A strategic shift towards extremism

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!

Shouldn’t 86 million Taliban supporters make you lose some sleep?

Talibanisation doesn’t necessarily need a Pashtun Taliban commander to take over

In March, after Juan Cole argued that “a few thousand tribesmen can’t take over a country of 165 million with a large urban middle class that has a highly organized and professional army”, this blog pointed out that “‘Taliban takeover’ does not necessarily mean a regime that places Baitullah Mehsud…in power. It could well place the army chief or even a politician at the helm, leave the civil bureaucracy largely intact, but replace the tattered 1973 constitution with the sharia.”

The International Republican Institute’s public opinion survey, of a “national representative sample of adult residents in Pakistan”, conducted between March 7-30, 2009 support’s this blog’s case. (via The Washington Independent)

The survey suggests that (before the Pakistani army began its offensive against the Taliban in the Malakand region in late April) almost two-thirds of the respondents (72%) supported striking peace deals with the Taliban knowing that such deals with strengthen the Taliban movement. 80% of the respondents supported the government’s deal with the Taliban. That’s not all, 56% the respondents replied in the affirmative when asked if they would support a Taliban support for sharia in other parts of the country, like Karachi, Multan, Quetta or Lahore. Support for the Lashkar-e-Taiba is strong, with 43% viewing it favourably, (46% unfavourably, and 12% didn’t know/didn’t respond). And after the media, it is the army that Pakistanis look up to—with approval ratings back to around 80%.

Sure, surveys are inexact and things might have changed in the last two months, but they suggest that the risk of Talibanisation is not insignificant. Support for the Taliban is by no means unanimous, and the minority which opposes the Taliban might well triumph in the end (see this month’s Pragati) but to assert, like Prof Cole does with certitude, that this risk is overstated is negated by the IRI survey.

What is worse, the Pakistani acquiescence of Talibanisation is supported by its state of denial. If it were not so scary, it would be amusing to note that while a majority of Pakistanis believe that it would indeed be serious if the Taliban/Lashkar-e-Taiba were to mount attacks on India from Pakistani soil, they do not believe that this is already the case. A majority of the respondents believed that the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai were carried out by Indian intelligence, the United States or by unknown third parties—not the Lashkar-e-Taiba (78% did not agree that LET was responsible).

We don’t know what Prof Cole would say to these data. He is yet to comment on it on his blog, although he does cover a December 2008 Gallup poll that suggests nearly half of those surveyed view the Taliban’s influence as negative. The good professor’s comment perhaps, is selective informed.

So if the thought of a few thousand insurgents taking on the behemoth that is the Pakistan army doesn’t keep you awake at night, perhaps the thought that one in two of Pakistan’s 170 million people might support the Taliban’s call for sharia to be made the law of the land certainly should. Not least when they believe that it is India and the United States that do terrorism, not the Taliban and LET.

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7 in 10 Americans think favourably of India

(What happened to the other three?)

Ajay Shah links to a Gallup poll that reveals that India is the fifth most favoured nation among Americans. 69% of respondents rated India favourably. Americans, it seems, reciprocate the love.

via Gallup

Interestingly, overall, 55% of Americans rate China unfavourably. Interestingly, a young Americans are favourably disposed towards the country (60%) while Republicans and older Americans are not (~35%). So it’ll be interesting to see if China becomes more popular over time, or Americans will change their minds once they lose their innocence.