My Friend the Fanatic

Jun 13th, 2008, in Society, by

Sadanand Dhume’s My Friend the Fanatic – Travels with an Indonesian Islamist.

My Friend the Fanatic – Travels with an Indonesian Islamist tells the story of Indian journalist Sadanand Dhume’s journey across Indonesia and his meetings with political, cultural, and religious figures in 2004, and is written from the standpoint that the country is being torn between two forces, globalisation and Islamisation, with the latter being seen as the stronger.

Fanatic Islamist

The “Fanatic/Indonesian Islamist” of the title is one Herry Nurdi (who has cropped up on this site once before – for his railings against sodomising Christian evangelists on campuses), Dhume’s paid travelling companion (he helps arrange access to interesting people and places), one time editor of the Muslim fundamentalist rag Sabili, and prolific author, with his published works showing a pre-occupation with Jews, conspiracy theories and George Bush, and including:

University of Islamic Studies (IAIN)
Sabili style.

  • Belajar Islam dari Yahudi (“Learning Islam from Jews” – seems to be a critique of the Orientalist approach to Islam)
  • Mossad (Behind every conspiracy)
  • Kebangkitan Freemason dan Zionis di Indonesia (“The Rise/Resurgence of Freemasonry & Zionism in Indonesia”)
  • Jejak Freemason dan Zionis di Indonesia (“Acts of Freemasons & Zionists in Indonesia”)
  • Lobi Zionis & Rezim Bush (“The Zionist Lobby & the Bush Regime”)

Although it seems Herry’s works are rather thin volumes and there is a suggestion in the book that they involve some amount of copy-paste.

Herry is therefore firmly on the lunatic fringe, although an important question that the book brings up is whether people like Herry really are the “lunatic fringe”, or to what extent their views are shared more widely among Indonesians.

On Herry and his type, and remembering that it is 2004, before or during the election, Dhume recounts the loathing such people seemed to have for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – Herry has secret information that the Yudhoyono presidential campaign is powered by a “Christianity motor”, an Indonesian Christian (military)/American (and no doubt Jew) plot, and he even puts about a story that SBY’s mother was once a member of Gerwani, the practically satanic (in New Order propaganda terms) communist womens’ movement, and to advance his career SBY had disowned his mother and, er, gotten a replacement mother – one nasty attempt at a below the belt blow. (Herry and co. seem to have preferred General Wiranto, because at least his wife covered herself head to toe, unlike, say, Amien Rais’ spouse, who only wore a headscarf, and a colourful one at that.)

Sadanand Dhume
Sadanand Dhume

But, and it is an important but, Dhume’s portrait of Herry is told with some empathy and there clearly developed a friendship between the two of them, the devout Muslim and Islamist, and the atheist son of polytheists. Herry does not come across, usually, as the raving lunatic that the foregoing suggests but as an ordinary person with his share of contradictions, and he often seems quite likeable and reasonable.

People & Places

Dhume hears sort-of sexy singer/dancer Inul Daratista proclaim that she and her entire family are religious fanatics; hangs out with the avant-garde author Djenar Maesa Ayu and literary man Richard Oh in posh, degenerate Jakarta clubs; goes on a road trip across western Java with flabby Din Syamsuddin and an entourage of annoying young people; meets toothy Abu Bakar Bashir in his jail cell.

In Makassar the hard men of the Preparatory Committee for the Application of Sharia Law are interviewed; still in South Sulawesi he journeys to the district of Bulukumba (if Tangerang in Banten has “sharia lite”, Bulukumba can claim the heavier version); while a chapter on Batam begins with an almost moving, snippet-like description of the lives of two types of “Batam girls”, those who work in the factories, and those who work in the bars; …and plenty else besides.


What isn’t likely to endear this book to a lot of its target audience, i.e educated westerners, is the author’s evident disdain for at least some aspects of the Islam religion-culture, and one might not be able to help but think of V.S. Naipaul (Dhume brings the subject up himself), given that both Dhume and Naipaul are Indian writers who made good abroad, and with both, when they happened upon Indonesia, taking a fairly dim view of orthodox Islam’s gradual but, so it seems, quickening obliteration of the older cultural mix in the country, with I suspect in both authors’ cases this approach arising not from any real affinity for say, Javanese culture, but instead more from, again, a dislike of orthodox/Arabist Islam.

The jilbab (headscarf) issue comes up repeatedly, and unflatteringly:

…the cheaply earned moral smugness of the jilbab.


…shorthand in my mind for some education and little imagination

Visits to several Islamic schools are made, they being Gontor, Ngruki, one in Bulukumba, and the impression one gets is of people spending so much of their energy building more and more mosques, then walking to the mosques, going through the prescribed motions in them, and walking back from them, many times a day. Meanwhile the peoples of comparable nations like Vietnam, China and India are said to be beavering away learning science and building factories.

