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The best books on Indonesia

recommended by Krithika Varagur

The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project by Krithika Varagur

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It's a beautiful nation of islands with staggering levels of biodiversity. It's also home to more than a quarter of a billion people, many of them Muslim. And yet, it gets little regular coverage in the western media. Krithika Varagur, journalist and author of The Calltalks us through the books that most inspired and informed her as she reported on Indonesia.

Interview by Sophie Roell

The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project by Krithika Varagur

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The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project
by Krithika Varagur

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Before we get to the books you’ve chosen, I thought you could maybe take us on a bit of a tour of Indonesia and give us a sense of why it’s a country we might want to know more about. What’s fascinating about it, to you?

Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world and home to 268 million people. Just by virtue of that alone, it’s really worth knowing more about, because it doesn’t get a whole lot of media coverage or leave a huge cultural imprint in America or, I think, in Europe. What’s cool about it, to me, is that it’s an island country, so it’s composed of—no one’s really sure quite how many—but about 15,000 islands at the last count. They also stretch incredibly far, wider than the continental US, so they’re so different from one end to the other, including in the kind of people, as well as plants and animals and climates, that you find within them.

Another relevant superlative is that it’s the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. There are more Muslims living in Indonesia than in all the Gulf countries combined but, again, it doesn’t take up much space in what we usually think of as the ‘Islamic world’. I’m a journalist and I focus on religion and politics, so a lot of my empirical data on, and ways I think about the world, come from living in Southeast Asia and the way that religion and politics are blended there; especially the way that many democracies there, most prominently Indonesia, incorporate religions into the public sphere. Indonesia really bucks the so-called secularization thesis: the more democratic it has become, the more and more religious has been the nature of its politics. I think that’s all really interesting, to expand the idea of what the Muslim world is, what a democracy looks like and so on.

“It’s a very lush, tropical country and incredibly fertile. There are a lot of volcanoes since it’s on the Ring of Fire, and the volcanic soil leads to some unique agriculture”

And then the thing that perhaps drew me to Indonesia in the first place, and which remains the most fascinating to me in some of my recent work, is the fantastic biodiversity there. Every kind of climate change issue—from deforestation to climate refugees to mass extinctions—everything is happening there. It’s like a hothouse laboratory. There are so many endemic species there, and the rate of deforestation is so massive, that it is a theatre for every major environmental issue of our time.

I’ve never been. Is it incredibly beautiful to travel around with all these different islands and habitats?

Yes, it is. Almost everywhere outside of Jakarta is incredibly beautiful (I love Jakarta too, but for other reasons). It’s a very lush, tropical country and incredibly fertile. There are a lot of volcanoes since it’s on the Ring of Fire, and the volcanic soil leads to some unique agriculture.

And every island has its own distinct climate or climates. To draw from one of the books I’m going to talk about in a bit—The Malay Archipelago—basically, there’s something called ‘the Wallace Line’ that runs through half of Indonesia. Eastern Indonesia looks completely different from the west: the animals are smaller and come from Australasia, whereas western Indonesia, places like Java and Sumatra, branched off from the Asian continent, so you see some big animals like tigers and elephants there. So just within this one country, there is huge biodiversity. The same thing goes for people. The people of eastern Indonesia, which is less populated, can be quite different from those in the western part: their ethnic groups, religion—they are majority Christian—language, and history. The eastern islands, especially the Spice Islands, might be my favorite place in the world.

Let’s go through these books about Indonesia you’re recommending. You’ve already mentioned The Malay Archipelago by the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and published in 1869. He spent eight years on these islands, and partly as a result of the differences between islands you mentioned, he figured out evolution at about the same time as Charles Darwin. Is that right?

Yes, they were contemporaries, some would say rivals.

Tell me a bit about the book and whether it’s fun to read.

It’s wonderful. I always had a copy with me throughout my time in Indonesia. I read it cover to cover when I was younger, but when I was in Indonesia, I would flip to certain sections that correlated with my travels. He also writes about what is now Singapore, East Timor and Malaysia. He covered a lot of ground and I would use him as a sort of field guide.

