Radical shift in Pakistan: Islamists' support drops

The Baltimore Sun

Last week's election results in Pakistan give Islamabad's next government the mandate to finally put the terrorists out of business. Violence in Pakistan - mostly driven by Taliban and pro-al-Qaida forces - has not abated since the December assassination of leading opposition candidate and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. But in a potential hinge moment for what Newsweek recently called "the most dangerous nation in the world," Pakistani public opinion has turned suddenly and decisively against the radicals.

Last August, Terror Free Tomorrow conducted a survey across Pakistan showing that one-third to one-half of Pakistanis had a favorable opinion of al-Qaida and related radical Islamist groups. Nearly half of respondents had a positive view of Osama bin Laden.

But now, the momentous events of the past several months - President Pervez Musharraf's crackdown against the press and opposition figures, mounting terrorist attacks by al-Qaida and the Taliban, the assassination of Ms. Bhutto and the campaign leading up to last week's unprecedented election - have resulted in a sea change in Pakistani public opinion.

In a new nationwide survey conducted last month, public support for al-Qaida, the Taliban, bin Laden and other radical Islamist groups has plummeted by half - all the way down to the teens and single digits. The bottom has fallen out for support of the radicals.

If al-Qaida had appeared on the ballot as a political party in the election, only 1 percent of Pakistanis would have voted for it. The Taliban would have drawn just 3 percent.

Even in areas near or in their home base, al-Qaida and the Taliban are losing public support. Favorable opinions of al-Qaida and the Taliban in the North-West Frontier Province have sunk to single digits. In August, 70 percent of the population of this region expressed a favorable opinion of bin Laden. Today, just 4 percent do.

Indeed, these survey results mirror the stinging defeat of the Islamist parties at the hands of the voters in the North-West Frontier Province. The religious parties were big losers there, winning just nine seats in the provincial assembly, compared with 67 in the 2002 elections.

Given the public's drastic turnaround against al-Qaida and the Taliban, particularly in their home base, there is a singular opportunity for a Pakistani government with the support of the people to have the legitimacy to mount an effective campaign against the terrorists.

The public's turn against the radicals was accompanied by an equally stunning move toward Pakistan's moderate, secular political parties. In Terror Free Tomorrow's August survey, only 39 percent backed the principal moderate political parties. In our January pre-election survey, 62 percent said they intended to vote for the moderate political parties in the Feb. 18 elections.

The election results now show that about the same percentage, in fact, voted for the moderate political parties.

The fact is, Pakistan includes a mostly young, sophisticated and upwardly mobile population that aspires to the ideals of democracy and rule of law. If given the opportunity to choose its leaders, there can no longer be any question but it would overwhelmingly elect moderate parties, giving Pakistan a government that finally enjoys the popular legitimacy necessary to mount an effective military campaign against al-Qaida and the Taliban - a legitimacy that Mr. Musharraf so clearly lacks.

Pakistan can still be an ally to the United States in its struggle against al-Qaida and the Taliban, but only if democracy is allowed to flourish.

As Pakistan's moderate parties now consolidate power, they, too, should heed public opinion and remember that there are two mandates from this election. In addition to the widespread support that has swept the moderates to power, the Pakistani public has just as powerfully rejected extremism in all its forms.

Ms. Bhutto gave her life for the belief that a freer, more democratic Pakistan would in and of itself be a better partner to the U.S. in the war on terror - that the people could be the strongest bulwark against the radicals. Pakistan, with a new American policy that supports democracy, development and economic opportunity, can help ensure that her dream did not pass away along with her.

Reza Aslan is Middle East analyst for CBS News and author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam." Kenneth Ballen is president of Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

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