Preacher-entrepreneur AA Gym is interviewed, at a time before he disgraced himself by taking Alfarini Eridani for another wife, and comes across as a charlatan, if a not unlikeable one – if only people would look after their qolbu (hearts/souls), AA says, not just their brains,

everything is getting better

At Parangtritis beach, Yogyakarta, what to Dhume might be some of the last followers of Ratu Kidul, gather before

globalisation and Islamisation drive them to extinction

Boys at Gontor school say they have never seen Reog dances because the spectacle is to be avoided, it’s


Herry is one who embodies this

shrinking from their own culture

But perhaps to people like Herry, whether they think about it in these terms or not, Islam is simply a preferable, more complete, more appealing culture to what existed previously (and Islam is culture). Fine, but another, opposed view, what you might find in this book and in other places…, is a legitimate value judgement about culture-religion as well.


The overall message of the book is that Islamist political and cultural forces are gaining the upper hand in Indonesia, most starkly seen in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Justice Party (PKS) – the PKS is mentioned again and again, Dhume I think has the same “problem” as this site sometimes has – an over pre-occupation with what is still a fairly minor party.

It is said that South Sulawesi is a “stronghold” of the PKS, however it would be far more accurate to say that the province is a stronghold of Golkar, – and then it might be useful to examine to what extent Islamism has penetrated the ostensibly non-Islamist parties, but this aspect of political developments is not explored – it’s PKS this and that.

Amien Rais is said to have only placed fourth in the 2004 election “despite being backed by the PKS” – as if the support of the town-based university crowd of the PKS was ever going to get him anywhere near winning, ever going to win him votes in the Javanese parts of Java where the numbers are, and then, party backing is of little importance anyway in high turnout elections, that are essentially about personalities, which candidate is more manly, handsome, murah senyum, has the better PR machine, more funds, etc.

But a minor complaint. And the aspects of the book detailed here represent only small parts of the whole and, partly because it generally gels with my own views, and because it is a highly well written and entertaining read, My Friend the Fanatic is more than recommended. Available for pre-order at Amazon.

143 Comments on “My Friend the Fanatic”

  1. timdog says:

    Dewa, I’m sure you are well aware, that I am hardly likely to be confused about the difference between Srivijaya and Majapahit, and the other “Indinnised Kingdoms”… What I was playing down here was the role of those Indianised Kingdoms as mighty, unifying forces encompasing the entire archipelago, as they are often (mis)represented in nationalist understandings of History…

    I have been to Bali more times than I could possibly count (I used to spend a couple of weekends there a month on top of all the other, lengthier spells I’ve passed there)…
    What I see when I step down from the plane there is an “intense and omnipresent” Balinese culture; the “Hindu” bit being perhaps something of a red herring (it took me a good while to get my head round that the very first time I stepped down from the plane at DPS, familiar as I already was with “Hinduism” from the Subcontinent, and seeing nothing in Bali that I recognised).

    “Foreign” religion in Indonesia is absolutely typified by the slightly misguiding term “syncretism”. I wrote elsewhere about the way that a country or society consumes a new religion, rather than the new religion consuming it. Balinese Religion illustrates that perfectly: bits and pieces of Hinduism and Buddhism that washed ashore on Archipelago and Indian Ocean trade routes, swallowed, chewed up and digested by a much older, localised faith. That’s what makes Balinese Religion so attractive and so unique.
    You can see local religion at less advanced stages of consuming foriegn culture if you visit more remote communities further east of Bali: The Wetu Telu people on Lombok, the Marapu people on Sumba…

    An annecdote: a while back I was in Sumba again; I went to Wunga, regarded in Marapu culture as the “original” ancestral village, the place where the first settlers arrived and built the first clan houses. It’s a place governed by strict taboos and is spectacularly remote… Now, everywhere else in Sumba the ancestor myth has it that the ancestors came from India and travelled by way of the SE Asian mainland before coming ashore near Wunga. But in Wunga itself they told me, with absolute conviction that the ancestors had actually come from – wait for it – Mecca; from there they went to Medina, then onwards to India etc… I almost choked on my sirih-pinang when they told me that, but later on went skipping back down the hillside, delighted by this fine example of syncretic “consumption” of “the foreign” in action (a religion without a prescribed sacred text does this very effectively)…
    As far as I’m concerned, Bali simply represents a more advanced, more refined form of this same phenomenom… To connect it too closely to some mythologised “classical” past, perhaps even to label it “Hinduism” at all, ultimately trivialises it a little…

