The silent majority in Pakistan is not moderate
Move over Wikileaks, the sit-back-and-take-notice piece of information comes from Pew Global Attitudes Project. It’s latest report on attitudes towards extremism shows just how bad the world’s Pakistan problem is.
We are used to hearing the cliche that the majority of Pakistanis are moderate. Well, this is what the survey shows:
Pakistanis overwhelmingly support making segregation of men and women in the workplace the law in their country (85%), and comparable percentages favor instituting harsh punishments such as stoning people who commit adultery (82%), whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery (82%), and the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion (76%). Support for gender segregation and for severe punishments is pervasive across all demographic and regional groups.
Majorities among those who identify with modernizers and among those who side with Islamic fundamentalists in a struggle between the two groups endorse making harsh punishments the law in Pakistan. However, those who identify with fundamentalists are much more likely than those who side with the modernizers to support harsh punishments under the law. For example, 88% of those who say they identify with Islamic fundamentalists favor the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion, compared with 67% of those who side with the modernizers. [PewGlobal emphasis added]
If that’s not bad enough, there’s more: the proportion of people who identify themselves with ‘modernisers’ has decreased from 71% to 63%. As the survey report says “even though Pakistanis largely reject extremist organizations, they embrace some of the severe laws advocated by such groups.”
Almost all Pakistanis say that terrorism is a big problem. They disapprove of terrorist and militant groups that directly or indirectly target Pakistanis. Disapproval ratings for al-Qaeda, ‘The Taliban’ (presumably the Mullah Omar group), Tehrik-i-Taliban (Pakistan Taliban) and Afghan Taliban are 53%, 65%, 51% and 49% respectively. When it comes to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a group that attacks India the disapproval rate falls to 35%. The LeT enjoys higher support too—at 25% it beats al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-i-Taliban who are tied at 18% for the second place.
As many as 40% of the respondents answered “don’t know” or refused to answer to the question whether they viewed the Lashkar-e-Taiba favourably. Even if we accept the the improbable contention that four in ten Pakistanis somehow do not know about the LeT despite its nationwide presence, the fact that such a large proportion of the population is ambivalent about this outfit strengthens the hands of its supporters.
What does all this mean? Well, that the majority of Pakistanis disapprove of extremist groups only to the extent that they cause trouble for and in their own country. When seen in the context of their perception of the threat from India and the salience of the Kashmir issue, their ambivalence towards the LeT is understandable. Also understandable is why neither the Pakistani civilian government nor the Pakistan army will act against the LeT. It supports our argument that there is a limit to which the Pakistani army can genuinely fight jihadi groups—how long can they fight those who share the same vision? In this context, it is not difficult for the military-jihadi complex to engineer events to pursue its own geopolitical agenda.
What is not understandable though is just why anyone—in Washington, New Delhi or even in Pakistan itself—thinks that endogenous change is possible. The United States is deeply unpopular despite all the financial, political and diplomatic support it gives. President Zardari is deeply unpopular despite his perhaps genuine attempts to improve relations with India, which ostensibly, is what three in four Pakistanis say they support. General Kayani and the military are held in high regard, despite their obvious lack of interest in quelling extremist groups and in improving relations with India.
More than averages it is the margins that are important. At the margin, Pakistanis have grown closer and more accommodative of extremism and its practitioners. And Obama administration officials want the Pakistani government to continue the “strategic shift” away from militant groups. It’s not happening, Barack!