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My Friend the Fanatic

Review: Dhume’s efforts to understand Islam in Indonesia are coloured by his own anxieties

Greg Fealy

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My Friend the Fanatic is a better book than I expected. Sadanand Dhume, a former journalist for the once esteemed Far Eastern Economic Review, has built a reputation in recent years for alarmist writings on Indonesian Islam. In a slew of newspaper columns and magazine articles, he has warned darkly of an Islamic tide that is overwhelming Indonesia. Common themes in his writings include the dangers of rampant Islamist paramilitary and vigilante groups, rapidly expanding sharia law enforcement and rising Islamist political fortunes. Dhume is not one for nuances or gray shading. He prefers stark black and white applied with a vivid adjectival flourish. He grievously and misleadingly described Indonesia’s largest Islamic party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), as more dangerous than the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and refers to how parts of Indonesia were now like ‘oases of Saudi Arabia’. The images he presents of Islam, particularly conservative or militant Islam, are invariably negative and one-dimensional.

I read My Friend the Fanatic expecting it to be an extended set of variations on Dhume’s well-worn apocalyptic themes. And in one way it is, as Dhume’s ‘Islamism is destroying Indonesia’ views feature prominently. But it is more than this and certainly worthier of reading than any of his articles. The book tells of the author’s journey across Indonesia accompanied by

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