    For the record, Balinese-Javanese culture has at least got as far as “swallowing” “Indian” cultural-religious elements; it’s only just started chewing Islam; at risk of coming over all VS Naipaul, there is absolutely nothing inherently “Muslim” about Indonesian culture; nothing “Islamic” has trickled down beyond the very top level.
    Everywhere from the deserts of northwest China to the Atlantic coast of Morocco you will find cultures that have chewed, swallowed and digested their Islam; you will find certain constants, certain modes of behaviour of speech, of manner that are utterly authentic, that are not affectations, and that make those places “Muslim”. Indonesia is totally outside that loop and I think anyone familiar with the rest of the “Muslim world” with a sympathetic eye will notice that. This is exactly why attempts to “Islamise” Indonesia at a forced pace are particularly unattractive; not only unattractive, but also very, very silly… But equally, claming a formalised, institutionalised historical “Hindu” alternative is almost as wide of the mark…
    The “thin, flaking glaze” line has been used to describe both the Islam and the “Indianised” culture of the archipelago; it’s something of an over-simplification, suggesting as it does an unadulterated “native” relgion free from the taint of “the foreign”, bubbling away beneath the veneer, but it is at least a step in the right direction towards understanding just what is so interesting and attractive about “Indonesian” cultures…

  2. Lairedion says:


    What were you thinking? You must understand that timdog understands your culture better than yourself, despite the fact he wasn’t born and raised in your culture and only observed and analyzed your culture from an outsider’s point of view.

    The same counts for Shloka. Born in Bangladesh, fled to India and now living in Kolkata but always missing the point on Subcontinental matters because a UK based bule told her so.

  3. mirax says:

    Tim Dog, so the classical past is effectively fake by your reckoning because it didn’t
    a) have the geographical spreadth you deem necessary, ie the modern borders of the indonesian republic
    b) remmnants of it that have survived, say on Bali ,dont bear the features of hinduism you recognise ?

    There is no continuity from the old hindu-buddhist past in terms of the music, dance, numerous artforms that are still practised?

    Also, the present day Indonesians arent authentically muslim? What are the markers of speech, manner, practice etc they are missing?

  4. Achmad Sudarsono says:


    Bladhy Blah Blah, you Bra… I mean Ind… I mean certain ethnic groups of Singaporeans are so argumentative!

  5. Lairedion says:


    Majapahit was the largest Indianized kingdom with its capital in Trowulan, East Java and had influences reaching close to current Indonesian territories. Some nationalists refer to this kingdom to lay “rightfully” claims on these current Indonesian territories. Timdog was clearly talking about politics here.

    When talking about Indonesia’s Hindu-Buddhist past we’re not talking about specifically its current territories but about Nusantara, roughly said Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Even Catholic and Muslim Phillipinos understand the concept of karma as part of their native ethics.

    Hindu presence goes back to 100 AD when Indian scholars reported the existence of the Dvipantara kingdom in Sumatra and Java and a writing system based on scripts from southern India was introduced as a writing system in Java. Around 425 AD Buddhism arrived in Nusantara so you see both Hinduism and Buddhism have had a presence in Indonesia for almost 2000 years. This is still prevalent in the amount of temples, religion and culture (kejawen, Bali Hinduism, wayang), concepts and symbols (Pancasila, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, Garuda).

    To give you an example, my Sundanese (West Java) wife’s grandparents initially weren’t allowed to marry each other because grandpa was of “low caste” and grandma was of “middle caste” but the both of them are Muslim. This example is just from everyday life of ordinary Sundanese people, not explained with pompous intellectual references or politically-influenced analyses.

  6. timdog says:

    Lairedion – sincere thanks for understanding and pointing out to mirax that when talking about the “classical” kingdoms I was talking about their conscription into modern nationalist politics, a very specific issue and one not related to the rest of what I’m going on about here…

    As to your other point in your earlier post, a very simple illustrative example:
    When a Sumbanese Marapu ancestor worshipper says that his forbears came originally from Mecca, then travelled onwards from there to Medina, then to Sumba, you and I can instantly see and understand the source of this belief, and from that point can perhaps begin to assess exactly how the pre-existing belief system has internalised it.
    For that Marapu man himself Mecca is simply where the ancestors came from, and all that cool analysis is entirely irellevent, and rather misses the point.
    At the same time I would never, never never float around in loose white cotton and beads drivelling about the way the Marapu people have “a unique and ever-present connection with with the land and the ancestors in a way that we have lost in the west; lifebalancespiritualpeacewisdomblahblahblahblahblah…” If I did that you would have my permission to shoot me…
    The point is this: some things are impossible to understand from the outside looking in; some things are very, very hard to see from the inside looking out. I would have thought you would recognise that.

    mirax – at no point did I suggest that there was no continuity between present day “Indonesian” culture and all manner of things that existed in the past; quite the contrary…

