will want to read his book again and again.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Hard Read 16 Jun 2013
By T. Patrick - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
I found this book, while informative, a hard book to read. It is not a book you would read for entertainment.
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