Tue, 23 Jun 2015

The Jewish communities across Europe were outraged when in 1666 Sabbatai Zevi — a rabbi hailed as the messiah — converted to Islam instead of facing death, following his arrest by the Ottoman authorities in Istanbul. Most of his followers instantly lost faith but many refused to come to terms with his final act of treachery, steadfastly clinging to the belief that Zevi had deliberately become a Muslim to experience evil.

More than three centuries later in Indonesia, ardent supporters of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo are having a difficult time acknowledging his blunders. He was, after all, seen by many as the messianic Ratu Adil (Just King), prophesied to usher in a golden age for the country.

When the President, better known as Jokowi, nominated police general Budi Gunawan as the sole candidate for the position of chief of National Police, there was a general outcry of disbelief. Given his publicly declared commitment against corruption, the decision came as a surprise, especially as the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) had told Mr Widodo the general was under investigation for graft.

Criticised for bowing to the pressure from his political patron Megawati Soekarnoputri, chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the President proved himself willing to compromise his stance on corruption.

However, his supporters deflected the criticism by saying it had been a “brilliant stroke” to frustrate Ms Megawati’s plan by “borrowing the legislature’s hand” to deal the blow. Under this scenario, the House of Representatives (DPR) was bound to reject the nomination of such a controversial figure, enabling Mr Widodo to nip Mr Gunawan’s candidacy in the bud without offending his patron.

The thesis naturally crumbled when the DPR confounded everyone by ratifying the nomination.

Again, when Mr Widodo supported the suspension of the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI) by the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs, his supporters claimed that it was part of a crackdown on rampant corruption within the PSSI, even alleging the body was controlled by a “mafia” connected with the family business of Golkar Party chairman Aburizal Bakrie.

In a nation crazed with football, the disquiet about PSSI suspension was to be expected because the move would lead to a ban on Indonesia by FIFA from competing internationally.

Amid the commotion, FIFA itself was engulfed in a corruption scandal which led to the resignation of its president Sepp Blatter. FIFA’s disgrace was subsequently used by the Indonesian President’s supporters to justify the government’s stance on PSSI, some even going as far as suggesting it was a sign of divine favour.


Such reasoning is inevitably common in Indonesia, where the highest political office in the land is still seen by many, especially among the Javanese, in the context of sacred kingship.

No one can successfully become President without acquiring the heavenly mandate (wahyu keprabon). So, apart from being the manifestation of popular will, the President elect is also God’s chosen.

The Serat Jayabaya, a set of chronicles and stanzas attributed to the 12th-century king of Kediri Jayabaya, mentioned the messianic figure of Ratu Adil or Just King. The prophecies were later expanded by the 19th-century Javanese poet laureate in Surakarta, Raden Ngabehi Rangga Warsita, who described seven knights or satria. These seven leaders, said the mystical poet, would precede the Ratu Adil, starting with Satria Kinunjara Murwa Kuncara and ending with Satria Pinandhita Sinisihan Wahyu.

The mystical stanzas, much like those of Nostradamus, are open to interpretation.

Before the 2014 presidential election, for example, Mr Widodo was identified as the Ratu Adil. Others connected him with the last of the seven leaders. The title Kinunjara in the first knight’s name was decoded to mean “often imprisoned” while Murwa Kuncara was explained as “famed throughout the world.”

In the new reading, the first knight was identified as Indonesia’s first President Sukarno. Mr Widodo, on the other hand, was said to be Satria Pinandhita Sinisihan Wahyu, or the Knight Priest who is guided by divine decree.

There is no proof that the stanzas attributed to Jayabaya were indeed written over 900 years ago. But the history of poet Rangga Warsita was better documented. We know that his father died while being imprisoned by the colonial Dutch rulers who also suspected the poet of using his works to promote anti-Dutch sentiments.

Rangga Warsita also completed the bulk of his works during a period of intense court intrigues and conflicts involving the Surakartan king Pakubuwana VI, Prince Diponegoro and the Dutch, which ended in the exile of Pakubuwana and the arrest of Diponegoro. Thus the poet had every reason to despise the Dutch and resent their rule over Java. The yearning for a glorious messianic age contained in his stanzas was perhaps inspired by the historical circumstances of his day.

The Jews of Sabbatai Zevi’s days lived roughly a hundred years earlier than Rangga Warsita, equally gripped by a messianic fervour as a result of their discrimination by the European goyim. Such messianism is largely gone from the Jewish communities of today but it persists in the nationalist discourse of Indonesia.

It remains to be seen whether the dashed hopes for Mr Widodo as Ratu Adil will finally see the last of mysticism in Indonesian politics.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman from Surabaya.