  7. Shloka says:

    @ timdog,

    You might have familiarized yourself with Hinduism from the sub continent for 10 years, I have lived there for 16 years, 10 years of which I clearly remember.If you travel to Orissa- their favorite deity is Jagannath, and their favorite Hindu festival the Rath Yatra, and then ask a Hindu from Punjab and Haryana whether they’ve even heard of either Jagannath or Rathyatra, probably half or more will answer no. You might have heard of the Hindu epic Ramayan- its villain is clearly a demon called Ravan. Yet Hindus in South India worship Ravan as god, and there are temples devoted to him, an idea which would be abhorrent to North Indian Hindus. Can you imagine Christians worshipping Satan and still retaining their Christianity?

    You’ve clearly tried to see Hinduism as something similar to the great monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, whereas it is closer to say Ancient Egyptian paganism. Ancient Egyptian and Sudanese towns each had their patron deity,and while those polytheists shared many gods and customs, they differed in many respects. This is why while Christians look apon very poorly on Mormons, and Muslims are extremely hostile to Ahmadiyyas, an addition or subtraction of a few gods or customs don’t hugely effect Hindus one way or another.Jews, Christian and Muslims each have their holy books, a definite system of prayer or fasting and are very belligerent to anyone who’d disturb the existing belief system. This is probably why Jews crucified Jesus( if it happened at all) who criticized Judaism, while although Buddha criticized Hinduism, Hindus worship him as God.

    I really am not trying to prove Hinduism’s superiority to other faiths, just showing that the Hindus may vary far more in their ideologies and practices, while still calling themselves Hindus, and Hinduism has adopted local gods\esses and customs and made them integral to the belief system, unlike Christianity or Islam, which choose to annihilate local beliefs.Thus when Christianity sought to replace Hellenic paganism, the Hellenic gods became “daimons” at worst or angels at best, whereas if Hinduism chooses to establish itself at Bali, the local gods will be welcomed as colleagues of Hindu gods, and given a position of respect alongside them. Thats just how Hinduism functions.

  8. Lairedion says:


    I’m talking about everyday life, the decisions people make everyday and how this is influenced by history, religion and surroundings. That’s culture. You have your British/Irish/Cornish culture I’ll never know. I’m not born and raised into it and that makes me an outsider. Even if I have studied British culture thoroughly I would never take any attempt to correct Brits over their own culture because I consider this highly disrespectful.

    If Balinese name their own culture Hindu culture, so be it and accept it. No need for patronizing bules ridiculing one’s Balinese Hindu culture because they expected something they have experienced before on the Subcontinent. If you cannot accept and respect this I suggest you don’t disembark that plane at DPS and fly back to the UK.

  9. timdog says:

    Lairedion, let’s get one thing straight, I am not “ridiculing” anything.

    I’m talking about everyday life, the decisions people make everyday and how this is influenced by history, religion and surroundings.

    With you all the way on that.

    Second point: you probably are far better positioned to make a sober, objective assessment of British history, certain elements of its culture and the country’s role in the world than the average British person – myself included (though of course, you have no idea whatsoever about what it actually feels like to be British).
    You said:

    Even if I have studied British culture thoroughly I would never take any attempt to correct Brits over their own culture because I consider this highly disrespectful.

    I’m not going to start the same old same old again, but pause for breath and consider what a spectacular piece of hypocritical double standards on your part this is.

    Finally, why, in any case, the need to cast Indonesia as culturally beholden to India any more than to cast it as culturally beholden to 7th Century Arabia? What the hell’s wrong with just trying to raise the concept of something uniquely and exclusively “Indonesian”, something that has been variously influenced by, amongst other things, China, “India”, Islam, colonialism, but which, ultimately, if you boil it down to its purest essence remains “Indonesian” (or more acurately Sundanese, Javanese, Madurese, Balinese, Sasak, Bimanese etc etc…)?
    (Actually, the obvious answer to this question is our natural craving for tangible textual or physical sources for our understanding of history, but there’s no reason why we can’t shake this off)…

  10. Shloka says:

    @ Lairedion,

    I’m very sorry to hear about the troubles your grandparents went through to get married at least initially. I don’t consider Hinduism to be free from faults, there are many very serious flaws, and the caste system is undoubtedly the greatest flaw. Its’ been abolished in India and Nepal, and we’ve had low Caste Chief Justices and Heads of State.Of course, lots remain to be done at the local, especially rural levels.

    I like the saying of a Jewish Reform Rabbi who warned neo-converts to Judaism that they were entering a religion which is not perfect but perfectible. The Danish Church ordains gays as priests. I hope any vestiges of the caste system can be weeded out completely, and if criticisms of timdog’s and others like him encourage some Hindus to clear their own house, I’d be very happy.

