May 20, 2024 Last Updated 5:01 AM, May 8, 2024

The spirit army

The spirit army
Published: Apr 02, 2012

Nils Bubandt

Clay pots containing the spirits dispatched to an anti-corruption demonstration
Nils Bubandt

The clay pots and gourds that contain the spirits are aligned neatly on shelves in the bamboo compound. There are perhaps a few dozen of them in the otherwise apparently empty enclosure, but KM Muzakkin, leader of Dzikrussyifa’ Asma Berojomusti, an Islamic boarding school in East Java, says that a thousand spirits dwell there. One of more than 4400 such schools registered in East Java alone, this pesantren stands out because it is the only one where the spirits are the only students. ‘This’, as Pak Muzakkin proudly told me, ‘is the only spirit pesantren in the world.’

In front of the school a home-painted placard informs passers-by that the school ‘rehabilitates sufferers of mental illness, drug abusers, criminals, and street children’. In addition, Pak Muzakkin offers a range of other cures against problems stemming from the visible as well as the invisible world. This includes protection against magic and misfortune, various charms as well as solutions to sexual problems and the setting of broken bones. Since he was a child, Pak Muzakkin has had the ability to cure illness – especially illness associated with the mystical world – and in 2000 set up his Islamic boarding school around his traditional medical practice where he specialises in exorcism.

According to Pak Muzakkin, psychological illness and a lot of social problems, from vagrancy to crime, are in reality often caused by spirit possession. The spirit enters the body of its victims and takes control of their behaviour and consciousness. A wicked spirit will entice its victims to lead immoral lives, bent on satisfying their desires for such things as money, drink or drugs, or will make them behave erratically without logic and reason. By simply exorcising the responsible spirit, it is therefore possible to cure insanity as well as immorality and criminal tendencies.

In this pesantren, exorcism doubles as a conversion ritual. The spirit is exorcised by being converted to Islam, because Muslim spirits know that it is wrong to possess humans. Once exorcised from the patients and converted to Islam, the spirits take up residence in the compound to develop their understanding of Islam and help exorcise spirits that possess new patients. The patients may also stay in the compound for a brief period to begin their own journey towards a better understanding of Islam.

The boarding school thus carries out a double conversion of both humans and spirits, thereby combining exorcism with Islamic mission activities and social work. To the casual observer the boarding school may look empty when no patients are admitted, but it is in fact a lively place full of spirits who have been exorcised from patients and who are joined by ‘wild’ spirits from the surrounding bamboo groves. If you pass by the boarding school at night it looks deserted, but you can probably hear the faint sounds of the Islamic radio talk show that Pak Muzakkin turns on every evening ‘so that our friends do not get bored’.

Although he is steeped in Javanese mysticism, Pak Muzakkin also holds a law degree and is a member of the East Java chapter of the influential Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Through these connections Pak Muzakkin is lobbying local politicians to obtain regional funding to build a proper boarding school with room for 300 (human) students with an interest in combining the study of Islam with a study of healing. In addition, Pak Muzakkin is also a fervent supporter of democracy, and he has set up his own NGO, East Java Corruption Watch, which raises awareness of cases of local corruption. It is this struggle against corruption that brought Pak Muzakkin to the attention of national media in 2009 when he decided to mobilise his spirit army in support of democracy.

Corruption in high places

As Indonesia was gearing up to celebrate the seventh International Anti-Corruption Day on 9 December 2009, corruption appeared to be more widespread than ever. Even the President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was not immune to accusations of corruption. These allegations were particularly embarrassing for Yudhoyono because he had been elected in 2003 on a sweeping political program of anti-corruption and had just celebrated the first 100 days of his second term after a landslide re-election in which he had reiterated his commitment to the fight against corruption.

Two sets of accusations were circulating. First, Yudhoyono and his government, in particular Vice-President Boediono, and the Minister of Finance, Sri Mulyani – a well-known reformer – were accused of siphoning off money from the bail-out of Bank Century to finance the President’s 2008 election campaign. Second, Yudhoyono had been criticised for failing to support the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) when both the head and later two deputies of the KPK were arrested by police on charges of murder and corruption.

