MY Friend the Fanatic is a portrait of the world’s most populous Muslim land, Indonesia which was once synonymous with tolerance but which today finds itself in the midst of a profound shift towards radical Islam. Working as a reporter for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Asian Wall Street Journal in Bali, the author, who happens to be a writer and journalist, visits the site of a massive car-bomb blast where 140 bags with unidentified body parts are being sent for burial. He learns that on that fateful night, it was as though “the dead had been vapourised, leaving behind only ash and glass and plastic.”
The author says Islam is a relatively recent import to the archipelago – “it washed up in the 12th century, took root in the 15th and became dominant as late as 17th.” He describes womaniser Sukarno’s rule followed by his successor Suharto’s, whose weakness was wealth and for whom nothing was out of bounds – “a monopoly on wheat imports, a cut from oil exports, an attempt to corner the clove market, a protected national car project.”
The author, an Indian atheist with a fondness for literary fiction and an interest in economic development, befriends a Muslim, Herry Nurdi, a 27-year old managing editor of an influential Islamic magazine to travel through Indonesia. Herry looks upon Jews and Americans as his enemies and believes that every Muslim must know how to fight and is even scolded by a local journalist for allowing the author Dhume access into “places he might not have as easily accessed otherwise.” Herry has a wife but wants to marry another woman, particularly from Jordan so as to be able to enter Palestine. He says that when he visits Mecca, he prays at the Kaaba “to make my family a Muslim family and to make every member of this family either the pen or the sword of Islam.” He also believes that Islam holds all of life’s answers and aims to impose its intolerant version of Utopia on the country’s fledgling democracy. The author’s attachment to the country’s fading culture of pluralism and the inherent tension of his friendship with Herry supply the emotional stuff to this memoir.
The other characters in the novel include a televangelist, the soon-to-be head of Indonesia’s most influential Muslim organisation and the notorious militant Abu Bakr Bashir, a spiritual head of the Jemaah Islamiyah terror group that is implicated in various attacks. The author divides the Muslims of Indonesia into two groups — those who recite the Quran and describe the episodes from the Prophet’s life to inadvertently reveal that Islam is intrinsically violent; and second, the apologists who subscribe to the terrorist-brochure version of Islam as a “religion of peace”. However the apologists may not subscribe to imposition of Islamic law, but they share the dualistic conviction that the Quran is undoubtedly the world of God. To quote Dhume, “One couldn’t escape the irony that on the whole, the deepening democracy (in Indonesia) had gone hand in hand with a darkening intolerance.”
Having made concessions for the Muslims on many fronts, the author finds that Islam demands total submission to God and a literal interpretation of the Quran and is arguably more susceptible to extremism than the world’s other major faiths. He knows that Islam has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists and their swift advance into Indonesia would not have occurred without indifference, if not ambivalence, amongst the moderates.
Through this book the author addresses two important questions: Is Islam compatible with liberal democracy? Is it compatible with economic development? Through this book Dhume charts the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia which was during Nehru’s and Sukarno’s days considered the least hospitable to any kind of religious fundamentalism. Dhume also does not hold all Muslims accountable for the mess in which Indonesia finds itself as he says, “Most Muslims of my acquaintance were as open-minded and as averse to violence as anyone else. For the most part I felt, with the light condescension of the atheist, that practicing Muslims, like people of any religion, turned to faith for what solace it offered in an imperfect world.” He however concedes that in comparison to other Muslim countries, Indonesia may be a beacon of tolerance because in Jakarta “a certain boldness still belonged in the public square” where moderation in Islam has been granted a special yardstick and the world would do better by itself to drop its fear of offending Muslims and fix the discrepancy. He asks rightly, “Is a moderate Muslim simply anyone against settling religious and political grievances by flying an airplane into a skyscraper or blowing himself up in a bar full of tourists?”
What Dhume fears that if left unchecked, Islamists in Indonesia will strip the country of what’s left of its essence and potential and they need not seize formal power to do so. He offers an insider’s view of the high toll politicised Islam is exacting on the world’s third largest democracy.
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