  11. Lairedion says:


    Those were my wife’s grandparents and to state they suffer is far too strong. It was just to show to mirax remnants of Hinduism still exist in Sundanese (West Java) culture. The three different levels of Sundanese and Javanese language (rough, basic and polite) are also proof of this.

    My parents-in-law were the ones who really suffered. By leaving Islam they were disowned and shunned by relatives and friends. Hinduism didn’t play any part in that.


    Observing and analysing are all OK but that’s something different than patronizing and correcting all the time. And yes, you were ridiculing dewa by dismissing the Hindu part of his Balinese culture, intentionally or not.

  12. Sri L. says:

    Many thanks to all of you, folks! I hope Patung and others will keep finding other topics that excite so much passsion among IM’s readers and authors. I very much enjoy all your comments, especially the darts.

    Right now the weather is quite pleasant but I know that when I come home after a long day’s work on a very wintry night, this blog will be even more appreciated.

  13. David says:

    Thanks Sri. 🙂

  14. santana says:

    Islam Understanding ( Kaffah/totalitas) with Islam(isme) two different words, like the one is told [by] Rasul that, ummat Islam will be broken after me and this really has happened and which most real since power of Islam resided in hand [by] Muawiyyah ( Bani umayyah) where Islam dipolitisation in such a manner becomes all kinds of Understanding, where initially there’s only one Din Islam which by Rasul used as place / organizational as a mean to fights for the straighten of Holy to become Rahmatan lil alamin is earth, then after dying it 4 friend hereinafter emerges to become hundreds of even thousands of stream/sekte/mazab. Logical consequence from breaks of Ummat Islam hence Every mazab of course obliges rabidity of someone or its(the group to its(the mazab, sometimes until alleging Kafir for group of other Islam which assumed external from its(the group(the understanding or because of opinion differing in. Action like that by each group of mazab we can say as a
    way/strategi in reaching vision and missi each group of mazab that the its(the followers is really believes Islam model like will which be embraced it,for a while so formerly.

  15. Odinius says:

    Bringing this one back from the dead because of this quote:

    [quote]The overall message of the book is that Islamist political and cultural forces are gaining the upper hand in Indonesia, most starkly seen in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Justice Party (PKS) – the PKS is mentioned again and again, Dhume I think has the same “problem” as this site sometimes has – an over pre-occupation with what is still a fairly minor party.[/quote]

    …is certainly timely.

    So what’s the deal with the supposed “Islamization/Arabization” of Indonesian politics when everyone’s favorite Islamizer/Arabizer bogeymen hardly budged in terms of popularity?

  16. David says:

    Quoting myself

    and then it might be useful to examine to what extent Islamism has penetrated the ostensibly non-Islamist parties, but this aspect of political developments is not explored – it’s PKS this and that.


    Islamic agendas are being adopted by so-called mainstream, secular parties. These parties have increasingly moved toward a pro-Islamic ideological middle-ground in recent years by assuming a ‘nationalist-religious’ platform.

    From , a great read!


    Some progressives and moderates see worrying signals in the April 2009 legislative elections about the long-term trajectories of nationalist, Pancasila-based parties that provide the main electoral alternative to Islamic parties. This concern is not just about the willingness of nationalist parties to stand up to conservative interpretations of Islam, but rather about long-term weaknesses in the nationalist parties themselves.

    And this classic

  17. Odinius says:

    I think there is some evidence that the co-optation of the “Islamic agenda” by secular parties has eroded the popularity of explicitly Islamic parties, but I don’t think that last quote has legs at all.

    PDI-P and Golkar did look weak, but that’s because they basically stand for close to nothing now, and are headed by egocentrists that put their own fortunes ahead of the party’s. Their losses since 2004 also came in part at the expense of the new secular parties that did a good job of chipping away at their base, by appealing to a purba-ish red-and-white pancasila nationalism. These parties also ate into the Islamic vote.

    But the only party that can really be described as having been successful in the elections is Partai Demokrat, which has successfully positioned itself between PDI-P and Golkar. PD did well with both Muslims and non-Muslims, abangan and santri.

  18. zoom says:

    yeah it’s all going back to westernization Uberalles. If you think that Liberalization is better than anyone else ideology then why your governments backing up Suharto regime for 32 years ? because he’s practicing democracy ? because he thinking about his people first ? how about Saddam ? How about Liberia ? and recently how bout Israel ?

    For me it’s just, for the way i feel it, it comes back to the question “Whose bitch are you ?”

