Just the title of his maiden book My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist is enough to put Sadanand Dhume under the scanner in this day and age. But, Dhume appears to have emerged unscathed from his travels with Herry Nurdi, a young Islamist who hero worships Osama bin Laden, into the by-lanes and underside of Indonesia, a country caught between Islamisation and globalisation. Or, in his own words, “being pulled between bin Laden and Britney Spears”. Though he had lived in Indonesia since the turn of this century as a journalist, the Bali bombings of October 2002 stirred his interest in the growth of hardline Islam in a country where the Muslims had remained “overwhelmingly moderate” despite the archipelago being the world's most populous Muslim country.
Using Nurdi — whose daughter's name has an Arabic, Javan and Hindu component, the last after Hanuman's mother Anjana — to access the hardliners, the reporter's eye in Dhume picks up details of a society in a flux. So, there is Inul Daratista, a dancer who stood up to the Council of Indonesian Ulama which described her performances as “lustful”, but is admittedly a fanatic herself. What's more, the Council's secretary general Din Syamsuddin's own entourage included girls in jilbabs (headscarves), lipstick and tight sweaters. With anecdotes galore, Dhume seeks to enliven what is a grim subject as he criss-crosses between the contradictions of a nation.