An Indian atheist takes on the Islamist world in Indonesia
Noor Huda Ismail , Contributor , Palembang, South Sumatra | Sun,
08/10/2008 10:28 AM | Bookmark
My friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist
Raised in the Hindu tradition in India, Sadanand Dhume is a self proclaimed
atheist who candidly says he has "little sympathy for organized religion" and
believes he "could never really be understood by someone whose life was
regulated by faith".
My friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist is the first book
from Dhume, former full-time correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review
and the Asian Wall Street Journal.
Dhume lived in Indonesia from 2000-2004 and currently lives in Washington DC.
Having experienced life in Indonesia, Dhume compares it to life in India.
Of India he says, "We could at least claim Nobel-winning economists and
booker-winning writers and legions of engineers with stock options at Microsoft
and Oracle. In Indonesia you had nothing -- no accomplishments on the world
stage to speak of, and only Islam to fill the void".
Thus, in reading the book, one can quickly learn at least three significant
First, it was hoped that a deep hunger for knowledge about Islam in Indonesia
in a time of dynamic and unpredicted change could be fulfilled through the
travels of Dhume and his fixer, Herry Nurdi, a young Islamist journalist who
made no secret of his support for Bin Laden's call for Jihad against "Western
infidels" and "Jews who always want to destroy Islam".
However, Herry says, the book violates one of the basic rules of journalism and
is a rude penetration into his personal life.
"There was no agreement between Dhume and I, that I would be the main character
in the book" he says with great anger and regret.
Second, the book is based on extensive and painful field work. As a journalist,
Dhume is neither lazy nor complacent. He did not merely sit in an air
conditioned office checking newswires and writing up stories based on other
Instead, he hit the road. He talked directly to different people ranging from
alleged spiritual leader of Jam'ah Islamiyah Abu Bakar Ba'asyir in a prison in
Cipinang, East Jakarta, to Inul Daratista, the controversial dangdut singer who
invented the gyrating "drill dance".
Dhume traveled to the Hidayatullah Pesantren in Balikpapan and also to Ambon, a
zone of conflict between Muslims and Christians. His ability to do so safely
was attributed in part to his Indian looks.
Without hesitation, I can say this is a timely book which serves to bridge the
"clash of civilizations" perceived to exist between Islam and the West,
particularly the U.S. and its allies.
But, unfortunately, it fails to fairly portray the perennial struggle among
adherents of Islam in Indonesia which has colored the country's political and
religious complexion for centuries.
The book is full of disturbing arguments, examples and descriptions. For
example, Dhume does not appreciate the achievements of the most modern Islamic
boarding school, Gontor Pesantren, in Ponorogo, East Java. For Dhume, Gontor is
like an amoeba which is only able to reproduce clones of its own kind;
graduates who understand only a narrow scope of religious affairs.
To support his argument, Dhume writes, "No great writers or painters or
scientists, let alone chess masters or orchestra conductors come from that
school" (page 15).
Well, it is clear Dhume's yardstick for the success of a school is a completely
One should understand Gontor is a modern religious school. Most parents send
children to this school to deepen their understanding of Islamic teachings with
studies of Nahwu Shorof (Arabic grammar and syntaxes), Tafsir (interpretation
of the Al Qur'an) and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) among other things.
Gontor has produced not only religious figures such as Din Syamsudin, the
leader of Muhammadiyah who went on to earn his doctorate in political science
at one of the U.S. Ivy League universities, but also nurtured poets and writers
such as Emha Ainun Najib and Jamal Mirdad.
Mirdad is a dangdut singer married to a non-Muslim actress, Lydia Kandao. The
personal decision to make such a marriage required an educated and open-minded
The worst part of the book is the fact Dhume carelessly equates the PKS or
Prosperous Justice Party (perceived to be conservative and Islamist by some)
with Jama'ah Islamiyah -- whose members have been implicated in terrorist
activities in Indonesia.
Like Jama'ah Islamiyah, Dhume writes, the PKS manifesto also calls for the
creation of an Islamic caliphate (page 267). Again, like Jama'ah Islamiyah,
Dhume says the PKS is based on a secrecy-based cell-like structure (page 267).
Such a conclusion is clearly very dangerous and misleading.
Other disturbing descriptions include Dhume's description of Astri Ivo, a
former actress who now wears the Veil (jilbab). He writes, "in a severe jilbab
and loose salwar kameez, she looked like a cross between a Palestinian suicide
bomber and a prosperous Punjabi house wife" (page 75).
Third, the book is in fact well written. Dhume's writing is skilled and witty
and will lead readers to recall a tradition of excellence in the work of world
class Indian writers such as Arundati Roy's The God of Small Things and V.S
Naipul's Among the Believers.
Despite its clear flaws and shaky arguments, the book is worth reading for
those who want to understand the dynamics of the Islamist world in Indonesia.
Despite Dhume's highly critical approach, he told me (after we shared a panel
in a TV discussion at Al Jazera's studios) that Indonesia has a special place
in his heart, and I know he said this in all honesty.