  19. timdog says:

    So, three years later, and Sadanand Dhume’s book appears to have sunk without a trace.
    There was, if I’m not mistaken, a typically shaky Indonesian translation, but there was no European release.
    He did, however, find a microscopic publisher in the USA, who put out a rather pretty hardback version. Idly browsing the nether regions of the online book trade the other day I discovered a copy for a dollar, brand new, from a little New York AIDS charity that sells on donations of remaindered books. This, of course, is where we all end up; a salutary lesson that hastily printing up a lot of business cards featuring the word “writer” is perhaps to invite ill fortune…

    Still, who would sniff at a dollar (plus postage, of course)? I bought it, and I read it.

    They’ve filled the first two pages with effusive review snippets from Australian newspapers, a few rent-a-quotes from international Indians of a similar literary-journalistic bent with their own books to sell… and a line from something called Indonesia Matters: “Highly well written and entertaining read… more than recommended.” Quite!

    Now, I have mentioned my violent allergy to VS Naipaul on here before, and given that Dhume’s basic conceit, his point of departure, is so manifestly Naipaulian, I’ll admit that I began Chapter One with gritted teeth and clenched orifices. But, in the words of the Changcuters, jangan nilai buku hanya dari kovernya, so I proceeded with the best will I could muster, and was initially pleasantly surprised.

    Stylistically at least this was not, after all, a painful attempt at Naipaul-lite. Dhume is instead a very fine practitioner of that unmistakably American brand of magazine-forged literary journalism that huffling-shuffling British non-fiction writers would do well to learn from.
    Not Naipaul-lite then, but Krakauer-lite, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of…

    The opening chapters, in which Dhume, notebook in hand, goes to wine bars with Richard Oh, are excellent (though he was certainly over-egging the “debauchery”; I can see why Richard was a little perturbed). And the encounter with Inul’s mesmerizingly wiggling posterior is probably the stand out moment of the book…

    But then he hits the road, and – ah, here’s the Naipaul. This is precisely the same format that Naipaul applies in his “reportage” books on India and “Islam” – an essentially formless series of brief encounters with arguably “important” or “representative” people in offices and living rooms; conversational trivia recorded with an air of sagacity that can, if you don’t keep your wits about you, lead you to mistake the writer for somebody who really knows his stuff.
    To puncture this it helps to picture the scene after the author departs, when his subjects glance at each other and ask “Actually, who was that guy? What did he want?” and “Dunno; his translator said he was a writer or something. You ready for lunch?”…

    And Dhume reveals rather more of himself than perhaps ought to have done. Before the book progresses very far we have a very clear pen-portrait of a somewhat naïve character – privileged (very), American educated, international lifestyle and career but with some heavy Indian baggage, lazy – by his own repeated admission – and doubtless backed in his indulgent desire to write an important book by financial sources other than those provided by small publishers and freelance magazine work. Who paid for those business cards declaring him to be a “writer”, I wonder?
    Now all that makes him someone I’d probably like to drink a bottle of red wine with (actually, it makes him sound very much like several good friends of mine). But it’s the parts that relate specifically to the writing of the book that raise problems: his premise, his concept, his idea – that Indonesia is “at the crossroads”, is rapidly succumbing to the advance of some monolithic “Islamism” – is not a conclusion; it is not even a hypothesis; it is already taken as a given long before his first glass of chivas with Djenar Maesa Ayu.
    Bad enough, but then, having already guilelessly revealed this, he goes on declare rather half-heartedly that he regards himself as being “in the middle” – neither apologist nor Islamophobe. Of course, that’s where he should be, considering the task in hand, but he then immediately launches into a description of his own interpretation of Islam – that curiously dogmatic, fundamentalist version shared by Salafis and Islamophobes – and a more or less open declaration of the fact that, actually, he thinks Islam is uniquely bad (at one point he wistfully suggests that had the Dutch taken a less pragmatic approach to religion then “by 1945 Indonesia may well have resembled a Protestant version of the Philippines”. Even if that were not utter nonsense, is it really something to wish on the place? Good grief!).
    Jilbabs appear to be the mark of the devil, and prompt stern condemnation wherever he sees one. That a college girl in a jilbab could conceivably be more modern, internationalist, ambitious, liberated, globally aware, open-minded, successful and promising for Indonesia’s future than her great-grandma with her tits hanging out in the kampung is not a concept that Dhume could possibly countenance. (Now, for the record, I’m not saying all or even most jilbab-adopters fit that bill – though many of them do – but Dhume’s monolithic take on a piece of cloth is intellectually infantile.)