The KPK had begun investigating high-profile police officers in early 2009, and the arrest of leading KPK members by the police shortly afterwards was widely suspected of being a poorly disguised act of revenge designed to weaken the KPK and prevent its investigation of the police. Yudhoyono had been considered to have been too slow in voicing his support for the KPK in the aftermath of this affair. This was ironic, since it was the President himself who had set up the KPK in 2004.

Some therefore speculated that Yudhoyono’s reluctance to intervene was connected to his fear that his own government might soon come under investigation by the KPK. When Yudhoyono publicly declared that the KPK had become ‘a superbody, responsible only to God’ the power of which ‘must not go unchecked’, many Indonesians feared that his commitment to the fight against corruption had weakened seriously. So while the President hesitated, Chandra Hamzah and Bibit Rianto, the two falsely accused deputies of the KPK, became popular heroes. A massive movement of support, which included a Facebook page that logged more than a million appeals for their release, mobilised. Bowing to public pressure, Yudhoyono was eventually forced to step in against the police and the two deputies were cleared of the fraudulent corruption charges in November 2009.

So, by early December 2009 it seemed that the very institutions responsible for the fight against corruption – the government, the KPK and the police – might themselves be implicated in all manner of corruption. In the days before Anti-Corruption Day, Yudhoyono added to this sense by warning of ‘dark passengers’, or ‘free-riders’, who might mingle with pro-democracy demonstrators and use the anti-corruption demonstration in an attempt to topple the government. Adding to the already tense atmosphere, anonymous text messages were circulated on mobile phones throughout Jakarta that spoke ominously of ‘planned anarchist actions’. In response, the Jakarta Chief of Police assured people that security at the Day of Anti-Corruption would be tight. In Indonesia, police assurances of ‘tight security’ always forebode violence. Jakartans braced themselves.

Democracy by any means

In this climate of political anxiety, Pak Muzakkin decided to send his cohort of a thousand spirits to the anti-corruption demonstration in Jakarta on 9 December. The story was picked up by Kompas, Indonesia's largest newspaper. In an article that appeared on the morning of the demonstration, Pak Muzakkin was quoted as saying:

This morning we have sent a thousand spirits to the area of the demonstrations in Jakarta. The spirits are led by Ghulam Akhmad, a spirit from Egypt who has previously possessed one of my mentally ill students … These efforts are our way to provide support to the demonstrators and to the government in its struggle to eradicate corruption in Indonesia through another dimension … If protesters are possessed, attacked by black magic, are bewitched, or enchanted or if magic is used to upset the demonstration, the spirits of the Dzikrus Syifa pesantren are ready to face these threats.

It was the first time that Pak Muzakkin had ordered his spirits to a political event. A week earlier, an ailing Abdurahman Wahid, the former president and head of NU (to which Pak Muzakkin’s boarding school belongs), had thrown his political weight behind Yudhoyono and his embattled Minister of Finance. And Pak Muzakkin was eager to play his part in the battle for democracy.

‘People had to help how they could,’ Pak Muzakkin told me in February 2011. ‘Some went to demonstrate, some sent money, and some sent bottled water. Each sent whatever they could spare. Now it happens that I have expertise in the area of spirits, so that is what I sent.’ He continued, ‘I sent the spirits so that blood would not be spilled – and indeed nothing happened.’

Pak Muzakkin was right. Despite rumours that the December 2009 demonstration would rival in size and impact the student demonstrations that had brought down Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998, it had in fact been relatively peaceful.

But whereas the presence of spirits may have prevented bloodshed, the fact that the spirits had to be sent in the first place pointed to a central problem in democratic politics. Indonesians were, according to Pak Muzzakin, simply not yet ready for it. ‘The skeleton of the nation needs to be massaged,’ Pak Muzakkin observed, echoing the way he believed a broken arm can be magically healed through massage. ‘God made humans the most perfect of all beings, and if they are able to deal with the affairs of this world on their own, there is no need for spirits. But people are not yet morally ready. This is why there is corruption, crime and drug abuse, and why help from the spirits is necessary.’

