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Poll: Most Indonesians would prefer to establish Shariah [Why Not?]

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- A majority of Indonesians support establishing Islamic law, but fewer than half want measures such as cutting off the hands of thieves or forcing women to wear traditional Islamic dress, according to a national survey.

Australian polling agency Roy Morgan Research said Tuesday about 52 percent of people questioned between July 2007 and March 2008 favored introducing some form of Islamic law, or Shariah, in their areas.

While most of Indonesia's 200 million Muslims practice a tolerant form of the faith, some groups want to chip away at the sprawling archipelago's secular traditions and reshape it in the image of orthodox Middle Eastern countries.

Shariah, based on the Quran and the life and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, takes several different forms in Muslim countries. It is used mostly as a system of family law in countries such as Egypt and Malaysia, while it governs all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia and Iran, which require head-to-toe clothing for women and chopping off the hands of thieves.

The Indonesia survey did not give the 8,000 participants a definition of Shariah, but follow-up questions sought their opinions about practices in conservative Islamic countries in the Middle East.

When asked if women should have to wear a headscarf, 45 percent of Indonesians answered "yes," while 40 percent said they want thieves to have a hand removed as punishment. Just under a quarter said women should stay at home.

Practicing Indonesian Muslims generally believe their lives should be guided by their faith, but the survey showed some were unaware of the practical implications of strict Islamic law, said pollster Ira Soekirman.

"A lot of people think the idea is very good, but when you start talking of every day implications, the number dropped," she said.

Support for Shariah was virtually the same across age groups and gender, she said.

Although the Indonesian state is secular, conservatives have pushed through Islamic-based laws regulating moral behavior in 50 districts nationwide.

Aceh, the province where Islam arrived in Indonesia from Saudi Arabia centuries ago, enjoys semiautonomy from the central government because of a long-running Islamic insurgency. A version of Islamic law introduced there in 2001 bans gambling, drinking alcohol and makes it compulsory for women to wear headscarves.

The questions were put to people aged 14 or older in dozens of towns and cities across the vast tropical country. Roy Morgan Research has polled roughly 27,000 Indonesians every year since 2004, but it was the first time questions were asked about Shariah, Soekirman said.

The poll had a margin of error of 1.3 percent or less.

The figures were very similar to a survey released in June by the Indonesian Institute for Democracy and Peace, which found that 56 percent of youths in greater Jakarta supported Islamic laws.