    We learn something else too: Dhume speaks some rudimentary traveller’s Indonesian. This, it would seem at first sight, makes him markedly better equipped than Naipaul for his undertaking. But as the book progressed, I found that actually, no, it doesn’t.
    Except when he’s sipping champagne and staring at Inul’s arse Dhume is generally in the company of men whose own English is perhaps a little sharper than his Indonesian, but not much. And so, again and again, as he reports what was said in a speech or a sermon I find myself pondering “now how on earth did he understand that? And if he didn’t, then who translated it for him?”
    And when encounters with the bit players – hangers-on at Islamist events, students at pesantrens – demonstrate a monumentally parochial level of discourse, there’s an obvious reason beyond the implied smallness of their minds: this is the narrow ledge of linguistic intersection they share with the writer: What’s your name? Which is your favourite football team? How many brothers and sisters do you have?

    And then I start to get a little bit cross. Dhume is attempting to make grand state-of-the-nation (pre-arrived) conclusions about Indonesia; he is trying to write an “important” book. But the fact is, no one could form such conclusions or write such a book about Indonesia, and only someone woefully under-qualified would even attempt to try.

    Then the glitches come thick and fast – Dhume has skim-read Geertz for his understanding of how “Islam” breaks down in Java; he simplifies Geertz’ already gross simplifications (G’s “abangan” and “priyayi” get entirely conflated here). Having already established that there is something vaguely Hindu called “Javanism” he later stumbles upon something called “Kebatinan”, and glibly declares it “another name for Javanism” (not really, Sadanand, not really, but then this is not a book with room for nuances, apart from those of character).
    Everyone of an officially Ismalic mien is a “mullah” (what, actually, is “mullah” in Indonesian, by the way? Well, the closest equivalent to the way the term is used in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan is probably kyai, but never mind; it’s a good catchall and everyone knows it).
    He visits the pesantrens at Ngruki and at Gontor, and declares that “something that had been nagging me now became clear. The supposed gulf between the putatively moderate Gontor and the radical Ngruki was really not much wider than a gulley”.
    A conclusion based upon what? An lengthy stay in both places? Sitting in repeatedly on their classes, a close assessment of their syllabi, an analysis of their teaching methods and materials, and a broad survey of their past graduates?
    No – it is based on a couple of hours at each school, and a run-round of their campuses tottering on stepping stones of pidgin English and pidgin Indonesian.
    Watch me do the same thing: “I realised what had been nagging me – Osama bin Laden and Gus Dur were essentially the same person; both were Muslims after all; it was merely a matter of degrees”.
    Well, alright then, the position stands, but only if you condemn 1.5 billion people as uniquely, irredeemably worse than everyone else (which plenty of people will do, perhaps Dhume amongst them, but it’s not much of a starting point from which to attempt any kind of nuanced “assessment”).

    Elsewhere Dhume stumbles repeatedly over several large elephants – the elephants being the multiple other “Indonesias”, the ones that don’t wear a jilbab or have a bruise on their brow, the ones which actually might be rather larger than his own particular hobby-elephant.
    He comes up with a neat way to deal with this: on the beach at Parangtritis Dhume encounters hundreds of people openly marking the eve of a kliwon friday, and leapfrogs the fact by declaring “that if I returned to this spot in ten years it would no longer be this way”.
    Evidently pleased to have come up with this ingenious get-out clause (which also, as a literary device, conveys a suitable sense of impending doom), he makes repeated recourse to it: in “ten years” all of Indonesia will be like the the ugly aberration of Bulukumba in Sulsel; in ten years PKS will be poised to take power, and so on and so on.
    Dhume is writing of 2004.
    Three years left to go, Dhume; are you coming back to check in 2014? (Actually, he does come back briefly for an epilogue in 2007, but for obvious reasons cannot bring himself to mention PKS’ precise electoral position).

    And so on and so on, from fleeting Naipaulian encounter to fleeting Naipaulian encounter. Dhume infers that Djenar, Richard and their chivas-quaffing crowd are some sort of last-gasp Indonesian equivalent of the Weimar Republic, with the Taliban battering at the gates (Djenar, rather fetchingly, though not entirely accurately, is like “lipstick in a concentration camp”).
    Dhume comes over very Naipaul and gets upset by dirty bathrooms; Dhume sees more demonic jilbabs; Dhume notes the books that notable Islamists have on their shelves and scribbles down the fact that they wipe their face with a tissue after eating spicy food, as if such things carry weighty import and somehow invalidate everything they stand for. Dhume decides that Muhammadiyah is “arguably the most influential Muslim organisation in the country” (useful word, that “arguably”). Dhume spots a PKS sticker on the wall in a room at Ngruki and proceeds to hammer multiple square pegs into one round hole of his own making. Dhume decides that desks unmarred by graffiti in Islamist classrooms suggest empty minds (rather than stern discipline or respect for authority); Dhume comes to some frankly paranoid assertions about sample sentences in an Arabic primer (“I am an engineer from Pakistan” vs “I am an Egyptian” is apparently irrefutable evidence of Arab supremacism; quite how I’m not sure).
    Dhume notes, while in Sulsel, that there are Christians up the road in Toraja and that therefore “They [local Islamists] didn’t have long to travel to find kafirs to battle” (a most outrageously baseless piece of scaremongering by any standard). Dhume takes Anis Matta’s most optimistic electoral projections for the coming decade as given – why? Because he wants them to be accurate; if they are not then his entire thesis – of an “Indonesia at the crossroads” and heading irrevocably for the turning marked “Islamism” – looks decidedly shaky…
    And so on and so on, leaping gaily over elephants.

