The South Asia Channel

Pakistan in polling vs. Pakistan in practice

Pakistan in polling vs. Pakistan in practice

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, which conducts public opinion surveys around the world, released a new poll on Pakistani perceptions based on face-to-face interviews conducted from April 13 to April 28, 2010. However, the sample size is relatively small — 2,000 Pakistani adults out of a population of 180 million — and admittedly "disproportionately urban." Moreover, while Pew polled people in Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFP), portions of Balochistan and K-P were not included because of instability. Pakistan’s tribal areas (FATA), Gilgit-Baltistan, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir were also not included in the survey, leading me to question how reflective Pew’s poll results are of Pakistan’s entire population.

The results were, for the most part, unsurprising, and paint a grim picture of Pakistani attitudes in the wake of militancy, military operations, a worsening economy, and political instability. For example, an overwhelming number of Pakistanis polled continue to have a negative view of the United States (68 percent), and a majority of Pakistanis (53 percent) see India as the greatest threat to the country, over the Taliban (23 percent) and al-Qaeda (3 percent). Much like last year’s Pew survey, the majority of Pakistanis polled say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country, citing terrorism, crime, and a lack of jobs as very big issues.

Some of the most interesting results relate to attitudes toward religion, law, and society. According to the findings, "Pakistani Muslims overwhelmingly welcome Islamic influence over their country’s politics. Nearly nine-in-ten (88 percent) of those who see Islam playing a large role say that is a good thing." Moreover, many Muslims in Pakistan say there is a struggle between groups that want to modernize their country and Islamic fundamentalists (44 percent), and of those who see a struggle, most identify with the modernizers (61 percent). At the same time though, a solid majority of Pakistanis polled said they would favor making gender segregation in the workplace a law in the country (85 percent), as well as punishments like whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery (82 percent), and stoning people who commit adultery (82 percent).

So what explains this obvious paradox between people who side with modernization but simultaneously support punishments like stoning and flogging? According to Peter Mandaville, professor of Government and Islamic Studies at George Mason University and author of Global Political Islam, this reflects "a mistaken tendency to conflate modernization with the adoption of liberal social and religious values. When many Pakistanis think of "modernizing" their country, they think primarily in terms of economic development and technology — both of which can comfortably coexist alongside conservative religious attitudes."

Although Pakistan has drifted right of center over the last three decades, the aforementioned findings seem to be contradicted by the reality on the ground. Cyril Almeida, an assistant editor and columnist at Dawn, noted that though Pakistani Muslims overwhelmingly welcome an Islamic influence over the country’s politics, citizens continue to "consistently reject religious parties at the polls." The alliance of Islamist parties in Pakistan, the MMA, was trounced at the 2008 polls, managing to win only a miserable 2.2 percent of the vote. Moreover, a rise in public opinion against militancy in 2008 was in part due to a video showing the Taliban flogging a girl in Swat Valley, images that generated outrage in Pakistan. Almeida emphasized, "Pakistanis have certain fairly rigid conceptions of what is religiously permissible and what isn’t. This isn’t to say they will always do what they believe is required of them — but when a survey puts certain questions, they’re more likely to respond to what ought to be than what they do."

The framing of survey questions can help explain contradictory quantitative data. In the case of the results generated in Pew’s Religion, Law, and Society section of the survey, respondents were asked black-and-white questions, like, "Do you favor or oppose making stoning people who commit adultery the law in Pakistan?" According to Moeed Yusuf, a South Asia Advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace, much of the so-called "Muslim World" find it difficult to go against anything seen as ordained by Islam. He added, "At an abstract level, Islam remains important to even the most secular of Muslims — remember Islam is very candid about state and religion being an integrated whole (at least in the classic narrative) and so such questions would elicit such responses."

When faced with a choice between what they are supposed to say and what they actually practice, respondents tend to match abstract questions with equally abstract answers. However, Yusuf noted, "Do they want to be flogged or stoned for the same sin? No way. What about their own family members? Most probably not."

But issues related to such punishments continue unabated in Pakistan (Just last week, media outlets reported that a couple was sentenced to stoning to death for alleged adultery in a tribal court in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa). This suggests that quantitative data cannot capture the nuances and complexities of identity and society. In the case of the Pew opinion survey, the data provides an important snapshot of some Pakistani attitudes, but it is by no means the whole picture. 

Kalsoom Lakhani is director of Social Vision, the strategic philanthropy arm of ML Resources in Washington, D.C. She is from Islamabad, Pakistan, and blogs at CHUP, or Changing Up Pakistan