He’s such a companionable person. His temperament is almost anti-Victorian because he’s so gentle, and it really comes across in his writing. He’s so interested in the local customs and in going about his peculiar business, collecting beetles and cataloguing these species that no one in the West had ever heard of before. And he’s incredibly patient, too, spending years at a time out there.

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So I would go to various islands and I often found his accounts to be remarkably relevant. For example in Makassar, which is a big port city in South Sulawesi, he talks about the Bugis people who live there, the limestone cliffs, and some of the animals he collected. When I went there, I ended up hanging out with a lot of Bugis people and going to the limestone cliffs to see the cave paintings that depicted some of the animals he wrote about.

Indonesia is one of those places that’s not super-traversed in English-language travel literature. It’s in the historical record for sure, but it’s not like, say, Afghanistan, where you have so many travelogues about ‘Oxiana’ and the Silk Road and so on. So especially given the slimmer pickings, Wallace has always been like a companion to me.

That’s wonderful. It’s amazing that it’s so relevant after a century-and-a-half.

Yes, he’s really great. The only sad thing about reading it is you realize how many of the animals he talked about aren’t really there anymore. In northern Sulawesi, he talks about this bird called the Maleo that lays its eggs in the sand. It doesn’t sit on its eggs, but uses the heat of the sand to hatch them. It’s a fantastic, unique bird and I’ve wanted to see it for a long time. But when I went to Manado in 2018, I was told that there are only one or two—if any—left and I wasn’t going to be able to see one, most likely.

The next book you’ve chosen looks a bit more academic. It’s called The Gay Archipelago and it’s by an anthropologist, Tom Boellstorff. Tell me why it’s on your list of must-read books about Indonesia.

It is an academic book and it’s ostensibly about queer Indonesians, but to me it is also the most insightful book about Indonesia the nation-state and Bahasa Indonesia, which is the Indonesian language. Bahasa Indonesia is this amazing discursive invention that from my first day there struck me as faintly amazing, but I wasn’t sure why—until I found this book.

In brief, Bahasa Indonesia is the nation’s lingua franca. It was used by Malay traders for a long time and then, in the lead-up to Indonesia’s independence, they decided to make it the national language of Indonesia, to unite the country. These early nationalists were really ingenious in picking it because, first of all, it’s really easy to learn: there are no verb tenses. And, they didn’t pick the majoritarian or elite language, which would have been Javanese (Java is the most populous island in Indonesia—and the world!—and a lot of the political elite, including every single president to date, are Javanese). They picked this trade dialect that was less prestigious and easier to learn and less politicized. And everyone just… learned it.

So you get to go to this country that’s just staggering in terms of diversity, but with a modest effort, you can communicate with the vast majority of people. The closest comparison I can make is India, but in India, famously, no one speaks the same language. No one can agree on what it should be, for their own good reasons. But in Indonesia, they took this alternative path. Once I learned Bahasa Indonesia, it really unlocked the whole country—from the jungles of Borneo to Maluku, and even beyond national borders: Timor-Leste, peninsular Malaysia, Deep South Thailand. This was and remains amazing to me.

Where does the The Gay Archipelago come in? First of all, Boellstorff takes ‘Indonesia’ as his geographic subject. That’s something, by his own account, anthropologists tend not to do; there’s a tendency towards hyperspecificity. But the ingenious thrust of his book is that modern queer identity in Indonesia is indivisible from the nation-state and Bahasa Indonesia. He argues very compellingly that ‘gay’ and ‘lesbi,’ which are loanwords, are specifically Indonesian identities that are completely circumscribed by this young nation.

“Once I learned Bahasa Indonesia, it really unlocked the whole country—from the jungles of Borneo to Maluku, and even beyond national borders: Timor-Leste, peninsular Malaysia, Deep South Thailand. This was and remains amazing to me”

The first couple of chapters of the book are so insightful into what holds the nation-state together conceptually that I would recommend it to anyone who has been to Indonesia and wants to learn more about it. The conventional wisdom has it that social science or critical ‘theory’ obfuscates, but I’ve never quite believed that and this book is a great example of how a sophisticated theoretical framework can totally unlock some murky corners of lived experience, especially in a foreign country.

