The South Asia Channel

Thinking patterns of Pakistan’s youth

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 Center, support for terrorism among ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

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 Center, 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 also evidence the sagging public backing for the Taliban. In short, the people of Pakistan are concerned about a rise in extremism linked to religion.

But radicalization 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 radicalization, such as Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and Jordan. And that begs the question: what are the factors contributing to such a violent landscape in Pakistan, despite popular opposition to terrorism?

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. Radicalization and terrorism have a cause-and-effect relationship in Pakistan; the challenge of terrorism cannot be overcome without weakening this bond. But understanding of the phenomenon has to be the first step.

Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based research think tank which the author directs, has conducted a number of in-depth studies in order to understand radicalization 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, emphasizes the significance of progressing in a more secular world.

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 percent) believed that suicide bombings were prohibited in Islam. The majority of the respondents (61.7 percent) supported military operations in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). At the same time, these young Pakistanis overwhelmingly considered religion an important factor in their life (92.4 percent), though 51.7 percent said that they do not offer prayers regularly. A similar majority of the respondents (51.3 percent) endorsed the country’s hybrid legal system in which sharia is one, but not the only, source of law. 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 percent endorsing the idea and 42 percent opposing it. A positive indication noted in the survey was that 77.8 percent of male respondents acknowledged that women had the same rights as men, while 95.9 percent stated that women should receive an education and 75.7 percent that they should have the opportunity to work. But most of the respondents’ (65.5 per cent) also thought that women should veil outside their homes.

Most importantly, the study noted that parental, religious and media influences contribute heavily to shaping the socio-cultural, religious and political views of Pakistan’s educated youth. Contrary to the common perception that formal clergy are dominant in religious education, 38 percent of the respondents said that they received basic religious education from their parents and not from a mosque or a madrassa. Another 38 percent relied upon religious books. In conversations with the author, booksellers have confirmed a spike in the sale of religious books in the last few years. And the Islamabad office of the Library of Congress, which keeps track of book sales and publication trends, has noted that the Urdu publishing market in Pakistan "appears to be stable, if not increasing, [and] its target audience appears to be readers in search of ‘Islamic’ life style guidance".

For nine percent of the respondents, the mainstream curriculum was the preferred mode of understanding Islamic teachings, again contrary to common perception.

Yet the survey also provides interesting detail in how Pakistan’s educated youth seek out information, both secular and religious. The survey results further revealed the desire of the majority of the respondents to stay significantly informed. Around 93 percent owned television sets. Additionally, nearly half of the survey population (50.2 percent) relied on Geo News, a private Urdu news channel, for information and only four percent said they watched QTV, a channel that focuses on religious education. Nearly 86 percent of the students said they read newspapers. Most of them named mainstream Urdu broadsheets such as Jang (38.8 percent), Express (19.9 percent) and Nawa-e-Waqt (9 percent). Only a few of the respondents were interested in militant media publications such as daily Islam (2.5 percent) or Zarb-e-Momin (0.6 percent). This despite claims by the groups printing these newspapers that they have greater outreach and circulation than some of the leading publications in the country. 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 Islamists’ narrative. Reports in the mainstream, mainly Urdu media, often glorify the actions of militants and militant organizations 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.

Finally, the survey noted growing religiosity and political awareness among the educated youth. Religion is an issue of identity for them but they seemed confused as to whether it could provide solutions to their daily problems and questions. And a fairly large percentage (19.5) also thought that democracy would not lead to improved governance in the country. The same confusion about the coexistance of religion and democracy was further reflected in society overall, rather than just the educated elite. The key drivers identified for the prevailing confusion were parents, media and religious publications; and could prove instrumental in reversing th

e thinking patterns. It would involve reversing the whole socio-cultural, religious and political thinking discourses. Injustice, inequality, identity crises, state delivery systems for basic services, and a sense of marginalization as individuals or as a society could be discerned as the undercurrents in the prevailing thinking patterns.

The survey findings indicate that state efforts to create a homogeneous society opinion on important issues has failed and ended up confusing the masses. And if the growing gulf between state and society cannot be bridged, this confusion will only grow in the future.

Muhammad Amir Rana is director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) and editor of the quarterly research journal ‘Conflict and Peace Studies.’

