My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist 
by Sadanand Dhume.
Skyhorse, 271 pp., $24.95, April 2009, 978 1 60239 643 2
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Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power 
by Robert Kaplan.
Random House, 384 pp., £21, October 2010, 978 1 4000 6746 6
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Understanding Islam in Indonesia: Politics and Diversity 
by Robert Pringle.
Hawaii, 220 pp., $22, April 2010, 978 0 8248 3415 9
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In the late 1990s it seemed quite possible that Indonesia was going to disintegrate, to become a South-East Asian version of Pakistan or Nigeria. The collapse of the long-lasting dictatorship of Suharto in 1998, together with the Asian financial crisis, battered Indonesia’s economy and released the cork that had kept contained religious, ethnic, class and other divisions in this very diverse archipelago. The result was political and social meltdown. The economy, already in a worse state than, say, South Korea’s, shrank by 13 per cent in 1998, and tens of millions of Indonesians fell below the poverty line. Prices for staple goods like rice and cooking oil soared, and in Jakarta rioters targeted enclaves lived in by the small, often wealthy ethnic Chinese community. Mobs burned down Chinese homes, looted Chinese-owned stores and reportedly gang-raped Chinese women. From the skyscrapers of the financial district, when I visited, you could see fires burning across the city, the flames skipping from one neighbourhood to the next. My translator, a Christian Indonesian Chinese who writes Bible-inspired children’s stories in her spare time, slept on the floor of her office in downtown Jakarta, too scared to go home.

Outside Jakarta, the violence was even worse. In the Malukus, the famous Spice Islands where Western colonists had competed for access to nutmeg and cloves, Christians and Muslims attacked each other’s villages, burning them to the ground and beheading survivors, whose skulls were impaled on spikes. Muslim and Christian gangs from other parts of Indonesia, including veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, poured into the islands, bringing more weapons and more death. After the violence ended, towns divided themselves into Muslim and Christian enclaves, with each place having two of every local amenity: a bank for Christians and one for Muslims, a hotel for Christians and one for Muslims, a market for Christians and one for Muslims.

With central authority weakened after Suharto’s fall, outlying regions like Aceh and East Timor, a former Portuguese colony which had been forcibly annexed by Indonesia in 1975, pushed for independence. When Timor finally voted in 1999 to secede, local militias linked to the Indonesian army made sure that an independent Timor would start with nothing. Wielding machetes, shotguns and homemade pistols, they rampaged through the territory, slaughtering Timorese who sheltered in churches and attacking foreign journalists. Nearly half the population fled from their homes; and when I visited Timor’s capital, Dili, seven years later, the signs of conflict were still evident. Children played in burned-out buildings, and gangs of unemployed young men roamed the streets at night, robbing passers-by in order to buy food.

Despite such events, Indonesia has somehow managed to achieve some degree of stability during the last decade. But it is only in the last two years that writers and reporters in the West have taken any notice of the shift. In Washington, where Indonesia had received a fraction of the attention paid to neighbouring countries like Thailand or Taiwan, a small army of government officials suddenly began to court it, as the US realised it had to compete with China for Jakarta’s loyalty. Battle was joined, in November, by Barack Obama, who made a triumphant ‘return’ to Jakarta, reminiscing about growing up there and delivering a speech at the national university that was cheered as though he were a revivalist preacher.

The chaos of the late 1990s and early 2000s was perhaps inevitable. Both Suharto, who had ruled since 1967, and his predecessor, Sukarno, Indonesia’s first leader after its declaration of independence from the Netherlands in 1945, had exploited tensions between communities and stifled free expression. After independence, Sukarno had helped set up the famous Asian-African Conference of 1955 in Bandung, at which newly independent nations agreed to oppose colonialism and form a global Non-Aligned Movement. But as he got older he became more erratic and autocratic, and during the Cold War his efforts to retain ties with the West while simultaneously cultivating Indonesia’s powerful Communist Party led to his downfall. In 1965 the army essentially launched a coup, and though he formally hung onto power, Sukarno was soon sidelined. In the aftermath of the coup, the army hunted down suspected Communists: neighbours accused neighbours; friends informed on friends; family members attacked family members. And because Indonesians, particularly Javanese, have always held non-confrontation to be a central value of their culture – Javanese do not shake hands firmly, in order to appear more restrained – the rapid descent into violence, which would be repeated in the late 1990s, seemed all the more shocking. By the end of 1966, as many as 500,000 Indonesians had been killed.

