What’s in a Poll? Not Much, if You Ask Kids

By Novar Caine

We are constantly being told that Indonesians, most of whom are Muslim, practice a “moderate” brand of Islam, that they have little time for notions of extremism that have beset the country and are career- and family focused.

There’s about 240 million people in this country, and somewhere around 80 percent of them are Muslim. So if the majority of them are peaceful moderates, that’s reassuring, especially when groups exist, militant or political, that seek to Islamify Indonesia to the extent that its laws are based on sharia, as in Aceh, where so-called morality police patrol to ensure skirts are the right length and legislation has been passed (though not as yet enacted) that permits stoning for offences including adultery.

Does the rest of the vast country wish to have the same level of authoritarian control? No, we are firmly told by people from Java to Bali to Sumatra and in many other parts. It’s a view not upheld by the results of a poll released this week that show Indonesia’s Muslim youth is, in fact, conservative.

The study, carried out by the Indonesian Survey Institute and Goethe Institute, also revealed a peculiarity, in that young Muslims may hold conservative Islamic values but they are not exactly practicing members of their faith.

Less than two-thirds said they did not perform the required five daily prayers, only around 40 percent fasted during the holy month of Rahadhan and just over 10 percent understood the Koran.

The apparent dichotomy appears to suggest these youngsters (aged 15 to 25) tell people – pollsters in this case – what they think they should hear: what their religious-grounded upbringing insists, their conscience tells them, they have to say. All the while themselves turning a blind eye to their faith and getting on with whatever it is they do – Facebooking, cinema-going and generally hanging out, we assume.

The survey found that almost all 1,496 respondents (98 percent) said they did not agree with sex before marriage; nearly everyone (99 percent) condemned homosexuality; and an overwhelming majority (89 percent) said they did not or would not consume alcohol.

The stark disparity in the responses – that they base their opinions in faith while neither practicing that belief nor fully comprehending it – means it cannot be taken as a real weathervane of public opinion. And indeed, with people of such formative age, extracting answers on emotive subjects often results in respondents relying on what they have learned or heard rather than opinions they have actually formed or believe.

The institutions that carried out this survey, last November, should follow it up with a further poll of people double the age – those who have strong personal beliefs and are mature and growingly influential in their respective areas.

A proper slice of public opinion is required to counteract the hysteria too frequently heard from Islamic groups who seek to act in everyone’s interest, when we know the opposite is true. When the Islamic Defenders’ Front trashes bars because it doesn’t like people drinking, and then says it’s doing so to protect the religion of most of their fellow citizens, it is essential to have true data from Indonesians that says otherwise – that they’re not bothered about people having a good time in a bar; that what really troubles them are the actions of a rabid group of hardliners who only end up causing real harm to the country.

And along with that, it would be really useful to conduct a survey among the nation’s religious leaders, from village level right up to national, to gauge their opinions on what radicalism is doing to Indonesia and what – exactly – their stance is.

Surveys can be an important indicator of opinion and mood, but only when, in critical matters, an appropriate sector of the population is asked the questions.

We need to know a lot more about what the adult people of Indonesia are thinking.

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