Book Review: Islam in Indonesia

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See Also:

Dangdut and Drilling in Indonesia

Islamic Indonesian Sect Becomes a Lightning Rod

Since horrific bombings in Bali in 2002, Indonesia has come increasingly under the microscope over alarm about rising Islamic fundamentalism. The country of 239 million people is 86 percent Muslim, but until the bombings, which killed 202 people and injured 134, its brand of Islam was regarded as largely benign, encompassing about as much animism as Islam. These are Muslims with a fondness, many of them, for pork and beer.

Sadanand Dhume, then a correspondent for the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review, arrived in Bali to find that “ground zero smelled of gasoline and burnt wood. Uprooted tables, blackened beer bottles and mangled red plastic beer crates dotted the ashes of what had been the Sari Club the night before.”

Until the bombings, he said, “every foreign journalist in the country could tell you two things: that Indonesia was the world’s most populous Muslim country and that its Muslims were overwhelmingly moderate.” In his first book, Dhume seeks to answer which Islam is going to predominate, and where Indonesia is going in a new, troubled century.

Dhume has since left the Dow Jones stable and today lives in Washington, DC, where he has been branded as almost frantically anti-Muslim, delivering up a spate of articles on what he regards as the Islamic threat. Typical is one piece that asserts that a “radical Islamic party threatens Indonesia with ballots more than bullets. Does Indonesia's future lie with the rest of Southeast Asia, or with a backward-looking movement cloaked in religious fundamentalism?” His website can be found at

A troubling series of events over the past few months is lending credence to Dhume’s concerns – not the least of which was a June 1 attack by hundreds of bamboo stave-wielding Islamist fanatics on a crowd attempting to celebrate the founding of Pancasila, Indonesia’s moderate, state-sponsored five principles seeking to guarantee religious freedom and a secular society. Religious disturbances have actually been on the increase since 1998 in the wake of economic chaos stemming from the Asian economic crisis, with tempers flaring on all sides.

Following the bombings, Dhume set out, he said, “to understand where things were headed, what Indonesia would look like in 10 years or 20. I would have to pull together the disparate threads that crisscrossed the archipelago”. To do so, he enlisted as a guide a young Islamist named Herry Nurdi. An odd couple indeed, Dhume was educated at Princeton University in the United States, a foreign correspondent who considered himself an atheist sophisticate with an interest in economics. Herry was a worshiper of Osama Bin Laden.

Dhume is a marvelously fluid writer. And, before his travels with Herry begin, he paints an indelible picture of the other side of Indonesian society – of a nightclub class that included a transvestite dance troupe called Tata Dado and the Silver Boys, of a class “the other Indonesia, the part whose aspirations belonged in Vanity Fair rather than the Koran.” His picture of a night watching a Javanese dancer with the stage name of Inul Daratista (“The girl with the breasts”) is simply hilarious. (see Dangdut and Drilling in Indonesia)

In Herry, Dhume would find an unlikely 27-year old friend with a callus on his forehead from hours spent prostrated in prayer, but who was usually as ready with a chuckle as an admonition about the faith. The Indonesia they inspected has plenty of disturbing features, but one in which Muslims could stand three deep in the rain watching wayang kulit, the famed, traditional shadow play that actually hailed back to its Hindu antecedents. And, as he writes, at 4:30 am, “the Mahabharata ended. The words Allahu Akbar rose from a mosque and merged with the shallow revving of motorcycle engines.”

The Islamic world that Herry inhabits is something else again. This is a world that fervently holds the contradictory ideas that Osama bin Laden was the genius who engineered the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, and that the Americans did it themselves; that Jews dominate the leadership of Indonesia’s government; that the Chinese and Jews are somehow related. Herry can put up with Dhume’s atheism. But ultimately, the chuckle would fade. Dhume would find himself attempting and failing to bridge the intellectual gap between Herry and Dhume’s cosmopolitan Jakarta friends.

In the end, he writes, “My own duplicity towards Herry added to the strain. Paradoxically, the American journalist Janet Malcom’s famous assertion…that ‘every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible’ – had only made it easier for me to become what she would have called ‘a kind of confidence man.”

Dhume had pulled his punches, he acknowledges, not confiding to Herry his rising concern over fundamentalism, had emphasized his revulsion at the US backing for anticommunist massacres in 1966 and 1967.

“It wasn’t remorse that lay at the heart of my discomfort --- my only shame was in downplaying my godlessness – but that week by week the deception had grown heavier. The contradiction between liking the Herry who longed once more to strum the guitar and loathing the one who dug dirt on (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s) mother could not be settled.”

Ultimately, when Dhume returned to Indonesia in 2007, he met again with Herry at a book fair, where the latter spoke. It was an Indonesia, he writes, that had grown increasingly dominated by the Islamists, but not as alarmingly as most of the rest of the Islamic world. Herry, he said, had gained considerable confidence as a public speaker, ranging “over the Jewish characteristics of the Chinese, the inherent inferiority of the man-worshiping Christianity and race-worshiping Judaism, the religious perfidy of Sukarno, Pancasila, pyramids on US dollar bills, Karl Marx, Henry Kissinger.”

Dhume left Herry, he writes, “my Javanese friend, seated amid a throng of admirers signing copies of a book about Zionists, Freemasons and the coming end of the world.”

He is unsure whether Herry represents the future for Indonesia.

See Also:

Dangdut and Drilling in Indonesia

Islamic Indonesian Sect Becomes a Lightning Rod