One concept that he coins in the book that I find really compelling is ‘dubbing culture’, like in dubbing a movie. It’s the idea of borrowing English words for some of the new states of mind or phenomena in this young country, which is still less than a hundred years old. The book became super-useful to me when I started trying to understand some of the discourses swirling around modern Indonesia when I started reporting there. For example, the loanword ‘hoax’. ‘Hoax’ is a powerful, almost conversation-ending accusation lobbied by politicians today and also a mainstay of social media and WhatsApp propaganda. But I always wondered: why did they borrow the English word? One way to understand it is as dubbing culture.

So Boellstorff’s book is not just about queer Indonesians, it’s about Indonesia the nation, but then it’s also full of these really wonderful stories about people like the first openly queer Indonesians, the first lesbian couple featured in a national magazine, and the early years of the now-veteran activist Dede Oetomo. It recovers this remarkable recent queer history that’s already imperilled given the awful gay panic that is now ubiquitous in Indonesia. Reading the stories in this book was heartening and somewhat hopeful.

I presume it’s generally quite a traditional society in terms of attitudes to the LGBT community? Is being gay something you have to be secretive about?

Today for sure, but this anti-LGBT—and again, they use this English acronym LGBT even in Indonesian, consistent with dubbing culture—is pretty new. The modern wave of anti-LGBT attacks started in 2016. Before then, most queer people had to be about as closeted as anyone living in a somewhat traditional society, but the virulent and politicized hatred is a more recent phenomenon.

The language is supposed to be very straightforward. Did you find it easy to learn?

I didn’t expect it when I moved there, but yes. I started taking classes immediately and it was easy to learn, easy to spell and to read and write. It’s very forgiving and you get a lot of positive feedback when you start using it. So you can immediately hit the ground and start practising, because Indonesians are very happy to help you practise your language, for the most part.

Let’s move on to the next of the books about Indonesia you’ve chosen. It’s called Twilight in Jakarta and it’s by the novelist and journalist Mochtar Lubis. This is a novel, but it’s based on his experiences in the 1950s, is that right?

Yes, he wrote it while under house arrest. A funny thing in retrospect is that the publication was directly funded by the CIA, which he didn’t know at the time.

I just love this novel. It’s Balzacian in that it shows a vast cross-section of society, from the very poorest garbagemen to the middle-class bureaucrats who get caught up in the exigencies of corruption, to intellectuals, to the highest elected officials. It’s the whole sweep of the capital city in the early years of the Indonesian Republic, and the book really captured that moment for me.

It reads as a great novel even if you don’t know much about Jakarta, but if you do, then it really brings to life some of the vigorous debates they were having at the time about what the nation could and should be—whether communism was a good idea or whether Islam was an appropriate motivating ideology. Lubis brings you right back to that period, the late 50s and early 60s, when people were figuring out what kind of ideas should be the locomotive of this nation.

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He also captures this climate of fear and suspicion and corrupt motives from right before the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno, was ousted in a violent CIA-backed coup. It was supposedly an anti-communist coup, but there are a lot of questions that remain about it.

I especially love the poorest characters, whose day-to-day lives are perfectly and economically rendered. The novel opens, for instance, with a hungry garbageman smoking his clove cigarette and filling up his whole lungs with deep pleasure, which I inevitably recall the few dozen times a day one sees someone smoking with exactly that feeling in Jakarta today.

Mochtar Lubis’s politics were not the same as mine; he was very inimical to communism, which is evident in some of the characterization. But I don’t necessarily care about that when reading a novel like this, which seeks to bring a whole world onto the page, and he does that so well.

I noticed Mochtar Lubis was under house arrest both under Sukarno and then later under Suharto. I guess he was just generally on the wrong side of the authorities?

He would probably have seen that coming. I feel he might have taken it with a bit of sanguinity, because one thing you do take away from this novel is that across all these ideologies, the people who believe in them are so hollow. Everyone is scheming. The people who are pushing Islamism in the book aren’t pious Muslims. The intellectuals come off looking bad too; they just talk, talk, talk, and have no real interest in class analysis or solidarity. I think Mochtar Lubis would have seen some poetic resonance in the fact that both of these regimes hated him.

