The writer is head of research and analysis at the National Counter Terrorism Authority and senior superintendent of police
A recently conducted poll in Pakistan has revealed escalating unpopularity of the Taliban since the inception of the group as a unified movement in 2007. The unpopularity of the Taliban amongst the general public rose from 34 per cent to 81 per cent during the period under review. This finding was coupled with the perception of al Qaeda as an existential threat to Pakistan, in roughly similar proportions to the rising unpopularity of the Taliban in Pakistan. The significant turnaround of perception against the Taliban and al Qaeda is attributed to the short-sighted polices of the Taliban militia, demonstrated in Afghanistan and repeated in Pakistan. They displayed an almost obsessive preoccupation with establishing territorial control and then attempting to impose their violent, intolerant version of Islamism on confounded masses. Whereas in 2007, less than half of the surveyed respondents perceived them as an existential threat to Pakistan, the Taliban’s ‘no-arguments-push-it-down-your-throat’ literalist Islamism alienated a huge chunk of the Pakistani society in a short time. However, even then, it is remarkable how the Taliban managed to be perceived as public enemy number one in just two short years, particularly by their forays in Swat.
Now there is a much greater consensus in Pakistan that the Taliban are the common enemy.
Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center have found a progressively larger number of Pakistani public turning against the suicide bombing tactic as well as Osama bin Laden. Five years back in 2004, 41 per cent of Pakistani Muslims had endorsed the suicide bombing tactic and terrorism as a means to protect religion. This, however, seems to have been a political kneejerk reaction to the endorsement of the Pakistani establishment’s support for the war on terror. When suicide bombings and Taliban inspired terrorism increased significantly over the years, this support shrunk to a bare five per cent in 2008. A simultaneous decrease in support for Bin Laden was also observed, albeit in a less precipitous manner. In 2005, 51 per cent of polled Pakistanis were hopeful for an increased role in world affairs for Bin Laden, as opposed to 34 per cent in 2008.
Pakistanis seem concerned about extremism affecting their lives, with 72 per cent decrying extremism in a survey in 2008, which was the highest response elicited across the board in eight Muslim countries surveyed at the same time. Only a tiny minority of the Pakistani sample population agreed with the Taliban‘s commonly invoked tactic of preventing education for girls. A majority of people in Pakistan supported the government on the issue of eradication of homegrown terror outfits, with 60 per cent surveyed in a Gallup poll holding the view that the government needed to take a tough stance to eliminate terrorism from the country. These findings seem consistent with those reported in a 2006 Pew poll, wherein 74 per cent of surveyed Pakistani respondents expressed concern about the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, which was a higher level of expressed concern as compared to perceptions by respondents in other Muslim countries included in the same survey. The proportions reported for other sampled populations regarding the same question were Jordan (69 per cent), Egypt (68 per cent), Turkey (46 per cent), and Indonesia (43 per cent). These polls are a heartening development which demonstrates that Pakistanis are a resilient nation, which has made a rational decision to shun terrorism and extremism.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2010.