JAKARTA, INDONESIA — 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."
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.
For starters, the military, which openly distrusts Islam, will provide a powerful check to Muslim ambitions. Indonesia's tradition of secular nationalism and its religious and ethnic diversity also make change unlikely.
Moreover, most Muslims here practice the traditional, inclusive Islam that embraces diversity. They prefer a system that is "culturally Islamicized but politically pluralistic," says Jakarta political analyst Salim Said.
Traditional Muslims would temper more strident Islamic views in a coalition, but more orthodox Muslims insist their vision of Indonesia is similar. "We're talking about introducing a moral code in politics, but we mean the social aspects of this code, not the religious elements," says Nur Mahmudi Ismail, president of the Justice Party.
"These are basic ethics that are part of your religion too," he says, mentioning respect for life as an example. "I don't think it will be a problem once people understand that."
The political process also encourages moderation. Amien Rais, a popular Islamic leader who leads a party open to all Indonesians, "realized if he wanted to be a national leader he had to expand his horizons beyond Muslims," says Bara Hasibuan, a Christian who heads Mr. Rais's international press department.
Rais's inclusive PAN Party relies heavily on Muslim support, but it has a less Islamic platform than the more orthodox Justice Party. Political analysts say differences like these might prevent Islamic parties from building coalitions or uniting behind a single presidential candidate, diluting their potential power.
That hasn't stopped other parties from aligning with them. Nationalist politician Megawati Sukarnoputri recently teamed up with Rais and another Islamic group to present a "united front" against the ruling Golkar Party.
Golkar recently made President B.J. Habibie its presidential candidate, possibly in a bid to attract an Islamic coalition partner. Mr. Habibie is unpopular because of his ties to Suharto, but he headed an important Islamic intellectual group and many Muslims like him for that.
Wary of violence
The most disturbing challenge to Islamic parties is likely to be religious violence. Earlier this month, rival Muslim groups clashed over the election.
Muslim-Christian violence has ravaged eastern Indonesia since January. And local media recently reported an arrest in the Istiqlal mosque bombing, suggesting a military captain is responsible.
Agus, a young businessman who prays at Istiqlal, attributes most of the violence to provocateurs and other, nonreligious strains.
"Indonesians are tolerant, but with the economic and political troubles, people are tense," he says. He's optimistic Indonesians of all stripes can overcome the violence and recalls the day of the bombing. "We heard the 'boom' at the beginning of afternoon prayers," he says, "but everyone kept on praying."