You mentioned Islam in Indonesia, which might be a good moment to talk about your book, The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project. It opens with this extraordinary scene in central Jakarta, and a huge Islamist demonstration against the Chinese-Christian governor of the city. Can you give some background to Islam in Indonesia and set the scene a bit?

By the time I moved to Jakarta in 2016, the debates that they were having in Twilight in Jakarta had been solidly settled. They did not want communism. In fact, they had a mass killing of up to one million suspected communists in 1965-6. Even today, there’s basically no left in Indonesia.

Instead, people did come to a sort of consensus that Islam should be a part of their democracy. This is a somewhat new development that gained momentum after 1998, when the Suharto dictatorship collapsed. Since 1998, there’s been what’s referred to as a ‘conservative turn’ in Indonesia, with the rise of Islamist parties like the Prosperous Justice Party and sharia-inspired regional by-laws, like those mandating hijabs, for example. And there’s a general visibility of Islam in politics that wasn’t really part of Indonesia until this century. In the last presidential election, both candidates flew to Mecca (on private jets) three days before the voting, to broadcast that they were good Muslims.

“They had a mass killing of up to one million suspected communists in 1965-6. Even today, there’s basically no left in Indonesia”

So my book opens with the biggest Islamist protest ever in Indonesian history, with up to 500,000 people, by some counts, against Ahok, the Chinese-Christian governor of Jakarta. I got swept up in this whole political drama pretty soon after I moved there. It started a couple weeks after I arrived and became one of the big stories that I started covering. The protest was organized by a militia group called the Islamic Defenders Front and in researching the background of the group, I learned that its leader, Habib Rizieq Shihab, had studied in Saudi Arabia. I flagged this at the time as something interesting to follow up on later.

While I was looking into the roots of this conservative turn in Indonesia, I also heard a lot about this concept of ‘Arabisasi’ or Arabization. It was this idea held by a lot of Indonesians that Saudi Arabia has somehow corrupted their country and ruined their local Islamic traditions. While intriguing, it was a very vague discourse and there wasn’t a huge amount of empirical stuff I could find to back it up.

Then I thought, ‘I’m a journalist, I can answer this question!’ So I started reporting on what Saudi Arabia’s influence actually had been. What I found was so interesting. It was not a nefarious, unilateral, dark money campaign. It was actually this very rich, six decade-long bilateral relationship forged initially between Saudi King Faisal and one of Indonesia’s founding fathers, Mohammad Natsir. They had a strong personal relationship and Saudi money started coming into Indonesia as part of a global 20th century campaign to spread Wahhabi Islam worldwide. This money continued to fund quite a lot of things, like mosques and charities and schools and boarding schools and preachers and scholarships, throughout the Suharto years.

By the time the dictatorship collapsed, it had seeded many different kinds of outlets of influence, from Salafi jihadist cells—like one that would later become responsible for the Bali bombings—to Islamist politicians who are not violent, but just want Islam to have a place in politics, to rabble-rousers like Habib Rizieq Shihab.

This complicated Saudi influence was so interesting to me that I wrote a lot of articles about it, and reported from Indonesia and neighboring countries. It was a topic of some interest both in Indonesia and in America and so I thought to expand it globally. I found that what had happened in Indonesia had happened in many other countries, too. It was part of this global Saudi proselytization drive in the 20th century, especially in the post-colonial world in Asia and Africa, where a lot of hearts and minds were up for grabs.

Is it leading to conflicts in Indonesian society now?

In absolute terms, Saudi soft power in Indonesia is down. They have not been spending as much money since 9/11, a state of affairs aggravated by the 2014 oil bust and now this year’s oil price war. But the campaign has had many lasting effects, such as an unusually strong anti-Shia sentiment. Shia Muslims are a tiny minority in Indonesia and anti-Shiism is one of the signature effects of the Saudi campaign worldwide. There’s also an anti-Ahmadiyya movement, targeting another Muslim religious minority. To bring this major issue down to specifics: in the course of my book research, I found a single think-tank, consisting of one person, once funded by a Saudi businessman, who had published 17 polemical books about the Shia and Ahmadiyya in Indonesia, which became somewhat influential and eventually snowballed into some of the violent mob attacks against those communities in the last couple decades.

