My Friend, the Fanatic is a book I have wanted to read for long. And finally, I was able to lay my hands on it – and it did not disappoint. Before you guess why, if you are looking for a book that bares fangs for Islamic fundamentalism or fanaticism and its status in Indonesia – well, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you think that Sadanand Dhume, a reputed columnist for many journals and magazines – handles them with the naive sort of pink glassed optimism that often passes off as writing, you are wrong there too.
And that, in my view is what makes this book so good to read. It is really a travelogue across Indonesia – over a couple of years or thereabouts – that attempts to take a look at how the country is faring in the face of steady Islamization and projects how it could look at 10 or 20 years down the line. It starts off at the point of the Bali bombings in 2002.
As one of the most populous Muslim countries and a democracy to boot – the country has a Hindu-Buddhist past that it was not shy about (unlike India, if I may add). A country where Ganesha adorns currency notes and the national airline is (still) known as Garuda is actually the worlds most populous Muslim nation. As he notes in the Prologue (a beautiful one), “this was the only place in the world where you might call yourself Muslim yet name your children Vishnu and Sita”.
The book takes a realistic look at the society and its transformation – is not afraid to call a spade a spade or point out the hypocrisies that exist. As he travels through almost the length and breadth of Indonesia, including villages that have adopted Sharia law in parts, the observations add to the appeal of the book. The exchanges with a professor, the food on the way, street level notes make it feel like a travelogue across the country. But make no mistake – the book is quite serious in its treatment of the main topic. And except for a couple of places – the mandatory comparison with India is missing.
Sadanands book takes you across the country and its provinces – as he and his companion, Herry – an editor of a fundamentalist mag (tempted to say rag) – Sabili – and hence the title – meet many Muslims and non Muslims across the country. They also meet many of the influential Islamic voices in the country – preachers, teachers, principals, schools – and a few non Islamic influential voices – dancing stars, publishers, mystics et al. They hear the conspiracy theories (surprisngly similar), the frustrations, optimisms and the dualities of many voices. Which way the country will tip is hard to say – and the epilogue does well to give a muted warning of the future.
The book starts off with a quick reading on Indonesian history (which to me was foreign) and a walk down the various stratas of society (mostly political and religious strata – which by and large maps to the economic strata) while going to Islamic schools, meeting preachers, evangelists and beaches alike to explore the confusion that the country faces.
Yet, in the systematic transformation (or indoctrination) of the nation by virtue of politics and schools and petrodollars is a lesson. And it makes interesting reading – especially from an Indian context. One can almost feel the anguish the author (and some others who he meets) feel as many in the country want to disregard their past. They are those who want to desperately believe that Indonesian Muslims have an Arab past life, if you will and live in a state of denial of its rich ancient Hindu-Buddhist history.
Overall, a great read for anybody who wants to read about democracy and Islam. I wish a similar book came out on India. Anybody game to take it up?
(Neel is a veteran blogger and a very good friend of CRI. He tweets at Ecophilo)