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 Center, 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 also evidence the sagging public backing for the Taliban. In short, the people of Pakistan are concerned about a rise in extremism linked to religion.

But radicalization 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 radicalization, such as Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria and Jordan. And that begs the question: what are the factors contributing to such a violent landscape in Pakistan, despite popular opposition to terrorism?

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. Radicalization and terrorism have a cause-and-effect relationship in Pakistan; the challenge of terrorism cannot be overcome without weakening this bond. But understanding of the phenomenon has to be the first step.

Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based research think tank which the author directs, has conducted a number of in-depth studies in order to understand radicalization 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, emphasizes the significance of progressing in a more secular world.

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 percent) believed that suicide bombings were prohibited in Islam. The majority of the respondents (61.7 percent) supported military operations in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). At the same time, these young Pakistanis overwhelmingly considered religion an important factor in their life (92.4 percent), though 51.7 percent said that they do not offer prayers regularly. A similar majority of the respondents (51.3 percent) endorsed the country’s hybrid legal system in which sharia is one, but not the only, source of law. 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 percent endorsing the idea and 42 percent opposing it. A positive indication noted in the survey was that 77.8 percent of male respondents acknowledged that women had the same rights as men, while 95.9 percent stated that women should receive an education and 75.7 percent that they should have the opportunity to work. But most of the respondents’ (65.5 per cent) also thought that women should veil outside their homes.

Most importantly, the study noted that parental, religious and media influences contribute heavily to shaping the socio-cultural, religious and political views of Pakistan’s educated youth. Contrary to the common perception that formal clergy are dominant in religious education, 38 percent of the respondents said that they received basic religious education from their parents and not from a mosque or a madrassa. Another 38 percent relied upon religious books. In conversations with the author, booksellers have confirmed a spike in the sale of religious books in the last few years. And the Islamabad office of the Library of Congress, which keeps track of book sales and publication trends, has noted that the Urdu publishing market in Pakistan "appears to be stable, if not increasing, [and] its target audience appears to be readers in search of ‘Islamic’ life style guidance".

For nine percent of the respondents, the mainstream curriculum was the preferred mode of understanding Islamic teachings, again contrary to common perception.

Yet the survey also provides interesting detail in how Pakistan’s educated youth seek out information, both secular and religious. The survey results further revealed the desire of the majority of the respondents to stay significantly informed. Around 93 percent owned television sets. Additionally, nearly half of the survey population (50.2 percent) relied on Geo News, a private Urdu news channel, for information and only four percent said they watched QTV, a channel that focuses on religious education. Nearly 86 percent of the students said they read newspapers. Most of them named mainstream Urdu broadsheets such as Jang (38.8 percent), Express (19.9 percent) and Nawa-e-Waqt (9 percent). Only a few of the respondents were interested in militant media publications such as daily Islam (2.5 percent) or Zarb-e-Momin (0.6 percent). This despite claims by the groups printing these newspapers that they have greater outreach and circulation than some of the leading publications in the country. 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 Islamists’ narrative. Reports in the mainstream, mainly Urdu media, often glorify the actions of militants and militant organizations 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.

Finally, the survey noted growing religiosity and political awareness among the educated youth. Religion is an issue of identity for them but they seemed confused as to whether it could provide solutions to their daily problems and questions. And a fairly large percentage (19.5) also thought that democracy would not lead to improved governance in the country. The same confusion about the coexistance of religion and democracy was further reflected in society overall, rather than just the educated elite. The key drivers identified for the prevailing confusion were parents, media and religious publications; and could prove instrumental in reversing th
e thinking patterns. It would involve reversing the whole socio-cultural, religious and political thinking discourses. Injustice, inequality, identity crises, state delivery systems for basic services, and a sense of marginalization as individuals or as a society could be discerned as the undercurrents in the prevailing thinking patterns.

The survey findings indicate that state efforts to create a homogeneous society opinion on important issues has failed and ended up confusing the masses. And if the growing gulf between state and society cannot be bridged, this confusion will only grow in the future.

Muhammad Amir Rana is director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) and editor of the quarterly research journal ‘Conflict and Peace Studies.’

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