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
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
Even so, Islam is set to emerge as a political force next month
the first free election since 1955. But the very nature of
Indonesian Islam will ensure this new political power remains
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
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."
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
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
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. …