    There is more than one Indonesia; many more. There is more than one strand of “Islamisation” in those multiple Indonesias. No one can hope to make a grand conclusion about them, or an “important” and definitive statement about them, least of all in a 270-page book with extra-large gaps between the lines, fuelled some cultural baggage, some fairly idle excursions from Jakarta and a bit of phrasebook Indonesian.
    That’s why Dhume comes unstuck.

    This is really a very great shame, because he’s such a fine writer – really, almost flawless stylistically – and, baggage notwithstanding, a sensitive and self-deprecating soul. It seems that his reflexive position for everyone, including Islamists, is one of personal sympathy; his relationship with the “friend” of the title, his sometime travelling companion-cum-inadequate guide-translator, Herry Nurdi, is equitable and rather sweet (it’s worth noting how thoroughly un-scary Herry, a creature of the fringe anyway, is). He’s funny, and the early bits about Inul’s bottom are exceedingly well done.

    Towards the end Dhume makes a detour to Batam (without Herry, and without much connection to his central thesis) and takes a brief but profound look at the sad lives of migrant girls there – in the factories and in the bars. This one short chapter is so well done that I found myself full of regretful yearning: if only Dhume had taken as his model for international-Indian-with-notebook not VS Naipaul, but Pico Iyer, then he could have written a beautiful, profound (and perhaps successful) observational book of travel-reportage about Indonesia (of the kind I’ve been longing for someone to write for years) instead of a dogmatic failure.

    At the end of the book Dhume leaves with a vision of his “friend” Herry – a successful author (albeit of absolute crap) at a busy book-signing, making money out of the printed word.
    I’m left with another vision – of Dhume, ideas already forged, in the back seat of a car, rattling to the next encounter, or in a suburban living room; of a stilted conversation on the rickety rope-bridge spanning the aching linguistic divide – your name? married? From where? – and then a shift of pace as the men begin to talk amongst themselves; Dhume straining, understanding one word if four, then one word in eight, then one word in ten, and then losing the thread altogether and being left to sip self-consciously from an aqua cup, and to play idly with a business card emblazoned with the word “writer”…

  20. ET says:

    OMG, a sermon of 2359 words just to vent his spleen by hammering down two Indian writers who don’t share timdog’s view on Islam and who have the guts to stand up for their opinion. A thorn in the leftliberal side.
    At least the reason for your obsessive antipathy to Naipaul, Nobel-prize winner and according to Time Magazine one of the top ten British writers since 1945, has now been revealed.

  21. timdog says:

    I assumed you’d like it ET.

    For the record, my intense dislike of Naipaul dates from long before I ever read anything he had written about Islam. The first things I read were his India books – the first, and best-known of which, involves an outsider with no particular knowledge but some intense insecurities (him) turning up in India and engaging on little more than an exercise in snarling, snobbish, condemnatory loathing and bitching over monumentally petty issues (Oooh! They speak funny English!).
    He’s essentially a tourist, with a tourist’s level of engagement and knowledge, complaining about precisely the things a tourist might complain about, but, by way of erudition and artful prose he awards himself an air of profundity and authority in all that banal grumbling which, for some reason, made a lot of people take him seriously (including, bizarrely, quite a lot of Indians, who felt that Naipaul’s distaste meant they had something to be ashamed of; I doubt, incidentally, that a new Naipaul would receive a similar reception in India today).
    Having established his position he was then able to graduate to other things about which he knew even less, which he was even less qualified to address, and to continue in a similar vein.
    Whatever his skills as a novelist, as a “travel writer” he is nothing more than a blimpish tourist, and I find it bizarre that many people who are far more qualified for their subject, be it India, Islam, Indonesia, Africa or whatever (and Dhume is far more qualified than Naipaul, actually) should take him as some sort of a model, instead of a joke.

  22. Lairedion says:

    Pompous, exaggerated, anti-Indian and apologetic towards Islam and Muslims.

    Trademark timdog…. 😉

  23. jon squides says:

    hmm… so… the fanatic men can make a trip to entire AMERO (American Europe) then they would write a book “MY FRIEND THE SATANIC”. Ow how wonderful world when all come to event ,Ying and Yang, Harmony… Good and Baad? ect.

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