Dhume’s efforts to understand Islam in Indonesia are coloured by his own anxieties
My Friend the Fanatic is a better book than I expected. Sadanand Dhume, a former journalist for the once esteemed Far Eastern Economic Review, has built a reputation in recent years for alarmist writings on Indonesian Islam. In a slew of newspaper columns and magazine articles, he has warned darkly of an Islamic tide that is overwhelming Indonesia. Common themes in his writings include the dangers of rampant Islamist paramilitary and vigilante groups, rapidly expanding sharia law enforcement and rising Islamist political fortunes. Dhume is not one for nuances or gray shading. He prefers stark black and white applied with a vivid adjectival flourish. He grievously and misleadingly described Indonesia’s largest Islamic party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), as more dangerous than the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and refers to how parts of Indonesia were now like ‘oases of Saudi Arabia’. The images he presents of Islam, particularly conservative or militant Islam, are invariably negative and one-dimensional.
I read My Friend the Fanatic expecting it to be an extended set of variations on Dhume’s well-worn apocalyptic themes. And in one way it is, as Dhume’s ‘Islamism is destroying Indonesia’ views feature prominently. But it is more than this and certainly worthier of reading than any of his articles. The book tells of the author’s journey across Indonesia accompanied by his ‘fanatic friend’, Herry Nurdi, editor of the top-selling Islamist magazine, Sabili. This journey is both geographical and intellectual, as Dhume seeks to engage with and understand some of the diverse facets of Muslim life and behaviour in Indonesia. In so doing, he not only critically examines Muslim views but also his own responses to them.
The first striking thing about the book is the quality of the writing. Whatever one might think of Dhume’s views, there is no doubting his literary command. He writes with insight, elegance and concision, and it is not surprising to read of his admiration for Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and William Faulkner. Repeatedly he captures scenes with memorable verisimilitude and often wry wit. The Suharto family’s greedy appetites are likened to that ‘of a pack of velociraptors’ and Sukarno is characterised as being something of ‘a strutting rooster’ and a ‘world-class philanderer’. Dhume’s sometime companion, Herry, is said to have had a ‘haircut [that] evoked a world of terse barbaring’ and ‘a callus like a thick hyphen on his forehead, proof of hours spent prostrated in prayer’. The Makassar-based Islamist leader Abdul Azis Kahar Muzakkar is described thus: ‘His bones belonged to a sparrow, his tuft of beard on a baby goat, his long tunic in a black-and-white newsreel.’ Dhume’s bullseye account of dangdut singer Inul Darasastra’s famous ‘drill’ dance is worthy of longer quotation:
I had been looking forward to a performance both devilish and lustful, but the person onstage resembled an over-caffeinated gym instructress more than erotic temptress. Inul nodded at the band…, took three strides towards the centre of the stage, and halted. Swivelling on one heel, she pumped the other leg like a piston – knee bent, knee straight, knee bent. As she gathered momentum her ample latex-clad behind bore down in circles, lower and lower, faster and faster, lower, faster, lower, faster, lower. The effect eluded words. It was mesmerising as only a silver bottom rotating at high speed could be.
These accounts may not be kind, but there is an undeniable accuracy to them. Moreover, Dhume observes the cosmopolitan and somewhat debauched world of Jakarta’s secular glitterati and literary elite with the same sharp eye as he does the sternly puritanical world of the Islamists. At a book launch in an up-market nightclub he recounts:
Spotlit on a counter across the floor from us, a slave girl in a bikini top made of coins and a diaphanous green skirt paired up with a pharaoh’s attendant with kohl-rimmed eyes. She raised her ankle to his shoulder; he buried his face in her crotch.
Most of the books on post-Suharto Indonesia by journalists are unexceptional; their narratives made stodgy by knocked-up, journeyman prose and their often unreflective and banal observations of local events, people and culture. But Dhume’s writing is acute and memorable. This book is an enjoyable read as a piece of literature, and readers familiar with Indonesia are likely to find Dhume’s descriptions, if not his interpretations, resonant.
Dhume’s central premise is, predictably, that Islamisation and especially conservative expressions of Islam, are changing Indonesia for the worse. But in My Friend, we get a much fuller picture of Dhume’s own origins and views. We learn that he is ‘a life-long atheist’ who regards ‘Islamic orthodoxy’s stark division of humanity between believers and unbelievers, and its treatment of non-Muslims and women…as especially distasteful.’ He compares what he sees as the discriminatory sectarianism of Malaysia with Indonesian Islam’s traditional tolerance and inclusiveness. He is particularly taken with Javanese Muslims, who, he asserts, do not ‘confuse being Muslim with being Arab’.
