What is young Pakistan thinking?

Published: September 2, 2010
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Students protesting against Facebook clearly showing that they take religion seriously

Most of the people in the country believe that the Taliban and al Qaeda are not doing any service to Islam. Students protesting against Facebook clearly showing that they take religion seriously

It might come as a surprise to those concerned about a growing militancy problem in Pakistan that most of the people in the country believe that the Taliban and al Qaeda are not doing any service to Islam.

According to the findings of a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre, support for terrorism among Pakistanis is much lower compared to other Muslim states. Militants have expanded their targeting of public places and intensified sectarian attacks in the last few years, actions that have fuelled public sentiments against them, and undermined the formerly tacit support for the Taliban in many areas and segments of society. The very strong support for military operations against the Taliban in Swat and elsewhere is evidence of the sagging public backing for the Taliban. In short, the people of Pakistan are concerned about a rise in extremism linked to religion.

Radicalisation is not a simple phenomenon that may be measured simply through support for or disapproval of violent actions. After all, despite the low support for al Qaeda and the Taliban in the country, Pakistan continues to be faced with an unprecedented and devastating wave of terrorism, which far exceeds anything confronting the countries which the Pew survey indicates have undergone a decidedly higher level of radicalisation, such as Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and Jordan. This begs the question: what are the factors contributing to such a violent landscape in Pakistan, despite popular opposition to terrorism?

Disapproving actions but not ideas

For one, a society may be against violence, but not necessarily against the agenda of extremists. The second, and the most important factor is the long-standing presence of militant networks in Pakistan; unlike other Muslim states, there are over 100 militant and Taliban groups and foreign terrorist networks operating in and from the tribal areas of Pakistan. Radicalisation and terrorism have a cause-and-effect relationship in Pakistan; the challenge of terrorism cannot be overcome without weakening this bond. But understanding the phenomenon has to be the first step.

A clash of narratives

Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based research think tank has conducted a number of in-depth studies in order to understand radicalisation in the country. The surveys by PIPS have focused on assessing the patterns of thinking of Pakistan’s youth and mapping their socio-cultural, political and religious views as well as determining the factors shaping their views on national and international matters. The findings of these surveys indicate that the average Pakistani takes their religion seriously without expressing a desire to impose it on other people. Yet the average Pakistani is also caught between two competing narratives; the first one, which is primarily grounded in religion and is now championed by militant groups, pushes a desire to make a certain kind of Islam predominant; the other, often pushed by the government and parts of the media, emphasises the significance of progressing in a more secular world.

What young, moderate Pakistan is thinking

On extremism: According to a recent Pips survey of postgraduate students from 16 public and private universities and postgraduate public colleges across the country, 79.4 percent of the respondents thought that the Pakistani Taliban did not serve the cause of Islam. Most of the respondents (85.6 per cent) believed that suicide bombings were prohibited in Islam. The majority of the respondents (61.7 per cent) supported military operations in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). At the same time, these young Pakistanis, 92.4 per cent, overwhelmingly considered religion an important factor in their life although 51.7 per cent said that they do not offer prayers regularly.

On justice: A similar majority of the respondents (51.3 per cent) endorsed the country’s hybrid legal system in which sharia is one, but not the only, source of law.

On politics: The respondents were almost equally divided on the question of whether religio-political parties should get a chance to rule the country, with 42.6 per cent endorsing the idea and 42 per cent opposing it.

On human rights: A positive indication noted in the survey was that 77.8 per cent of male respondents acknowledged that women had the same rights as men, while 95.9 per cent stated that women should receive an education and 75.7 per cent acknowledged that they should have the opportunity to work. Most respondents (65.5 per cent) also thought that women should wear a veil outside their homes.

On education: Contrary to the common perception that formal clergy are dominant in religious education, 38 per cent of respondents said that they received basic religious education from their parents and not from a mosque or a madrassa. Another 38 per cent relied upon religious books. Booksellers have confirmed a spike in the sale of religious books in the last few years. For nine percent of the respondents, the mainstream curriculum was the preferred mode of understanding Islamic teachings, again contrary to the common perception

On media: Around 93 per cent owned television sets. Additionally, 50.2 per cent relied on Geo News, a private Urdu news channel, for information and only four per cent said they watched QTV, a channel that focuses on religious education. Nearly 86 per cent students said that they read newspapers. Most of them named mainstream Urdu broadsheets such as Jang 38.8 per cent, Express 19.9 per cent and Nawa-e-Waqt 9 per cent. Only a few of the respondents were interested in militant media publications such as daily Islam 2.5 per cent or Zarb-e-Momin 0.6 per cent.

Militant groups’ publications are more popular in religious seminaries and in smaller cities, particularly among the less-educated segments of the population. Some strands of militant discourse can also be seen in the conservative segments of the Pakistani media, which often follows the militants’ narrative. Reports in mainstream, mainly Urdu media, often glorify the actions of militants and militant organisations and refer to militants killed during their operations as ‘martyrs.’ Young people thus remain exposed to radical ideas whether they are active consumers of militant media publications or not.

amir.rana

Amir Rana

Researcher and editor quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

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