“In the last presidential election, both candidates flew to Mecca (on private jets) three days before the voting, to broadcast that they were good Muslims”

Also, personally, I don’t think Salafi jihadism would have found a home in Indonesia were it not for the small network of very committed jihadists who clustered around LIPIA, the Saudi University in Jakarta, and Ngruki, the Saudi-funded boarding school in Central Java, in the 70s and 80s and then, in some cases, also went to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahideen there. The people in these circles were really instrumental in seeding jihadism in Indonesia, and it was based on personal connections. I don’t think that would have really come together without the Saudi campaign either.

You talked earlier about how underrepresented Indonesia is in the western consciousness, but when it does get lots of attention, it’s often in relation to these very violent episodes. I remember watching the movie, based on a book, The Year of Living Dangerously, set in Jakarta in 1965. I also have a book, In The Time Of Madness, by Times journalist Richard Lloyd Parry, about another really violent period in the late 90s. Is Indonesia quite a dangerous place?

I would say day-to-day it’s a much less violent place than anywhere I’ve lived before. It’s not physically confrontational in day-to-day life, I usually felt extremely safe as a girl traveling alone, and compared to America, which is admittedly a low bar, there is almost no gun violence. Especially in Java, people tend even to avoid verbal disagreements. But then there are these startling episodes of mass violence and sometimes mass hysteria—from the anti-communist mass killings to the violence in eastern Indonesia between Muslims and Christians in 1998, to student protests around the same time.

The important novelist Eka Kurniawan is of the opinion, which comes through in his work, that Indonesia has these periodic episodes of madness. On the surface level, it can be a very communal, harmony-focused place, but then it builds up to this boiling point and there are episodes of truly awful, bloody violence.

Let’s talk about his novel next, which is called Beauty is a Wound. There’s a lovely review of it in the New Yorker. Eka Kurniawan says to the reviewer, “I wanted to write a ghost story.” Tell me what kind of a novel it is and what it’s about.

It’s so great. Eka Kurniawan is Indonesia’s greatest living writer, hands down. To me, he’s an essential read for anyone interested in Indonesia. He has this Quentin Tarantino-like aesthetic. Just like Tarantino loves grindhouse movies, Eka Kurniawan loves these wuxia-style Indonesian martial arts novels, as well as pulpy romances. Growing up in a small town in West Java, those were the kinds of books he read and he has a great fondness for them that comes through in his decidedly more literary works.

His novels are very entertaining, very violent and also very funny. To me, the texture of daily life in Indonesia was that a lot of stuff was really funny—from the things that politicians would try to get away with, to the social media miasma, and even in the way people regarded their own history when they chose to talk about it. There’s so much funny stuff and day-to-day people have a pretty easy-going sense of humour as well. That doesn’t really come out in most serious, nonfiction books about Indonesia, but does come out with Eka. Novels can carry the flavour of life.

“Eka Kurniawan is Indonesia’s greatest living writer, hands down. To me, he’s an essential read for anyone interested in Indonesia”

The novel I chose is a multi-generational epic about an Indonesian-Dutch prostitute and her family over almost a century. Characters die and rise from the dead. Fair warning, there is a lot of sexual violence, which may trigger some people, but I do think in the book it makes sense. It shows the continuity of some of the communal dynamics from the early 20th century to now. The idea of ghosts is very powerful in Indonesia. There is a very strong, almost universal, belief in hantu or ghosts. There’s been so much death at periodic intervals in Indonesian history that is suppressed and it’s sometimes only managed, I think, by thinking of ghosts and other supernatural beings.

How fascinating. Do you get a sense of the history of that century by reading the novel or would you need to also read a history book to know exactly what’s going on?

I don’t think it’s necessary per se and it certainly shouldn’t be a roadblock to this very entertaining novel. I think maybe Eka plus Wikipedia would be a good enough combo for any interested reader. If I can cheat here and recommend a film, I would suggest everyone also watch The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer, the very best documentary about the mass killings that are a central concern of this novel.

