The Pew Research Center has just released the results of another look at public opinion in Pakistan. The poll answers some questions. It raises others.
“A year ago” Pew reports, “69% [of poll respondents] were very or somewhat worried that extremist groups could take over the country; roughly half (51%) currently feel this way.” Figures for the tiny high-income, well-educated echelon (and Sindhis) average ten points higher, but that still leaves some 30% of those who would surely have much to lose in the unworried column.
What does this mean? Are people complacent because they are increasingly certain that extremist groups won’t succeed in taking over the country? Religious parties have never had much electoral power in Pakistan. Although the Taliban and their allies, perhaps because of this history, prefer bullets to ballots—and have made considerable headway thereby, the Army is now moving against some extremists.
Or do the Pew findings mean that respondents, aside from a percentage of a tiny urban elite, are less worried about what will happen if extremists should succeed in capturing power?
The latter would be consistent with Pew’s findings that most Pakistanis, by far, approve of the harsh punishments prescribed by certain interpretations of Sharia law:
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%).The fact that “support for gender segregation and for severe punishments is pervasive across all demographic and regional groups” came as a surprise to me, especially since the sample excluded inaccessible populations in staunchly conservative Baluch and Pashtun areas. However, this revelation helps to explain why modernizing secularists who attain national power have been unwilling or unable to repeal the Hudud laws or eliminate honor killing.
Unfortunately, the poll included no questions about women’s education, another prime indicator of religious extremism as manifest among the Pakistani Taliban. It would have been interesting to see whether demographic groups converged or diverged on female schooling. I might end up by being surprised (and shocked) again.
Over all, I’m sorry to say, Pew’s latest findings relating to perceived conflict between “modernizers” and “traditionalists” are not as useful as they might have been. Evidently men see more conflict than women do. Does this mean that women, traditional or modern, are more single-minded? Does it imply that women believe themselves capable of being educated, for example, without losing their allegiance to traditional values, even though extremist males might keep them illiterate?
Furthermore, modernization has many aspects, not all of them social. It’s clear that the most backward-looking Islamists have no problem with modernization when it comes to computers, cell phones, weaponry and so on. How do these attitudes feed into the statistics? This poll doesn’t help us.
Given his role in prompting the downfall of Pervez Musharraf, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry’s high approval rating is predictable. There may be another reason for his popularity. Muslim societies exhibit a high regard for justice and civil order, and a brave honest judge is going to be admired. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s courts and police have a less savory reputation overall. They’re corrupt, callous and slow to respond, three reasons why Sharia’s harsh criminal penalties may be so highly regarded. Would the stats be different if the civil system worked better? Those harsh penalties may also be valued for their supposed deterrent value. That’s certainly the case in the U.S., where it’s widely believed that the death penalty deters murder, although statistics prove otherwise.
The Pew data on China and the U.S. reveal an intriguing balance. China is loved as much as the U.S. is hated. I wonder if the high approval rating for China reflects the northern neighbor’s strict real politik —or should I say real economik—approach to international relations. China makes deals that generate the raw materials and petroleum China so desperately needs. China does not—and it would be risible should it do so—make a fuss about human rights and democracy. The U.S., by contrast, mucks around in the most sensitive areas of national life—rights for minorities and women, for instance. Most everyone wants to be rich. Very few people want outsiders to reshape their societies. Result: despite the billions that the U.S. is pouring into Pakistan, America is not much loved.
So long as the right people are doing it, however, social welfare work is needed and appreciated in poverty-studded countries. A terrorist organization like Lashkar-e-Taiba retains its popularity in Pakistan, as the Pew poll indicates, because of its educational and social welfare functions as well as its dedication to Islamization, by book or bullet. Pakistan’s urban elites have consistently neglected social services and education for the urban poor and the rural population. Islamists, by contrast, have done well by doing good. For the same reason, the much reviled (by the West) Hamas and Hezbollah have earned the gratitude of people in Gaza and Lebanon respectively. And when disaster strikes, Islamist welfare organizations generally get into gear before anyone else. The recent earthquake in Kashmir was a case in point. Somewhat later American aid started to pour in, which gave the U.S. a brief rise in popularity, Pew reports.
During the question period that followed the formal presentation of poll data, Pew Research Center President Andy Kohut was asked if America’s unfavorables might be attributed to skillful extremist propagandists outpersuading inept American strategic communicators. Kohut’s answer? It’s not the message. It's the policy, not only in South Asia, where Pakistanis want the U.S. out of Afghanistan, but in the Middle East. U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine is viewed as anything but even-handed.