crescen-moonOne of the world’s youngest countries, with more than half of its population below 25 years of age, and the world’s 9th largest English speaking nation, has a growing middle class and steadily rising domestic demand.

That’s Pakistan for you – one of Asia’s most strategically located nations, a gateway to northern India, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and western China.

What many might be expecting to read further is perhaps about a flood of FDIs (foreign direct investments) with the world’s largest MNCs pouring in to tap into the country’s working age population.

Instead, what we do have for you is a pool of youth comprising about 36 million between 15-24 years and 58 million individuals below 15 embracing a more radical, religion-driven worldview which, experts say, is tacitly espousing the cause of jihadists and the Taliban.

In a survey conducted by the British Council of 5,271 people between the ages of 18 and 29 from across Pakistan prior to last year’s poll, only 29 percent felt that democracy was the best political system; while 38 advocated Sharia law for Pakistan.

The worrying part is that the imposition of Sharia is also one of the main demands of Pakistan’s deadliest terrorist group in Pakistani – the Taliban or TTP (earlier known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan).

As Madiha Afzal, Assistant Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland & Non-Resident Fellow, Brookings Institution, says, “There is definitely a high degree of religiosity in Pakistan, and it is also correct that many Pakistanis will approve of the imposition of Sharia law if asked – they see it as a basis of good governance and fair principles. Pakistan’s constitution already incorporates many Islamic principles as it is an Islamic republic. But there is not a complete overlap between religiosity and radicalization, although an intersection of religiously-motivated radicalized youth certainly exists.”

In a survey on Pakistani internet users released by Bytes For All – Pakistan, an advocacy organization, regarding online hate speech in Pakistan, 92 percent say they have come across hate speech online, and close to half of the respondent indicate they had been targeted for their religious beliefs.

Here is a sample of one of the hate speeches: “Pakistani media is an agent of CIA and RAW, Shariat ya Shahadat (Shariah or Martydom), Maslak-e-Deoband (Cult of Deoband) and Shias are unbelievers.”

While there is resentment towards the violence carried out by the religious extremist groups, there certainly seems to be a quiet resonance to the ideology.
Religion is a very important component of identity for a Pakistani – where you should be guided by certain principles, which expect you to put values higher than individual aspiration or assertion. Compared to this, democracy that upholds people’s will above caste, creed or religion is a newer idea.

Ironically there’s no example demonstrated to the youth of what democracy can do. Employment is what they care about most. In Pakistan one out of every ten unemployed. The previous government doesn’t seem to credit any phenomenal change with regard to bringing down joblessness. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) in its report predicts Pakistan’s unemployment rate, which was 5.17 percent last year, will remain at 5.29 percent for the next five years primarily due to political unrest.

The country’s educational system remains highly segmented based on socio-economic classes producing inequality in the standards of the talent pool. The madressah or the Islamic seminaries of Pakistan, attended by children from the poorest section of society – constituting the large portion of the youth – focus mostly on religious subjects.

Urdu-medium/vernacular public education accommodates students from the lower to middle economic class, who constitute 60 percent of school-age children. The quality of education is below average here.

Finally, there are the high quality private sector English speaking schools that children of the elites go to, where objectivity and creative thinking are emphasized. These schools keep the entry bar so high that it is affordable and accessible only to the higher layer of the socio economic strata.

As young Pakistanis come out into the job market, they are faced with a public sector that has largely closed fresh recruitment and a private sector – which no doubt has seen tremendous growth with telecoms considered to be the fastest growing sectpr in the world – has set the standard so high that it is impossible for public school students with a poorer education to expect admission.

As the growth stops at a certain smaller layer of the society, the larger part develops resentment against globalization and modernization because they do not see any benefit trickling down to them. This frustration finds solace in radical even extreme ideologies, which are sometimes even present in the education system. For instance, the nation’s unaltered text books – largely reoriented during the 80s – which project Pakistan to be under ‘threat from Hindu India and the anti-Islamic West.’ So there’s a cause they can stand up for and there’s a platform to voice their resentment.

