Indonesia, that congeries of 13,677 islands, contains the largest concentration of Muslims in the world. And most of them, it appears, hate America.
This is a sudden change of heart, writes former Newsweek International editor Dahlby. In 2000, he notes, 75 percent of Indonesians surveyed in a major poll expressed positive feelings toward the US. Three years later, the figure stood at 15 percent, the result of several factors: perceived American arrogance toward Muslims after 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the sudden rise of a powerful Islamist movement openly proposing to turn secular Indonesia into a fundamentalist theocracy. In the company of a long-suffering interpreter named Norman Wibowo (whose “real name was inscribed on the hilt of a kris, or Javanese dagger, buried in a secret vault in old Surakarta”), Dahlby wanders around the Indonesian islands looking for errant terrorists and their supporters, all with an eye to coming up with “a clearer picture of who or what we were up against and what we really meant when we talked about a war on terror.” Some of what he turns up is revealing, even if it will seem unhappily familiar: long before al Qaeda made the news, Indonesian police warned the Clinton and then Bush administrations that Islamist factions posed an imminent threat, alerts that were dismissed, Dahlby suggests, because Washington disdains “third-world intelligence.” As the bomb attack in Bali in October 2002 shows, the Indonesian police have reason to be concerned; meanwhile, thanks to a young and chronically underemployed population that proves a fertile recruiting ground, the Islamist ranks grow. Regrettably, though, most of Dahlby’s narrative takes the form of a sometimes cute (“Did I just hear somebody use the phrase ‘gross overstatement’?”), sometimes merely self-indulgent travelogue full of set pieces—guerrillas out of Terry and the Pirates, strange food, mysterious rajahs, and so forth—that is at odds with and ultimately undermines the dire import of Dahlby’s findings on the ground.
Useful, but trying of the patience.