August 13, 2009

Pakistani Public Opinion

Growing Concerns about Extremism, Continuing Discontent with U.S.

Overview

Pakistanis see their country in crisis. They give their national government lower ratings than at any time in this decade, and almost no one is satisfied with national conditions. Crime and terrorism are seen as major problems by virtually everyone. And huge percentages of Pakistanis also see their country struggling mightily with corruption and a deteriorating economy.

A long-standing concern about Islamic extremism has grown even greater over the past year. No fewer than 69% of the Pakistanis questioned worry that extremists could take control of the country. At the same time, indifference and mixed opinions about both al Qaeda and the Taliban have given way to a strong condemnation of both groups. In 2008, just 33% held a negative view of the Taliban; today, 70% rate it unfavorably. Similarly, the percentage of Pakistanis with an unfavorable opinion of al Qaeda has jumped from 34% to 61% in the last year.

However, growing concern about Islamic extremism has not resulted in an improved view of the United States. Opinions of America and its people remain extremely negative. Barack Obama’s global popularity is not evident in Pakistan, and America’s image remains as tarnished in that country as it was in the Bush years. Only 22% of Pakistanis think the U.S. takes their interests into account when making foreign policy decisions, essentially unchanged from 21% since 2007. Fully 64% of the public regards the U.S. as an enemy, while only 9% describe it as a partner.

Further, many express serious concerns about the U.S.-led effort to combat terrorism, both globally and in Pakistan specifically. In particular, many who are aware of the drone strikes targeting extremist leaders believe these strikes are causing too many civilian deaths and are being carried out by the U.S. without the consent of the Pakistani government.

However, for all the anti-American sentiment, the new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project also finds an openness to improving relations with the U.S. and considerable support for the idea of working with it to combat terrorism. By a margin of 53% to 29% Pakistanis say it is important that relations between the two countries improve.

Moreover, many endorse U.S. assistance for the Pakistani government in its fight with extremist groups.Nearly three-fourths of those interviewed (72%) would support U.S. financial and humanitarian aid to areas where extremist groups operate. As many as 63% back the idea of the U.S. providing intelligence and logistical support to Pakistani troops who are combating these groups. And after being asked about these forms of cooperation between Pakistan and the U.S., nearly half (47%) then say they would favor U.S. missile strikes against extremist leaders.

It is not surprising that American cooperation with the Pakistani military is popular, given the confidence that Pakistanis have in it. As many as 86% say the military is having a good influence on the country, which is far greater than the number who feel that way about the police (39%), courts (58%), and even religious leaders (64%). Just 36% say the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is having a good impact, although many respondents (41%) do not offer an opinion.

These are the latest findings from the 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey of Pakistan. Face-to-face interviews were conducted with 1,254 adults in Pakistan between May 22 and June 9, 2009. The sample, which is disproportionately urban, includes Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). However, portions of Baluchistan and the NWFP are not included because of instability. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were not surveyed. The area covered by the sample represents approximately 90% of the adult population.1 (Pakistan was surveyed as part of the Spring 2009 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, which included 24 nations and the Palestinian territories. For more findings from this survey, see Confidence in Obama lifts U.S. Image around the World; Most Muslim Publics Not So Easily Moved, released July 23, 2009).

Concerns About India

Long-running concerns about India are also reflected in the poll. The dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir is cited as a major problem facing the country by no fewer than 88%. And growing worries about extremism notwithstanding, more Pakistanis judge India as a very serious threat to the nation (69%) than regard the Taliban (57%) or al Qaeda (41%) as very serious threats. Most Pakistanis see the U.S. as on the wrong side of this issue: by a margin of 54% to 4% the U.S. is seen as favoring India over Pakistan.

While fears about India persist, Pakistanis express overwhelmingly positive opinions about another Asian giant — 84% have a favorable view of China and 80% consider China a partner to their country.

Support for Severe Laws

One of the ironies in the survey is the extent to which Pakistanis embrace some of the severe laws associated with the Taliban and al Qaeda, even as they reject Islamic extremism and these extremist groups. The new poll finds broad support for harsh punishments: 78% favor death for those who leave Islam; 80% favor whippings and cutting off hands for crimes like theft and robbery; and 83% favor stoning adulterers.

Pakistani public opinion departs significantly from the Taliban on the issues of girls’ education and extremist violence. As many as 87% of Pakistanis believe it is equally important for boys and girls to be educated. The poll also finds that support for suicide bombing that targets civilians in defense of Islam remains very low. Only 5% of Pakistani Muslims believe these kinds of attacks can often or sometimes be justified; as recently as 2004 roughly four-in-ten (41%) held this view. Fully 87% now say such attacks can never be justified — the highest percentage among the Muslim publics included in the 2009 survey.

Breaking Down Views Toward the Taliban and Al Qaeda

Analysis of the survey data finds a number of important patterns regarding views of the Taliban and al Qaeda. First, both groups are unpopular across the board. Among all the major subgroups within Pakistani society analyzed in the study, negative views of the Taliban and al Qaeda outweigh positive views.

Second, support for both groups is low even among those who agree with some of the severe punishments endorsed by the Taliban and al Qaeda, such as stoning adulterers, cutting off the hands of thieves, and executing people who leave Islam. Still, those who disagree with these harsh measures are somewhat more likely to express an unfavorable view of both groups. For instance, among Pakistanis who support the death penalty for people who leave Islam, 69% have a negative view of the Taliban, while 77% of those who oppose the death penalty in such cases give the Taliban a negative rating.

Third, education plays a role in views about extremism. Pakistanis with higher levels of education are consistently more likely to reject the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Fourth, the Taliban and al Qaeda tend to be unpopular across regions, including the NWFP, where government forces are currently fighting extremist groups. However, Sindh stands out as the region with the most negative views. For example, 82% in Sindh have a negative opinion of the Taliban, compared with 75% in the NWFP and 67% in Punjab. More than half in Baluchistan do not offer opinions about the Taliban or al Qaeda.

Fifth, and perhaps unsurprisingly, views about the Taliban are linked to the extent to which people believe the country is threatened by extremist groups. Analysis of the data shows that people who think extremist groups may be able to seize control of the country are more likely to voice negative views about the Taliban, which has been engaged in armed-conflict with the Pakistani military.

Also of Note:

  1. For more details, see Survey Methods.