Two political trends, Islamization and globalization, are fundamentally changing Indonesian society, just as they are changing so many countries throughout the world. My Friend the Fanatic by Dhume, a writer and journalist based in Washington, D.C., and New Delhi, focuses on the changes wrought by Islamization and offers an invaluable account of this transformative moment in Indonesian history. It provides a chilling foreshadowing of what may lie ahead for the world's most populous Muslim country.
The book's title refers to Dhume's travels through Indonesia with Herry Nurdi, managing editor of the Islamist publication Sabili—a character whose paranoid worldview and intolerance do not prevent him from having an undeniable charm. After writing about the growth of Islamic radicalism in Indonesia for a few years, Dhume decided to travel through the country to understand "the scale of the transformation under way." Herry, whom Dhume first heard about through an abaya-clad Indonesian journalist, served as his assistant during his travels—helping to introduce him to fundamentalist preachers, chancellors of austere religious schools, and others who held clues to the country's future.
Dhume's account of Indonesia's religious schools provides insight into how young minds are shaped. At the Islamic school Pondok Ngruki, whose motto is "No prestige without jihad," a door sticker sports the likeness of Chechen Islamist Shamil Basayev, mastermind of the Beslan massacre. At Gontor in eastern Java, a purportedly moderate school, Dhume recounts a conversation between Herry and the school's principal about how the Americans and English are memorizing the Qur'an in an effort to destroy Islam, alongside paranoid fantasies of a coming Christian-led coup that will topple Indonesia's government. The author is struck by an important insight: Though Gontor's cafeteria plays music and no pictures of Basayev or bin Laden are on display, education at the extremist Ngruki school "was simply an amplification of Gontor's principles not a departure from them." Gontor, too, was illiberal to the core, wanted to shackle the female body, despised and feared the outside world, and offered little beside its stultifying view of religion.
An equally important insight lies in Dhume's account of how Indonesia's liberal elite responds to Islamism's advance: in a polite and wilting fashion. Indonesian superstar Inul Daratista, inventor of the controversial and provocative "drilling" style of dance, illustrates the point. When Dhume meets her, he expects her to attack the mullahs and defend "drilling" as a form of free expression; instead she tries to appeal to the fanatical Herry, complaining that young women who copy her dance have taken it to pornographic extremes and boasting of her own piety.
On a Javanese beach, watching a traditional celebration, Dhume sadly observes, "I had the sense of witnessing history in slow motion, a premonition that if I returned to this spot in ten years, it would no longer be this way." For those wishing to glimpse history unveiling before us, this book is indispensable.