Democracy in Indonesia Dilutes Islam in Election

By Nicole Gaouette, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 21, 1999 | Go to article overview

Democracy in Indonesia Dilutes Islam in Election


Nicole Gaouette, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Prayers are over, but a few hundred worshipers still kneel in the cool dark hush, heads bent to rugs unfurled like red ribbons on the marble floor. Indonesia is home to the world's largest Muslim community, and thousands come here to Istiqlal, Southeast Asia's biggest mosque.

In its central room, eight massive columns support a dome that rises 12 feet at a 45-degree angle. The design evokes Indonesia's declaration of independence on Aug. 12, 1945, and reflects many Muslims' belief that their faith should play a larger part in national life. But in the basement, drying concrete masks the scars of an April bomb blast, a reminder that a greater Islamic role isn't entirely welcome.

Even so, Islam is set to emerge as a political force next month in the first free election since 1955. But the very nature of Indonesian Islam will ensure this new political power remains moderate. At least 18 of the 48 political parties are Islamic and some will likely be part of the coalition expected to govern the country. Alignments among Muslim parties could give them significant strength. The political mainstream worries that demand for an Islamic state might deepen religious and ethnic divisions, threatening unity. "There are creeping fears of a militant Islamic regime," says James Van Zorge, a Jakarta-based political analyst. "Those fears are unfounded, but the Islamic parties will have influence when it comes to coalition building." Islam imported Trade winds carried Islam to Indonesia's islands some 700 years ago. Imported by Indian and Middle Eastern merchants, it blended with local Hindu, Buddhist, and animist beliefs to create a syncretic faith. By this century, a more orthodox Islam had also taken root, splitting the Muslim community between adherents of the Koran and those who practice a more inclusive Islam. Today, some 90 percent of the country's 210 million citizens are Muslim. Since Indonesians are legally required to choose one of five religions (atheism is not permitted), experts say this artificially boosts the count of Muslims. Still, their numbers are formidable, and though former President Suharto tried to suppress them, Muslim longing for a political voice rings clear at Istiqlal. After prayers, worshipers like Dedy, an animated young hospital worker, step out of the mosque's ritual washing area into a bustling political bazaar. Vendors lining Istiqlal's white walls hawk posters, key chains, pens, and tracts touting the new Islamic parties. "It will be good to have religion in politics," says Dedy, who uses only one name as is common here. "Religion can control politics and the actions of people." This kind of talk makes nationalists nervous. They see Indonesia as a secular state where religion is valued but plays little part in the political system. There are several reasons this won't change, even in the unlikely event an Islamic coalition comes to power.

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