Suharto, who emerged after the coup as the most powerful man in the country, then seemed to put Indonesia to sleep. He used the security services to quash or co-opt dissent, and oversaw a development programme that greatly boosted the economy while also enriching Suharto himself, his family and their business cronies. After crushing the Communists, Suharto needed to find another internal enemy in order to justify his crackdowns on dissent. He decided to target Muslim organisations. Islam in Indonesia had historically been moderate and syncretic: it was brought to the archipelago by traders and had mixed with older animist, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Suharto’s decision to suppress Muslim organisations only encouraged more radical groups to spring up. He had destroyed so many other types of opposition group that Muslim organisations had become the de facto centre of opposition to his rule, and he never succeeded in eradicating them. Late in his rule, he shifted course and started cultivating certain Muslim groups in order to shore up his power. Some of these, like Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, which boasted tens of millions of members, became increasingly influential in mainstream politics and remained relatively moderate, focusing on reconciling Islam with a secular government. Other groups were less moderate, however, and Suharto’s actions extended their lease on life.

In My Friend the Fanatic, Sadanand Dhume describes the way radical Islamists developed policies that combined social welfare with charismatic preaching. The number of Islamic boarding schools grew to accommodate families unable to afford the fees and bribes to teachers that were necessary to get a decent education. Islamic charities, many based in the Persian Gulf, also saw an opportunity, and increased their proselytising efforts in Indonesia. Militant preachers’ claims that following Islam would lead to prosperity appealed to urban yuppies. A small number of these Islamist groups formed terrorist networks, linking up with al-Qaida: the most prominent, Jemaah Islamiyah, launched a series of attacks across the archipelago in 2000. In 2002, its bombings of two bars on Bali killed more than 200 people; a year later, a bombing at the Marriott hotel in Jakarta killed 12.

The country’s president at the time of the first attacks was Abdurrahman Wahid, a liberal cleric – he was the leader of Nahdlatul Ulama – who won power in the country’s first real democratic election in 1999 but demonstrated little ability to govern. He pursued quixotic projects that had no bearing on average Indonesians – trying to get the country to recognise the state of Israel, for example. Nearly blind and crippled by a stroke, he often seemed disorientated and would fall asleep during legislative sessions. Around him, associates schemed, and in one of many corruption scandals his masseur allegedly absconded with $4 million in government funds. Wahid was impeached in 2001, and succeeded by his vice-president, Megawati Sukarnoputri. As the daughter of the independence hero Sukarno, Megawati saw herself as a kind of queen, and in office she acted like one. She gave few speeches, went through entire meetings without saying a word, and would suddenly disappear on shopping trips to Hong Kong. Her vice-president, Hamzah Haz, repeatedly denied that terrorism was a threat in the country, and her government was slow to respond to the Bali bombings. After a half-hearted attempt to hold talks to solve the conflict in Aceh – she sent a delegation to Geneva to meet representatives of the independence movement – Megawati simply sent in the army to wipe out the insurgents, which resulted in widespread civilian casualties and an even deeper divide between the province and Jakarta.

Under Wahid and Megawati, Indonesia often appeared close to breaking up. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, first elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2009 by a thumping margin, began trying to sort out the chaos. Yudhoyono and members of his government have made speeches criticising Jemaah Islamiyah and other terrorist groups and calling on ‘the whole of the Indonesian people’ to ‘unite in the fight against the acts of terrorism’, but he has resisted the temptation to use the threat of terrorism to suspend the rule of law. He has set up a counterterrorism force, which has successfully rounded up many JI cells, but Indonesia does not indefinitely detain suspects. According to the International Crisis Group, Jemaah Islamiyah is now splintered and largely ineffective.

A semblance of stability has resulted in investment and economic growth; indeed, Indonesia has posted some of the highest growth rates in the world over the past two years. Yudhoyono has also presided over free and fairly contested elections, and in the cities vigorous media outlets have established themselves. East Timor is now genuinely independent and the secessionist conflict in Aceh was resolved by negotiation following the tsunami of December 2004. Attacks against Indonesian Chinese have decreased sharply. When I’ve travelled to Jakarta in recent years, I’ve been startled to find many ethnic Chinese businesspeople beginning to participate in politics, which they would never have done in the past, for fear of being targeted if they took up public positions. And as Robert Kaplan records in Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, it is Indonesia’s growing stability that has made it an increasingly attractive partner for both China and the US.

