Tuesday, August 22, 2006

An Illuminating Look At Terrorism – Review of “Allah’s Torch” by Tracy Dahlby

Anyone who has been reading The White Rhino Report on a regular basis will be familiar with “Allah’s Torch” from my description of last week’s incident at Fenway Park. You may have wondered what kind of a book could have ignited such a controversy. My answer simply is: “A remarkable book.”


Tracy Dahlby has spent his career as a writer and editor for Newsweek, The Washington Post and National Geographic. He combines an encyclopedic knowledge of the world with a wry wit and facile writing style that enables him to invite the discerning reader to ride along with him on his adventures and explorations. In order to gain a better understanding of the world’s largest and least understood Muslim nation, Dahlby paid multiple visits to Indonesia – before and after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The result of his peregrinations in Southeast Asia is “Allah’s Torch” - a stirring and insightful tour of this sprawling archipelago – from the Spice Islands to Bali and the terrorist enclaves of central Java.

My motivation for reading this book was to continue my background research for a novel I am writing that involves terrorism in Indonesia as part of the plot. I came away from the experience of digesting this book with a broader awareness than I had anticipated developing. This is a book that would be a worthwhile read for anyone who is trying to become aware of the complex dynamics of what is happening in Southeast Asia in particular and the Muslim world in general. Dahlby’s willingness to put himself in harm’s way led to insightful interviews with government officials, business leaders, military leaders, and members and sympathizers of a wide variety of organizations that have been tied to terrorist activity in Indonesia and beyond.

Dahlby's description of his journey begins with an account of him traveling with his Indonesian guide, Norman, on an inter-island passenger ship, the M.V. Bukit Siguntang, headed for the Spice Islands. As Dahlby introduces him, Norman comes across as a character straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel, or, to use another literary allusion, Norman played Sancho Panza to Dahlby's quixotic knight errant:

“Having studied in the United States, he was a veritable multitasking, globalized, digitized marvel, who was incessantly juggling dueling Palm Pilots, lining up interviews on one of two cell phones, sometimes both, and was intimately plugged into the steady flow of gossip on which Indonesia’s capital thrived. In addition, Norman had a grasp of loyalty rare in young men in today’s world. That was because generations of Javanese ancestors on his father’s side had lifted swords to defend mystical kings of Old Java. (‘Wibowo is not my real name,’ he once confided to me – his real name was inscribed on the hilt of a kris, or Javanese dagger, buried in a secret vault in old Surakarta. ‘But if I told it to you, I’d have to kill you.’) In short, Norman represented the ideal global man – in touch with both the brave new rhythms of life in a high-tech, interconnected world and sacred cultural bedrock.” (Pages 16-17)

Dahlby’s introduction to the face of terrorism in Indonesia was a quick plunge into the deep end of the pool:

“I froze. Without Norman, I was absolutely and forever sunk – just a confused ignorant bule, or 'white face,’ stranded on a dock in the middle of nowhere . . . But when I finally managed to find Norman in the mob and we reached the broad lobby outside the first-class cabins, there was something far ore sinister to worry about. All around us now, hunkered down on dirty strips of cardboard and old pieces of straw matting, were large number of very unhappy-looking young men. Mostly in their late teens or early twenties, and eerily silent to a man, they had the look of shipwreck survivors clinging to the wreckage. Those not rocking on their haunches, mumbling noiselessly over dog-eared copies of the Koran, stared fixedly into the middle distance. And unless I very badly missed my guess, I knew that we were staring into the face of something truly dangerous – a shadowy new Islamic terror brigade calling itself the Laskar Jihad, or Holy War Army.” (Page 12)

Those of us on the receiving end of the jihad that has been declared against the United States often ask the question: “Why do they hate us so much? What have we done to deserve such scorn and distrust by the Muslim world?” Dahlby provides some painful but necessary insights into the answers to these questions. The following conversation he recounts that took place with a young Muslim preacher in Jakarta – a man named Habib Rizieq Shihab – is typical of the mindset that Dahlby encountered during his travels throughout the island nation.

’For me, it’s not a moral issue, it’s a political issue,’ he cried, his eyes dilating with anger. ‘It’s dissatisfaction with what America is doing in the world today!’

And what exactly was America doing? I asked, displaying my journalist’s talent for posing the infuriatingly dumb question.

Rizieq grew apoplectic. America supported Israel in the humiliation and suffering of the Palestinian people! America attacked innocent Muslims in Afghanistan! It was now moving on Iraq against the wishes of its own allies! Did I need reminding that the ringleader of the Bali bombings, now in police custody, had expressed remorse for killing so many vacationing Australians when it was vacationing Americans he’s set out to murder?

‘I don’t condone the attacks, mind you,’ Rizieq went on, hotly. ‘But I know why they happened.’

. . . Norman translated:
‘You must understand that the existence of Osama Bin Laden or the Bali bombers is just a reaction of disappointment to the evil America does to the world of Islam. The evil results in people who want to teach America a lesson.’ (Pages 194-195)

As a loyal American who is proud of our country and the contributions we have made over the course of our history to the spread of freedom, democracy and human rights, it pains me to hear of those who perceive us as an evil and destructive force. But, I believe it behooves us to be aware of how we are perceived so that we can choose how to respond to that hatred and to those misperceptions - being fully aware of the landscape of world opinion. “Allah’s Torch,” is, therefore, a painful book to read, but one that I recommend enthusiastically.

We owe Tracy Dahlby a debt of gratitude for putting himself on the front lines of the war against terror so that he could be in a position to shine the flashlight of understanding into the shadowy corners of hatred and ignorance that are part of the psychic domicile that many terrorists inhabit.


No comments: