In reading various bloggers' reactions to events in Pakistan, I have noticed that a number of them seem to think that Musharraf is all that stands between us and a nuclear-armed Islamist state. Thus, Don Surber:
"Musharraf is a pro-Western man in the second-largest Muslim country on the planet, after Indonesia. That does not make him too popular. But allowing Pakistan to fall into the hands of a Taliban-like government is far worse."
"One hardly has to regard General Musharraf a saint in order to appreciate that his removal would more likely usher in an era of Sharia and jihad than New-England-town-meeting-style democracy."
And, of course, the inimitable Victor Davis Hanson:
"It would be hard to think of a bigger mess than Pakistan: nuclear; half the population radically Islamic; vast sanctuaries for the architects of 9/11; a virulent anti-Americanism in which aid and military credits are demanded but never appreciated; dictatorship at odds with America’s professed support for Middle-East constitutional government-all the while doing little to hunt down al Qaeda while assuring us that the possible radical alternative, with some reason, is far worse." (Emphasis added.)
For this reason, I thought it might be worth providing some actual facts about support for Islamism in Pakistan. You'll find them below the fold.
The most recent survey I know of is this one (pdf), done last September by the International Republican Institute. (The survey sample included 4009 Pakistanis; the response rate was "just over 90 percent"; the margin of error is 1.58%.)
Here's how the respondents said they would vote if the national assembly elections were held next week:
The main thing you need to know, for present purposes, is that the MMA is the alliance of Islamist parties. (The PPPP is Benazir Bhutto's party; PML-N is Nawaz Sharif's; PML-Q and MQM support Musharraf; PTI is a somewhat left party led by a cricket legend. They are all broadly secular. DK/DR is Don't know/Didn't Respond. Here's a rundown of Pakistan's political parties.)
That's right: Teh Islamist Menace is that little orange line that's stuck at a menacing 5%.
In the same survey (p.6), respondents were asked an open-ended question about what issues they would vote on. A whopping 2% cited Islamization. They were also asked (p. 7) to agree or disagree with the statement: Religious extremism is a serious problem in Pakistan. 74% agreed, 21% disagreed, and 5% didn't know. (The percentage agreeing with that statement was up ten percent from the previous June, probably because of various Islamist attacks, most notably the Lal Masjid attack in July.)
If the IRI survey is to be believed, the MMA has lost support since the 2002 elections, when they got all of 11% of the vote (though they got more seats than that number would indicate, for various reasons unrelated to their actual popularity):
That's from Islam, Militarism, and the 2007–2008 Elections in Pakistan (pdf), a very useful report from the Carnegie Endowment. Joshua Hammer adds:
"Yet despite their clout in parliament and their seeming strength on the street, the Islamists are not widely popular: Their parties won only 11 percent of the vote in the 2002 elections (gerrymandering gave them a share of seats far greater than their numbers). Even in their stronghold, the North-West Frontier Province, they polled only 26 percent. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the MMA’s growth is its abysmal record of governance: In the North-West Frontier Province, which the alliance controls, social services are disintegrating. Unless anti-Western sentiment reaches sustained and unprecedented levels, the Islamists seem highly unlikely to muster enough votes to gain control of parliament in the next decade."
As far as I can tell, the main evidence for the claim that Islamist extremism is a serious electoral threat in Pakistan comes from two surveys cited on the Counterterroism Blog. I'm inclined to discount the first (pdf), a survey from World Public Opinion that shows 60% of Pakistanis answering the question "As compared to current Pakistan law, do you think that Shari’a should play a larger role, a smaller role, or about the same role in Pakistan law as it plays today?" by saying: "A larger role." Absent any evidence of how big a role the respondents think Shari'a plays in Islamic law at present, or how big a role they think it ought to play, it's hard to take this as evidence of Islamist extremism, as opposed to the view that religion ought to play a slightly larger role than it does now.
"I am going to read you a list of possible long-term goals for the government of Pakistan. Please tell me whether you think these goals are very important, somewhat important, somewhat unimportant, or not at all important for the government of Pakistan: implementing strict Sharia law throughout Pakistan?"
41.2% said that implementing strict Shari'a was very important, 34.8% that it was somewhat important, and the remaining 34% said that it was somewhat unimportant, not at all important, or that they didn't know.
This poll seems to contradict the IRI poll, which was taken during the same month, and in which support for Islamist parties was 5% and the number of people who planned to vote on Islamization was 2%. I am not enough of a polling wonk to be able to say which is right, though the IRI survey did have a much larger sample. However, a few thoughts:
First, if we are worried about what would happen if Pakistan held democratic elections, then it seems like a good idea to focus on the support enjoyed by actual political parties. Here the polls are unanimous: none that I'm aware of has Islamist parties enjoying more than the 11% support that they received in the 2002 elections.
Second, the IRI poll asked an open-ended question: one that let respondents come up with their own list of issues of concern to them. The TFT survey, by contrast, asked about a set list of issues. The fact that the respondents to the IRI poll rarely mentioned anything having to do with religion suggests that imposing Shari'a is not a burning concern for them. Moreover, in the TFT survey, "imposing strict Shari'a" was the only option on the TFT's list of "possible long-term goals" asked about that in any way involved Islam. Offhand, I would think that just as the fact that the question was not open-ended might have caused Pakistani's concern with the role of religion in politics to be overstated, the absence of less radical options like "bringing Pakistan somewhat closer to the broad goals of Islam" would have made a lot of people who were vaguely pro-Islam come down in favor of the imposition of strict Shari'a. Both of these factors would have tended to make the level of Islamist sentiment seem considerably greater than it is.
(It's also worth noting that what, exactly, "strict Shari'a" involves is seriously contested in Pakistan. It would be a mistake to read even fervent support for "strict Shari'a" as meaning anything like support for the version of it advanced by, say, the Taliban.)
There are very real dangers confronting Pakistan. Islamist extremists are well entrenched in the Tribal Areas and parts of the Northwest. They are already mounting terrorist attacks throughout the country. Those attacks could further strain Pakistan's already fragile institutions. Any number of very bad things could happen.
But most of those things involve not Pakistanis' exercise of democracy, but the further failure of its national institutions. Anyone who says that we should support dictatorship over democracy should do so not just on the vague grounds that bad things could happen in Pakistan, which is surely true, but on the grounds that democratic elections might actually bring some of those bad things to pass. The most obvious way in which elections might have bad consequences would be if there was widespread support for Islamist political parties in Pakistan.
Maybe there are some other reasons to think that elections would lead to problems in Pakistan. But surely anyone who thinks that Pakistan would be better off with a dictatorship should explain what those problems are. And, if s/he does not want to engage in what I have called "cost analysis", s/he should also explain why the problems that might follow from elections would outweigh those caused by letting Pakistan's constitutional and democratic institutions atrophy under a dictator.