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!

18 thoughts on “A strategic shift towards extremism”

  1. Ah, and this is the same group that we are trying to build “people to people” contacts with? Surely this means progress!

  2. 1. Please stop making unwarranted assumptions about the “Don’t Know” responses to the LeT question. There is more than one possibility, if you only stop and think about it rather than rush headlong into half-baked analyses.

    2. Second, before you write an entire blog post about the Pew report, do read past the first page, otherwise it’s just a misrepresentation of the issue and I, for one, expected much better from you.

    1. Saif,

      Thanks for commenting. You have a point about the “don’t know” responses, in theory. However, why do a full 30% more Pakistanis surveyed have a negative impression of the Taliban, than of LeT? Surely, this suggests that people do discriminate between jihadi groups. Even otherwise, I have consistently held that those who sit on the fence in the face of extremism end up supporting extremists.

      As for the first page, yes, I’ve read it. Pew analysts are primarily concerned about the answers to the question the US domestic political discourse has framed. Their conclusions, couched as they are in politeness, do not present a flattering picture of Pakistan either.

      1. Yaar yeh bachon waali baatein hain. These are potentially matters of public policy and it is dangerous to not take a multi-dimensional view. The fact is, the average Pakistani discriminates amongst LeT and the Taliban because of one of the following: (a) they have been more affected by the Taliban, ((b) the Taliban are more publicized, or (c) the LeT is a non-actor in the Pakistani socio-political stage. And there could be more options, right? So the fact is: what you are taking to be a “strategic shift towards extremism” is a misrepresentation.

        Let’s look at an analogy: you ask 25 random bloggers what they think about Acorn. 10 say it’s a great blog, 8 say it’s awful. 7 say they don’t know, never really read it. Now, would you write a blog post saying that this one study shows a “strategic shift towards a hatred for Indian blogs”? You wouldn’t. Or if the average Indian, that dude living on under $1.25/day, said they don’t know what they think about the Maoist, would you say that there’s been a “strategic shift towards separatist attitudes”?

        Sure, LeT is a dangerous, armed terrorist group. Acorn isn’t. But you’d be missing the point if you focused on that. The point is that you’re risking grossly misrepresenting an entire people and country from a vantage point.

  3. Moderate and modern are two different things. I guess the moderate havent moved significantly away from theology.

    Its worrying but I think its generally true of silent majorities *everywhere* that they are undecided and that significant percentages of them have sympathy for the *cause* though not the *methods* of the extremists. More worrying than the data itself, is the mention that 55% of the polled were from urban centers.

    Somebody needs to present the positives:

    -Suicide bombing never justified: Percentages holding this view have risen from 35% to 80%
    (tracking maybe an 8:3.5 increase in suicide bombings in Pakistan over this period?)

    – Islam’s major role in Pak politics. Currently, 47% say it has a large role, compared with 63% in 2005.

    I tried to find an India report on the Pew site. this is the closest I could get:


    I wonder what a sample questionnaire to 2000 Indians across our country will throw up, to questions like these, asked to Hindus only of course:

    – equal rights for men and women, dowry
    – caste discrimination
    – honor killings & khaps
    – attitudes towards Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena
    – biggest threat to India: choices are
    – Pakistan
    – China
    – Bajrang Dal
    – Shiv Sena
    – Maoists

    I think we wouldnt do very well. Maybe better than Pak by ~10-15 points on each scale. I myself would consider Pakistan in its current dispensation to be a “bigger” threat to India than the others listed above -if for nothing else, it is beyond our control to do anything much about it while we can and are moving against the internal threats.


    1. Instead of scoring another self-goal regarding your assumptions about Indian opinions, first try to conduct a poll like that. Anyway this post was to make people aware about the terrorist supporting tendencies of Pakistani people who are much loved based on airy and false assumptions only.

  4. The most important aspect of the survey is that the ISI doesn’t have to drive the anti-India agenda anymore. The radicalization of Pakistani society is complete.
    A truly representative Paki government would have the mandate to increase terrorist attacks against India.

    1. I think this is a very pertinent point, which many have missed out on. Some of the findings of the survey, such as on segregation and babrbaric punishments are all in the 80% region. They further coraborate the growing signs of a society which has already been radicalized.

  5. The good terrorist and bad terrorist is not the only dubious distinction that the average Pakistani makes.
    Another distinction is frequently made between the image of Pakistan and the actual deeds of Pakistan. You will frequently read about fixing the international image of Pakistan. You will never come across any suggestion by the Pakistani think tank about actually changing behavior to fix it’s image.

  6. Please stop making unwarranted assumptions about the “Don’t Know” responses to the LeT question. There is more than one possibility, if you only stop and think about it rather than rush headlong into half-baked analyses.

    Defensive much ? Your defense of those who say “Dont Know” clearly depicts the problem that is Pakistan.

    Saif, “dont know” is another way of saying “dont care”. It is a joke to hear the Pakistanis “dont know” what the LeT is and what it does… next thing you know, you will hear that Pakistani’s “dont know” whether the sun rises in the east or the west.

    For all practical purposes people who say dont know are siding with the terrorists in LeT. You either confront Islamic terrorism head on or…. you “dont know”..

    In fairness to Nitin there is no “misrepresentation” here.. you just dont like the facts staring you in the face, Saif.