A boy drinks rose syrup as he breaks his fast with others, on the first day of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, at a mosque in Peshawar June 29, 2014

What’s the example they are witnessing from their neighbors? Though considered a reasonably successful democratic system, India is still struggling with stagnating employment rates and slowing economic growth. Added to that there are incidents like Godhra, which many look at as a case where the world’s largest democracy is still not completely above religion.

The West – the so-called custodians of democracy and human rights haven’t really walked the talk. The unmanned aerial drone strikes from the US has killed between 1,953 and 3,279 Pakistanis since 2004 of whom between 18 percent and 23 percent were civilians.

So talk about human rights and democracy falls flat in front of this marginalized set of the population who agree to carry out bombings for just $17 or sell out their voting card for a mere $5.

On the other hand, there’s enough narration from the other side. Right from forums of interaction at religious seminaries to publications and electronic media narrating their causes and the reason they exist.

Publications of the Pakistani Taliban, Balochistan’s separatists, Pakistani and Kashmir-based jihadi groups are easily available at news stalls. According to a study, the number of militant publications in 2013 in Pakistan had exceeded 50, and most of these publications have a minimum circulation of 2,000 to 6,000 per week.

Madressahs not only tacitly support, with their radical religious publications, but also support groupslike TTP in their execution of terrorist attacks. During terror attacks in leading Pakistani cities like Islamabad and Rawalpindi, these religious seminaries have been used for lodging and sheltering.

These are even acting as sources of recruitment for the extremist groups, where students in standards [class] IXth and Xth get trained for Jihad.

The TTP launched its website that hosts videos, a magazine, and its leaders’ interviews and statements, apart from hate speech targeted at the security forces and government, or even images of houses allegedly bombed by the army.
It even went on to set up a Facebook page a couple of years back, which incidentally had 270 likes. The page was later removed by Facebook.

Sikh pilgrims attend a prayer session inside the compound of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s mausoleum in Lahore June 29, 2014 (Reuters / Mohsin Raza)

Ideological alienation
A large portion of the urban upper middle class is also espousing to the more radical, conformist view of religion and way of life. Many have increasingly embraced the doctrines of groups like Hizbut Tahrir and Al Huda.

Al Huda mainly targets upper class women, projecting itself as a means to “bring them back to their religious roots” drawing women towards a more conservative way of life.

Hizbut Tahrir on the other hand, according to this article on Dawn, has been striving to create a niche among the influential elite as part of its top-down approach to realize its objective of introducing a caliphate in the country.

As Afzal points out, “There is also a significant segment who are quite religious and have biased views of their own since the elite schools alone are not good enough to counter other narratives in society, and conservative family backgrounds also play a big role.”

This according to experts is creating a group that is ideologically secluded and even alienated from the larger reality of progress and modernization – a void clearly identified by the religious extremist groups.

Those who want to look forward and have the mettle to speak their minds are increasingly vilified. The case of the Pakistan based music band, Laal, is a good example. The band, whose Facebook pagecommands 400,000 likes, have often spoken out against the Taliban or commented on government moves.

One such comment on the peace talks with the TTP on its page goes like this: “Dear negotiations committee. One cannot solve extremism by accepting the Talibanization of Pakistan,” and “Don’t bow to the Taliban just because they are violent and aggressive. Fight them.” The page was blocked and was opened for access only after attracting huge criticism.

Earlier this year, Raza Rumi, renowned Pakistani TV anchor and journalist, who is vocal in his criticism of the Taliban and sectarian groups, was attacked. As Afzal points out, “The liberal elite does play a role in arguing against existing narratives in the country, but they get crowded out, especially in the face of terrorist threats.”

Pakistan, a nation that has given the world intellectuals like Dr. Abdus Salam the Noble Laureate in Physics, can certainly do better.

The country, already home to over 600 MNCs including Standard Chartered, Barclays, GSK, Toni and Guy, Debenhams and Unilever, is awash with opportunities. It was ranked 110th by the World Bank in its Ease of Doing Business Index, which is higher than Argentina, Brazil and India.

It’s just about opening up to the wider world and embracing its positives. As Afzal concludes, “In my view there is need for thorough rethinking of the way Pakistanis think and are educated – by having them engage in critical and analytical learning and discussions, which will eventually lead to less radicalization and biased thinking.”