The trouble with spirits

Not everyone agreed with this point of view. Within 36 hours of its publication, the online version of the Kompas article had received 167 comments from readers. The majority of those comments were either sarcastic about, or contemptuous of, Pak Muzakkin’s plan to send spirits to a demonstration. Indonesians of a modernist persuasion felt that Pak Muzakkin was a backward, superstitious fool. A blogger calling himself Ryan complained: ‘Is there really still something like this in an era of globalisation? This is an embarrassment to the whole country.’ A commentator calling himself Yuro sarcastically announced that he planned to rent 500 of the spirits to keep his rice field free from rats, while OMG said she would really like to see the ‘group photo’ of the demonstrating spirits.

Other comments were fuelled by religious outrage. They felt that dabbling in spirits ran counter to proper Islam. Prince of Bima protested: ‘Such pronouncements are not befitting for a kyai [religious leader]. They are shameful to the rational community of Islam. How can a kyai do something like this?’ A blogger called The Armored Vehicle from Surabaya was more vehement: ‘When this man says he befriends spirits, he is lying. In the Koran, Allah the Merciful forbids us from befriending spirits, even pious spirits do not interact with humans. We should all guard our virtuousness.’ These comments illustrate some of the many fault lines that run through Indonesian society and politics; fault lines that divide Muslims over the proper definition of Islam and its role in politics as well as the fault lines that divide modernist from traditionalist interpretations of Indonesian politics.

Embarrassing as Pak Muzakkin’s insertion of spirits into politics was to many, others were more positive. A commentator called Haris Satiadi wrote: ‘This Pak Muzakkin is wonderful. If he can really do this, I ask that the boarding school also send its spirits to the office of the KPK to protect it from plans to weaken it.’ ‘Why’, the commentator Syamsul asked, ‘are the spirits not mobilised to settle once and for all the Bank Century affair?’ Another blogger speculated: ‘Perhaps these spirits are what President Yudhoyono referred to when he talked about dark passengers?’

While this last comment might have been meant humorously, it nevertheless pointed to the spirit-like nature of corruption and dirty politics. In Indonesian, ‘to be a passenger’ (menumpang) has a double meaning. In an ordinary sense, humans can be passengers on boats, planes, and motorbikes. But spirits also become ‘passengers’ when they possess humans. ‘To be a passenger’, in short, also means ‘to possess’.

When Yudhoyono spoke of possible ‘dark passengers’ at the demonstration, he highlighted the dark side of politics where the corrupt accuse others of corruption and hide among pro-democracy demonstrators for their own nefarious purposes. When even an anti-corruption demonstration is susceptible to being possessed and taken control of by the dark and invisible forces of corruption, democracy itself risks becoming unattainable. Corruption and immoral politics become spirit-like because they ‘hitch a ride’ on the very institutions set up to banish them. When one cannot count on those charged to exorcise corruption to not be ‘corrupt spirits’ themselves, perhaps Pak Muzakkin was right, after all, to dispatch his spirit cohort?

When democracy cannot be taken for granted, many Indonesians appear to find inspiration in the better, more moral, world that spirits seem to promise. Spirits in this sense are mirrors of a politics gone awry. In a democracy that appears to breed rather than banish corruption and where the politics of transparency is itself murky, spirits are called upon to perform their customary work of restoring moral order. Spirits have arguably always played this role in Indonesian politics. Their continued relevance within democratic politics, however, is both surprising and – to many Indonesians – intensely embarrassing. The debate about the proper place of spirits in Indonesia therefore speaks directly to some of the major challenges of Indonesian politics as the country tries to negotiate for itself a place between democracy and Islam; the world of rational modernity and the reality of spirits.

Nils Bubandt ( is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Aarhus University.

Inside Indonesia 108: Apr-June 2012

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