Dhume’s book serves as a portrait of an Indonesia torn between love for Osama bin Laden and Demi Moore
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country. But for visiting tourists and journalists, its Muslims always came across as overwhelmingly moderate. Washington DC-based journalist of Indian origin, Sadanand Dhume held the same beliefs about the country where he had spent a year earlier in 1981 as a twelve-year-old kid accompanying his diplomat father. The Indonesia of the 1980s, where Dhume found even the maids better dressed, was much better than India. But, in October 2002, as Dhume arrives in the country as a reporter to cover the Bali bombings, he wonders about the future of a country long regarded as immune to such carnage. He decides to quit his job and write a book about the rise of militant Islam in Indonesia.
Like most foreign journalists, Dhume decides to seek the services of a local journalist, who turns out to be Herry Nurdi, the 27-year-old editor of Indonesia’s hardline Islamist journal, Sabili. Through Nurdi, Dhume gets access to Islamist circles such as the Mujahidin Council. In one of their conferences, the Council has come up with ‘proof’ that 4,000 Jews didn’t turn up for work in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The executive chairman of the Council Irfan S Awwas meets him, and the first question he asks Dhume is whether he isn’t Muslim. After hearing Dhume, he says: ‘If Islam is how you people say it is then you cannot go home today.’ While Awwas and another man laugh, Dhume finds himself failing to join them. Soon, it becomes clear that Indonesia has changed. Dhume tells the story of this change very well – a change which means that young boys who have no heroes live in television-less, music-less, cellphone-less existence under stickers which read: ‘Jihad is our @ way’.
It’s through such detailed portraits of people—ranging from hardcore Islamic fundamentalists to hip-shaking singer-dancers—that this book comes alive. In between, Dhume writes about the country’s past, of how Indonesian politics got split into nationalists and sharia-minded Islamists.
Two years after his return to America, Dhume pays a visit to Indonesia, and finds that his guide and friend Herry Nurdi has also changed, ‘heavier in the face, his goatee blunter and more emphatic, the callus on his forehead more pronounced.’ He is a writer himself now – of books such as Signs of Freemasons and Zionists in Indonesia and Resurgence of Freemasons and Zionists in Indonesia. And, yet, if there is any hope, it lies in the contradiction of Nurdi kowtowing to Osama bin Laden from Monday through Friday, and Demi Moore on weekends. Like Nurdi says in response to Dhume’s observation that he was not really a fundamentalist: “Remember it’s Saturday.”