This brings us to the chief structural device in the text: Dhume counterposes moderate Islam with conservative and radical Islam. He is attracted to indigenised and syncretised forms of Islam but objects to what he sees as the harsh and rigid forms of Islam from the Middle East. In his travels through Indonesia he seeks out representatives of both sides of this ‘divide’, often conveying a sense of elemental struggle between the two. Thus we meet figures such as Aa Gym, Ulil Abshar-Abdalla and Azyumardi Azra from one side and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, Abdul Aziz Kahar Muzakkar and Irfan Awwas from the other.
Whether this implied dichotomy actually exists is a matter for debate and I, for one, regard the relationship between so-called ‘moderate Muslims’ and ‘Islamists’ as far more complex and cross-cutting than is portrayed here. Particularly problematic is his lumping of a wide range of conservative or militant Muslim leaders and groups into this undifferentiated category of ‘Islamist’, a term which Dhume never attempts to explain. Even though this does not purport to be a scholarly text, defining terms and categories is essential to anchoring any analysis. I would argue that PKS, a respectable participant in Indonesia’s electoral democracy and important element in the ruling coalition, has no place in the same category as JI or MMI (Mujahidin Council of Indonesia).
While the voices of Islamists are heard at some length, what is missing is analysis of why such views are held
What did surprise, however, was the apparent even-handedness in Dhume’s accounts of the Islamists that he met. Even though he clearly dislikes them, he nonetheless seems at pains to be fair in his portrayal. People such as Ba’asyir, whom I expected Dhume to vilify, were cast with some impartiality. ‘[Ba’asyir] exuded an avuncular air; to my surprise, after all the press reports that described a foaming madman, his eyes reflected intelligence and calm. … I couldn’t help notice the teeth, yellowed and prominent as a camel’s.’ At times he nicely exposes the prejudice and absurdity of some Islamists, such as the head of the prestigious Gontor school who claimed that ‘The Americans and English are memorising the Koran to destroy Islam’ or Irfan Awwas’ assertion that ‘In the time of the Prophet Mohammad, a chicken cost three dirhams. Under Islam, it would still be three dirhams now.’
While the voices of Islamists are certainly heard at some length in the text, what is missing is analysis of why such views are held. Dhume, though careful to record the conversations of conservative Muslims, fails to give contextual information which would shed light on where such views derive. Indeed, the brief historical data provided gives a rather misleading impression that Islam is ‘privileged’ in Indonesia’s political history. He seems unaware of the long marginalisation of devout Muslims and especially Islamists from the 1960s to the 1990s and goes so far as to claim that there ‘has never been a serious nationalist effort to derail Islam’. In fact, the decades-long sidelining of political Islam is crucial to understanding contemporary Islamist attitudes towards the state and non-Muslim groups.
A certain integrity
For all Dhume’s anti-Islamist tendencies, there is a certain integrity to the book. The author opens himself to analysis almost as much as he does others. He appears candidly to recount the ups and downs of his relationship with Herry, including his belief of the latter’s occasional lying, and also records his own reactions to the people he meets. Dhume does not spare himself the whimsical, somewhat cynical approach he takes with others, readily acknowledging his foibles and biases.
By the end of the book, Dhume is confirmed in his anxiety about Islamism. He writes:
The more I saw of the Islamist movement the more its totalitarian cast became obvious. As it spread it would grind what remained of a once proud culture to a hollow imitation of Arabness…You couldn’t meet Islamists halfway because ultimately for them there was no such thing as halfway to God.
If he were ever to write a second edition of this book, he might profit from scrutinising his assumptions and stereotypes about ‘Arabness’, and perhaps look at all the ways in which not just conservative, but also moderate and even liberal, Arab thought has impacted on Indonesian Islam. He might also consider how Indonesian Muslims usually adapt and indigenise ideas, even Islamist ones, from abroad. Last of all, before concluding that Islamism is inexorably rising and, in the process, ruining Indonesia, he might look closely at the declining vote for Islamist parties, the puny membership and ramshackle internal structures of many Islamist groups, and the sharp swing of public opinion against extreme Islamist violence.
For all its fine writing and interesting vignettes, My Friend the Fanatic suffers a deep analytical flaw. Dhume, while admitting his preoccupations, has been unable to overcome them in his quest to capture and understand the nature of contemporary Indonesian Islam.
Sadanand Dhume, My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist, Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2008.
Greg Fealy (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.