Obama’s ‘homecoming’ capped a year in which the White House launched a new ‘comprehensive partnership’ with Indonesia, putting it forward as an example of moderate democracy for the rest of the Muslim world to follow. The White House even restored military relations with Indonesia’s Special Forces Command, which is known for its brutality. (In one typical recent incident, troops in the remote province of Papua reportedly took several village men captive and burned their genitals, beat them and suffocated them in plastic bags.) Only days after Obama arrived in Jakarta, senior Chinese officials showed up too, bearing $6 billion in new aid. Convinced it has solved many of the country’s domestic problems, Yudhoyono’s government has even tried to claim a position for Indonesia as a global power. Already a member of the G20 group of leading economies, it now wants to be seen as on the level of India, China and Brazil.

Indonesia is by no means a model democracy as yet, however. Indonesian liberals are frustrated that a president who seemed to promise a new way of thinking is failing to translate his thoughts into deeds, in part because he often has to rely on the votes of moderate Muslim parties to pass any legislation. One of the laws he has allowed to be passed could be used to justify the persecution of heterodox Islamic sects. In recent months, mobs have destroyed many mosques belonging to one such sect, Ahmadiyya. Yudhoyono has remained silent as churches and other Christian organisations have been attacked, endangering the social harmony that has been carefully rebuilt since the 1990s. Last Christmas, one district in Jakarta had to deploy more than 1000 policemen to guard local churches. Yudhoyono has also stood by as leaders from the Suharto era have climbed back into power, forcing out the economic and political reformists whom Yudhoyono initially appointed. One of these old tycoon-politicians, Aburizal Bakrie, who prospered greatly under Suharto, is a frontrunner in the next presidential election, due to be held in 2014. Yudhoyono will not be standing.

Despite such failings, Yudhoyono’s government has pursued some admirable initiatives, even if they haven’t always worked as planned. As Robert Pringle demonstrates in Understanding Islam in Indonesia, the decentralisation of power has been at the core of its attempts to deepen democracy. It’s true that far more Indonesians now take an interest in politics, which for years was seen as something practised only in faraway Jakarta. But decentralised democracy has also given opportunities to Islamist groups, and fuelled local conflicts. ‘Suddenly, hoary disagreements about district boundaries and local leaders came back to life,’ Pringle writes. ‘The first candidates in local elections were often aligned along ethnic or religious lines, and the notion that this could be a prelude to healthy democratic competition, rather than violence, was not always realistic.’ Islamist radicals may not be able to force through illiberal legislation at the national level, where they have to contend with moderate, secular, Christian and Hindu opposition, but they have at times been able to dominate local law-making. In Aceh, a version of sharia law now operates, and religious police roam the beaches, looking for young couples holding hands. In other parts of the archipelago, laws have been passed limiting women’s rights, forcing them to cover themselves out of doors, or restricting the building of non-Muslim places of worship. In this young and still uncertain democracy, judges and national politicians are not sure how to deal with local laws that might violate the constitution, and tend not to attempt to strike them down, as a court in Britain or America might. Several Islamist politicians told Dhume that they think they will be able to keep passing laws at local level until their legislation, and their political organisation, has spread so far through the archipelago that it can’t be stopped. ‘Indonesia might well be vulnerable to a type of creeping Islamic extremism,’ Pringle writes. ‘Not intimidation per se, but the exploitation of political democracy and freedom of expression to pursue anti-democratic ends.’

Another by-product of the liberalisation of politics has been the liberalisation of graft. An increase in corruption, along with the renewed power of Suharto-era oligarchs, is demoralising Indonesians. During the Suharto era, graft tended to be predictable, and people knew where they would encounter it and how to manage it. But with democracy the old networks vanished, and new and different people involved in government – local political bosses, members of the bureaucracy – put their hands out. This has fallen hardest on the working classes, who don’t have the connections, or the cash, to navigate ever more complex channels of bribery.

‘One couldn’t escape the irony that, on the whole, the deepening of democracy had gone hand in hand with a darkening intolerance,’ Dhume says at the end of his book. Islamist organisations will eventually develop into disciplined political parties of the sort that win elections. When Yudhoyono stands down, there will be no one left with the kind of popular support that might enable the furthering of a secular, inclusive brand of democracy. Not that Yudhoyono’s successor is likely to be very upset about this: men from the old guard such as Bakrie are interested primarily in using power to increase their own fortunes.

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