Introduced by traders around the late 13th century, Islam spread rapidly and gained a foothold in Indonesia. Now, about 90% of the more than 200 million Indonesians embrace the Islamic faith, making it the world's largest Muslim populous country. Aceh, the most northern province in Sumatra, has the largest number of Muslims of any region and has experienced continuing trouble from a separatist movement seeking independence.

But Din Syamsudin, who serves on the board of leadership at the Indonesian Muslim Council of Clerics (MUI), said Aceh is not typical.

?Indonesian Muslims are moderate and tolerant,? he said. ?Religious radicalism is not only within Muslim communities, but (also) in many religious communities in all episodes of history. Radicalism is a product of certain situations, influenced by social, cultural, economic, and even political factors. The radical groups in Indonesian Muslim communities are in the minority.?

Mr. Syamsudin said that because radical groups tend to be active and vocal, media coverage gives a false impression of their numbers and importance. Azyumardi Azra, director of Hidayatullah Institute for Islamic Studies, emphasized this point.

?The majority of Indonesian Muslims are moderate, represented by some largest Muslim organizations, such as Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah,? he said. ?In addition to the two largest organizations, we also have some regional, provincial Muslim mainstream organizations. All of these Muslim organizations are moderate.?

Mr. Azra said radicals must be distinguished from devout Muslims who are not extremist.

?The radicals are limited in number. They do not have any affiliations with the largest Muslim organizations - mainstream Muslim organizations,? Mr. Azra said. ?In fact, they do not have any connections with Muslim political parties. But the problem is that these limited number of radicals or hard-liners are very vocal and militant. They are very active and sometimes they resort to violence.?

While radical groups in Indonesia have few members, they have exploited communal conflicts and staged some violent demonstrations. There have been demands to dissolve them because of the danger they pose to the country. Others argue they should be allowed to exist under strict government control.

Muhamad Ihsan Alief is the author of numerous articles on Islam and democracy. He said Muslim groups, long suppressed under former President Suharto's regime, are enjoying greater freedom since the introduction of political reforms in 1998.

?What is important for us is that we cannot disband them, because to disband them arbitrarily is to repeat Suharto's suppression politics while we in Indonesia now are having new democracy,? he said. However, Mr. Alief said activities by radical or militant groups that border on crimes should be dealt with decisively by police.

?There is a consensus that Indonesia is not an Islamic state despite having a Muslim majority,? he said. ?However, there is a difference of opinion about whether it can be called a secular state. As stated in the preamble to its constitution, the so-called Pancasila (five principles) represent the nation's fundamental philosophy: belief in God, humanity, unity, democracy and social justice.?

According to Djohan Djohermansyah, a lecturer at the Institute of Public Administration, Indonesia is a secular state because Pancasila became part of the constitution and the official national ideology. He said since its birth in 1945, Indonesia has consistently followed policies along secular lines. However, he added, the government recognizes the importance of religion in the life of its citizens.

?Indonesia has a department of religious affairs and promotes religious tolerance. But the state is trying to make some kind of separation between religion and politics,? he said.

Muslim activist Alief maintained that Indonesia is indeed a secular state. He noted that Indonesian Islamic parties have accepted Pancasila as the state ideology. ?Every Muslim can be a good citizen and every citizen can be a good Muslim,? he said. Indonesian Muslims find the rules and laws of the state do not contradict Islamic teachings.

Azyumardi Azra of the Hidayatullah Institute for Islamic Studies had another view.

?Indonesia recognizes the existence of five religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Indonesia is not a secular state in a very strict sense of the term,? Mr. Azra said. ?Therefore, this is the best model for Indonesia because it recognizes the plurality of religions, plurality of ethnic groups, and plurality of religious traditions and beliefs. The fact that Indonesia is a not a secular state makes it hard for the radicals to find good reasons to topple the government or transfer Indonesia into an Islamic state.?

Indeed they have not been able to do so. Even the mainstream Islamic parties have had difficulty attracting members or gaining a substantial vote. Masyumi, once the largest Islamic party, lost in the first general elections held in 1955 to the Nationalist Party (PNI) and the Communist Party (PKI). The secular trend continued when Indonesia held its 1999 election, one year after the ouster of President Suharto. The next election is scheduled for 2004.

Seven Islamic parties, including the United Development Party (PPP), the Moon and Crescent Party (PBB) and the Justice Party (PK) are expected to participate. According to Alaydrus Husein, Vice Chairman of the Al Islamic Welfare Party (PAS), these parties are seeking the implementation of Islamic law (Shariah) for Muslims throughout the country. But they are committed to the democratic process and going through parliament to achieve their goal.

What are their prospects in the upcoming election? Zulkiflimansyah is a ranking member of the Justice Party (PK) and thinks it will do well.

?We are sure that the number of Justice Party voters will increase,? he said. ?If the electorate threshold for the 2004 election is three percent, we are sure that we can pass the limit.?

Mr. Alief said Islamic parties have grown in popularity as Islamic consciousness among the nation's youth has risen. He praised the Justice Party for its strong commitment to ending corruption, which is expected to be a major issue in the upcoming campaign.

?In addition to being a channel for Islamist voters, their reputable commitment for clean government is a necessary control variable to the politicians of the majority secular parties who run the government and are widely perceived as corrupt and self-interested,? he said.

Mr. Alief stressed that while Islamic parties may offer attractive agendas, he doubts they can make a strong showing in the election. Political analyst Djohan Djohermansyah said if history is any guide, it will be extremely difficult for these parties to gain a majority. Furthermore, he says, as democratic reforms continue, more non-Islamic parties are expected to take part in the election, making it even harder for Islamic parties to compete. But, they are far from discouraged and plan a vigorous campaign.