Let’s talk about the last of the books that you’ve recommended for finding out about Indonesia. It’s called Rimbaud in Java and it’s by Jamie James, who is clearly a big fan of the French poet.

This is such a great book. It’s a work of speculative history. Basically, in 1876, Arthur Rimbaud joined the Dutch army and spent six months in Java before his more famous peregrinations in Africa. He deserted pretty soon into his posting and we know almost nothing about his time there. That’s the lacuna from which Jamie James, a singular writer, jumps off. He writes very early in the book that what we want—to see Java through the eyes of the poet—we shall never have, so he starts right out of the gate admitting that it’s all conjecture.

But the book is so transportive and delightful. It’s a portal into the connections between Europe and Indonesia at this time. I’m a sucker for connections between far-flung places and about what I think of as ‘long globalization’. In the course of the book, he takes this kind of pilgrimage to Jakarta, Semarang and Salatiga, which are the three cities that we know Rimbaud went to.

He discusses Rimbaud’s poems and speculates whether one of the words in them, in the poem “Devotion,” from Illuminations, maybe includes a Malay word, ‘bau,’ which means smell (it’s an unexplained interjection in the poem, otherwise).

Then he also brings you into the cultural climate of 19th century Java. He talks about the institutionalized pederasty in some of the Javanese towns outside Salatiga and the sexual life under colonial rule. He writes about what it must’ve been like to live in this tropical island, in these jarring settlements on the edge of primeval forests.

“Every kind of climate change issue—from deforestation to climate refugees to mass extinctions—everything is happening there. It’s like a hothouse laboratory”

James has a yearning for this impossible-to-recover Indonesian past that I share. It can be frustrating, sometimes, to love Indonesia and look at just how thin the historical record is. This is for many reasons: written history is not such a major cultural mode there, paper degrades in tropical climates—so they don’t have things like papyrus scrolls. So you’re left to grasp at these threads.

The intellectual movements of this book are so familiar to me, because that’s how I see my (amateur) relationship to history there too. Even people who work on medieval Indonesia tend to have to rely on the vanishingly few number of travelogues by people like Marco Polo, who went to Sumatra, and Ibn Battuta. Despite this scant historical record, James accomplishes something amazing with a novel and oblique approach that frankly filled me with so much hope that I might, some day, attempt something like that too. He’s a great writer.

This book is crammed with compelling errata—like how there was opera and Mozart being staged in Batavia, the old name for Jakarta, and in the other colonial Javanese towns. He branches off from there to some other very interesting connections, like how Victor Hugo brought this Malay poetry form called ‘the pantoum’ back to France where it became a very popular verse form in the 19th century. That, to me, is astounding. He also talks about this wonderful Javanese painter, Raden Saleh, who around the time Rimbaud was coming to Java, went to Paris, where he was reviewed by Théophile Gautier and visited by Baudelaire. So it’s not just about Rimbaud.

Rimbaud in Java is so beautiful and it expands the boundaries of what research can be. I love a lot of Jamie’s books for the same reason. They work in this liminal space between art criticism and history and travel writing and he’s very interested in Indonesia’s place in the wider world. This book is a totally charming tour de force.

In terms of what Indonesia was like in the late 19th century, have you read the Dutch novel Max Havelaar? The New York Review of Books published a new translation in 2019. It was actually the first book I’ve ever read about Indonesia and I was really taken with it. Are you a fan?

It wasn’t as personally affecting to me as the books I’ve chosen, but it was very important historically to Indonesia. It’s cool that a novel changed history.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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Krithika Varagur

Krithika Varagur is an award-winning journalist who covers Indonesia for the Guardian and has written on Southeast and South Asia for a variety of publications. Her book, The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project looks at the influence of Saudi Arabian money on Salafi movements in a number of countries around the world, starting with Indonesia.

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Krithika Varagur

Krithika Varagur is an award-winning journalist who covers Indonesia for the Guardian and has written on Southeast and South Asia for a variety of publications. Her book, The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project looks at the influence of Saudi Arabian money on Salafi movements in a number of countries around the world, starting with Indonesia.