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My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist

My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist - Sadanand Dhume Dhume’s thesis is stated on page 36, “that Indonesia was being shaped by two essentially opposed forces, Islamisation and globalization, and that of the two Islam was the more important.” Dhume offers us a series of peeks into some aspects of both as he travels the country.

I wanted to like this book. I had acquired it as a freebie through the GoodReads Giveaway program. And it seems reasonable to presume that if you want that good fortune to repeat it might behoove one to offer up a very positive review. Alas. That is not to say that the book lacks merit. There is much here that is positive.

Personally, I had little knowledge of Indonesia beyond the basics of Sukarno, Suharto and the massive anti-Communist pogrom that marred that nation’s history, and some reading about terrorism subjects, particularly regarding the organization Jamah Islamayah. So it was informative to get a look into diverse corners of this considerable and important country, and interesting to have a peek at points of cultural and social diversity as well. Dhume is an Indian reporter who is more western than not in his outlook. He has done post-graduate work in high-end American universities and has published articles in major western outlets. So, as a westerner, while this was written by an Indian, I felt there to be enough of a common view to make Dhume seem sufficiently representative of the west that he could function as our eyes and ears in Indonesia.

In reading this book, you will learn about a wide range of things. Drilling, for one, but I will not spoil that by telling what sort of drilling it is about which he is writing. He shows us the world of what we might call glitterati, performers, entrepreneurs. He also brings us along when he interviews Islamic leaders. It is unsurprising, depressing actually, to see the depths of real shallowness represented there. Most welcome were his interactions with regular folks of varying persuasions.

Dhume offers his conclusions about where Indonesia is headed, but weasels out a bit, by offering his analysis in an IF-Then-Else format that might work well in a computer program but seems merely noncommittal here.

I had three main problems with the book. One was structural and may have more to do with me than with the book itself. As someone who knew relatively little about Indonesia going in, it was a bit tough to keep straight the many place names, people names, and terminology used to describe common social structures and activities. The map in the front of the book helped, but it would have been hugely helpful to have had, in addition, an index and a glossary to offer a crutch for those of us with limited memory capacity.

Second was that I felt the title was misleading. I expected the book to be much more about the conversations between Dhume and his “traveling companion,” Herry Nurdi, a committed Islamic fundamentalist. The flap copy that uses the term “travelling companion” mis-states their relationship. While a sort of friendship may have developed, Nurdi was more of a fixer than a road buddy. Their interactions did not appear meaningfully in the book until much too far along, and once they did, they were far less significant to the narrative than they should have been.

Finally, it helps if you like the writer. While Dhume could certainly be charming at times, overall, I found him to be off-putting, a rich kid who was slumming. He makes a point of telling us about the place he has rented in Jakarta, in the expensive part of town, relating in the latter part of the book how exclusive the area actually is. Was he really just making a point about the relative spread in wealth in the nation, or was there a smidgen of braggadocio here as well? It seems quite clear that Dhume got the most satisfaction in his journey when he was associating with the rich and famous. He even notes the power of name-dropping when he is among those of very modest means. It is fun to learn a bit about the crassness of pop culture in Java, but he seemed too much a part of the action for my taste. An unwelcome arrogance slips out here and there. On page 178, for example, when having a conversation about the Islamist enthusiasm for covering up females, he says, “I don’t really have a problem with ugly women all covered up…” What a guy! On page 220 he writes, “Class only mattered when you felt it, and for the most part you only ever really felt it at home.” I imagine that Karl Marx, or maybe anyone with half a brain, might disagree. And he puts Nurdi in a very awkward position publicly, showing again an unwelcome side of the author.

The book feels like a series of articles one might read in Rollingstone or Vanity Fair. There is a breeziness to his style that sometimes works well. But at other times, I just wanted him to move on to matters of substance and spare us excessive detail.

Occasionally he will pop up with a piercing observation. When looking at a well known school called Gontor, he writes “The young Hasan al-Banna had boasted that over one hundred fifty Gontor alumni had opened schools of their own. No great writers or painters or scientists, let alone chess grandmasters or orchestra conductors, could emerge from their classrooms. The school was like an amoeba, able to reproduce only itself.”

So, overall, this book is a worthwhile trip if you keep good notes and are interested in learning a bit more about Indonesia. As with any journey, you may come to rue your traveling company, but enjoy the sights while you can and hope for better in future.