    1. Right, try to understand this. The average Pakistani – or Indian, if you please – lives on just over $2/day. Try doing that. I don’t know about you but I’ve seen both the real India and the real Pakistan, from the villages of UP to the hills of Kalat. What I’m saying is: the average Pakistani says “Don’t know” because he hasn’t been targeted by the LeT. He says, “Don’t Know” because the LeT isn’t a major actor in the political or social sphere in Pakistan. What it is is a perhaps overhyped entity that is alleged to have abetted in the Mumbai attacks. Now, if what the Indians care about is action, it should look to the perceptions of the Pakistani elite, who do know what the LeT is and who despise it. That said, the average Indian – much like the average Pakistani – does not give two hoots about the LeT, for they worry more about where the next meal is coming from or their chances of survival in an increasingly brutal sociopolitical climate.

      So the fact is, it’s not me who’s not facing up to the facts. I knew the facts much before Acorn put it up. It’s you who’s reading what you want to hear. It’s like asking the average Indian living in absolute poverty what he thinks about the Maoist rebels. Chances are, he’ll say “Don’t Know.” You know what that is tantamount to, right? That he’s a separatist.


      1. Saif,

        If youve read my comments here you will know I’m not in sync with this group here.

        But, when you call the LeT [an] “…overhyped entity that is alleged to have abetted in the Mumbai attacks…”

        and also say you “…knew the facts much before Acorn put it up…”

        you lost me there. Pls read Terror’s Training Ground at PakTeaHouse by Ayesha Siddiqa.

        Agree with the rest of your comment.


  7. @Jai_C
    There are a lot of problems in India as well.. but all these can be resolved within the democratic framework that Indian democracy does provide. If you dont like the Bhajrang Dal, then put up a candidate who opposes them and who truly offers an alternative to them.

    If you think that the horror killings…er.. honor killings shed a bad light about India, then you can do something about it rather just whine on a blog.Granted, there is no guarantee of success but there is something that you can do about it, if you are willing to put the effort and the heart into such deep rooted societal problems.

    What ever you say about the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal, they are not threats to India’s internal stability.Heck, they are not even all that big inside their own home state.

    Besides, they dont have a cult of death idealogy that trains people to commit jihad around the world.

    You are comparing apples to oranges here and i dont see how this is even relevant to the problem that is Pakistan… which is a ticking time bombd fuelled by Islamic fanaticism and threatens not just India, but also the West.

  8. And Obama administration officials want the Pakistani government to continue the “strategic shift” away from militant groups. It’s not happening, Barack!

    Nitin, sad to say this, but why are you so taken in by the words of the US administration ? Their actions reveal their true calculations and whether they give a flying fig about Pakistan’s “strategic shift” or not is out there for every one to see. With what ever i have seen, it looks like they have no problems with Pakistan using terrorism as an instrument of state policy as long as it does not include hitting the US

    On the morning of 9/12 Pakistan was supposed to have been told to do this “strategic shift”. Musharaff went on TV and sadly told the Paki nation that he had to co-operate with the US for reasons of expediency.

    Here we are almost a decade later, and the US is still playing games.All that they want is for the US homeland to be safe and they dont give a damn about how many more terrorist attacks happen in India – just look at what happened after 26/11 – they arm twisted MMS into talking with Pakistan even though we have every reason and right not to do so.

    Look at the blase’ attitude that Obama has displayed after the Wikileaks dump… he goes on to say with audacity that Pakistani perfidy was already known and there is nothing new about it… REally ? Is that why the US continues to give Pakistan military tons of money and weapons ?

  9. I agree with Ahsan Butt thru whose critique I noticed your tweet about “the majority of Pakistanis supporting LeT”. It is incorrect and you would have done well to retract it.

    I think the wishes of the silent lot are unknown. I do think there is a good sizeable number among them who are okay with LeT methods but wont say so on record or poll. Call them comp X.

    There will be others who may disagree with the methods but are okay with the aims whether on Kashmir or on Islamization itself. Call them comp Y.

    These are subsets of the DontKnow 40.

    X likely cannot be detected by any means unless LeT is doing the polling. Y can be found out with more detailed questioning than was in that form.

    As of now we dont know X or Y. Its your gut feel that X+Y+25 is more than 50%.

    It is IMO in the Pakistani national interest to diminish all counts, X, Y, 25. It is not in their interest to not know or try to hide X or Y, or make it appear smaller if they know.

    We cant fix that unfortunately.


    1. You are entitled to your opinion and I to mine.

      I take the view that there is no scope for ambiguity when it comes to terrorism; that data are clear that a large fraction of people who do not support the Taliban say nothing when it comes to the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

      You are welcome to give them the benefit of the doubt. I have no reason to do so.

  10. There are a group of indians who need to be ‘fair’ like they have been trained by the now dead and gone Mr Macaulay – so as to be ‘liberal’ as defined by the west whose acceptance they so desire subconsciously. While I do believe it is good to have a certain amount of such ‘peace mongers’ in your midst to balance out the other extreme, there is little logic or reason in their opinion, other than a lot of cliches and feelings.

    One no longer needs to say how ridiculous it is to compare india and pakistan. It is so self-evident that those who can’t see it have their own issues to address and are not worth having a debate with.

Comments are closed.