Who supports Islamic militants in Pakistan?

Two new Georgetown Mortara Center working papers written by Christine Fair (Georgetown University), Neil Malhotra (University of Pennsylvania), and Jacob N. Shapiro (Princeton University) address this question using a nationally representative sample of 6,000 Pakistanis. The surprising conclusion appears to be that support is strongest among the middle class and among people that are most supportive of democratic values, although a majority of Pakistanis dislike these militant groups.

The authors measure support for the four main active militants groupings: Al Qa’ida, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban, and the militants fighting in Kashmir. To circumvent the various problems with directly asking people whether they support these organizations, the authors use a clever endorsement experiment. Respondents are asked about their support for five policies. Half of the respondents are randomly assigned to a treatment group, which is informed that the policy is endorsed by a militant group. Support is then essentially the difference between support for the policy among treatment and control group.

The first paper examines poverty as a determinant of support for militants. The authors (including Princeton’s Graeme Blair on this paper) main conclusions are that:

First, Pakistanis exhibit negative affect toward all four militant organizations, with those from areas where groups have conducted the most attacks disliking them the most. Second, contrary to conventional expectations poor Pakistanis dislike militant groups more than middle-class citizens. Third, this dislike is strongest among poor urban residents, suggesting that the negative relationship stems from exposure to the externalities of terrorist attacks.

The second paper finds that Pakistanis who are more favorable towards liberal democracy are also more favorable towards militant groups. The authors ascribe this finding to widespread beliefs among those who favor democracy that Muslim rights and sovereignty are being violated in Kashmir, although the relationship holds for support for all four militant groups.

I guess that Osama Bin Laden made a wise choice when he chose to hide in a middle class suburb.

Update: I was remiss in not linking to Jacob Shapiro and Christine Fair’s earlier published paper on this issue in International Security (ungated version here). That article has essentially the same findings with a less representative sample and a more direct measure of support. The abstract is below:

Islamist militancy in Pakistan has long stood at the top of the international security agenda, yet there is almost no systematic evidence about why individual Pakistanis support Islamist militant organizations. We address this problem by using data from a nationally representative survey of urban Pakistanis to assess the correlates of support for specific militant organizations. Our analysis refutes four influential conventional wisdoms about why Pakistanis supports Islamic militancy. First, there is no clear relationship between poverty and support for militancy. If anything, support for militant organizations is actually increasing in both subjective economic well-being and community economic performance. Second, personal religiosity and support for sharia law are poor predictors of support for Islamist militant organizations. Third, support for political goals espoused by legal Islamist parties is at best a weak indicator of support for militant organizations. Fourth, those who support core democratic principles or have faith in Pakistan’s democratic process are not less supportive of militancy. Taken together, these results suggest that commonly prescribed solutions to Islamist militancy, economic development, democratization, and the like—may be irrelevant at best and might even be counterproductive.

[Cross-posted at the Monkey Cage]

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Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.