Muslim Rocker Preaches Tolerance
To a Strong
By Mary Kissel
August 15, 2006
"Why did I choose an Arabic beat? Because the Muslims
think it's a Muslim song. It's not! It's a universal song."
So explained Dhani, the pony-tailed, baby-faced founder
of one of Indonesia's most popular rock 'n' roll bands, Dewa, on a
recent afternoon here. Blasting a track from the group's latest album,
"Republic of Love," Dhani explained how his faith, Sufism -- a mystic,
tolerant form of Islam -- informs his music. Despite appearances, Dhani,
who like many Indonesians goes by one name, is a very different kind of
rock superstar. He's promoting moderate Islam -- vocally -- in a
linchpin country in the war on terror.
Crammed into the back seat of his minivan while Dhani
lounges upfront, I struggled to scribble down his words, barely audible
as the booming bass shook the seats. "Wahai jiwa yang tenang!" ("O
serene soul!"), blared the opening riff from the first song, "Warriors
of Love," with a strong drumbeat backing it up. The tune's title in
Indonesian, "Laskar Cinta," is a play on "Laskar Jihad" ("Warriors of
Holy War"), Indonesia's homegrown, al Qaeda-linked terrorist group. But
the song couldn't be more different from what they preach; Dhani sings
about religious freedom, weaving in Quranic references easily
recognizable to Dewa's primary audiences in Indonesia, the world's most
populous Muslim country, and neighboring Malaysia.
a conscious strategy; a cynic might even dismiss it as a marketing ploy.
Dhani explains that he tucks messages of tolerance and peace beside
Western, straight rock beats and halting, syncopated Arabic rhythms.
Western-minded types and even radicalized Muslims buy his albums -- and,
one hopes, his tolerant vision, too. So far, so good: The group's new
album is on track to sell a million legal copies in Indonesia alone;
estimates put the volume of pirated versions at three to four times that
number. The current disc's lead track was No. 1 in Indonesia for three
weeks, running from last December to January, and the video reached
MTV's top 10 chart. EMI plans to release an English-language version of
Dewa's music into foreign markets soon.
It's ingenious, and infectious; indeed, some of Dewa's
tracks could easily be mistaken for those of a Saudi Arabian pop band --
one whose members listened to Queen and classic rock as kids. But as the
final verse of "Warriors of Love" fills the car, it echoes this holy
verse: "O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female,
and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one
another, and not to despise each other." A tad more thoughtful than
"Bohemian Rhapsody," and not exactly what Dhani's hardline Islamic
groupies are taught in their madrassas.
Dhani, 34, is an unlikely proselytizer for peace. His
grandfather participated in the Daru Islam Islamist guerrilla movement,
which counted among its members the terrorist group leader who plotted
the Bali bombings a few years back. Dhani's father, Eddy, followed in
his father's footsteps, figuring prominently in an organization bent on
preaching Wahhabism. Dhani's Indonesian-born mother, Joyce, proved a
more moderating influence -- she converted from Roman Catholicism to
Islam when she married. (But "she learned Islam from me, not my father,"
Dhani confides quietly.)
As a youngster, Dhani attended a Wahhabist school.
(Wahhabism, the prominent Muslim sect in Arab nations such as Saudi
Arabia, promotes a strict observance of Islam; Sufism is historically
dominant in Indonesia, among Muslims.) But the Wahhabist message didn't
sit well with Dhani: In his teens, the young rebel dropped out of high
school and started Dewa, also sometimes called Dewa 19, a reference to a
personnel change when the band members were 19 years old. The name, an
acronym of the founding members'names, ironically means "God" in
Sanskrit. The group's catchy tunes caught on quickly; today in
Indonesia, Dhani is a superstar on par with Bon Jovi or Bono.
Yet Dhani's message is arguably far more powerful --
and meaningful -- than those Western rockers' ditties. Since the fall of
Suharto's autocratic regime in 1998 and the advent of democracy, support
for hardline Islamic political parties in Indonesia has grown. While
such groups are by no means supported by the majority, mostly moderate
Javanese, recent events -- such as public calls to impose sharia, or
Islamic law, the prosecution of the editor of Playboy's Indonesian
edition, and virulent anti-Western demonstrations -- speak to
Wahhabism's creeping influence on the archipelago, as does a quick count
of the scarves on women's heads in metropolitan Jakarta.
Dhani has responded not only through his music, but by
joining a small -- but growing -- group of religious moderates who are
trying to educate Indonesians about tolerant forms of Islam. Organized
by LibForAll, a small U.S. foundation based in Winston-Salem, N.C., its
members include former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, a great
Sufi leader; Abdul Munir Mulkhan, a prominent former member of the
governing board of the Muhammadiyah, one of the world's largest Muslim
organizations; and Azyumardi Azra, an outspoken Islamic intellectual,
The risks are great for vocal religious moderates like
the ones affiliated with LibForAll. Last year, after Dewa released an
album that featured the word for "Allah" in Arabic script on its cover,
Dhani was labeled an apostate. Fearing for his wife, Maya, and their
three children, Dhani moved them into a hotel. Only when Abdurrahman
Wahid held a
press conference supporting the rock star did Dhani feel
safe enough to move them home again.
Dhani seems unperturbed by his mission. When I asked
him about it, he laughed, talked about his faith (his children are named
after Sufi saints), and turned the car stereo up.
As we crawled through traffic, one of Dhani's troupe
reminded me that Dhani isn't the first to have this calling. In a neat
historical parallel, Dhani's savior and mentor, Mr. Wahid, is a direct
descendant of Siti Jenar, a 16th-century Sufi prophet who also preached
tolerance in the face of a militant Islamic group in Java. He was
executed for his faith, and legend has it that his blood sprayed "Allah
is good!" in the sand as he died. He was later heralded as a true
prophet of Allah. In the notes for his latest album, Dhani thanks Syekh
Lemah Abang ("Reddish-brown earth") -- a reference to the town where
Siti Jenar once lived.
Dhani laughed again when I asked him if the story of
Siti Jenar's death is true, and if he's been compared to the prophet. He
nodded, and smiled. And then he turned the music up again.
Ms. Kissel is The
Wall Street Journal Asia's editorial page editor.
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