Pakistan's 'Y' generation is cynical about the country's future. That they would prefer Sharia to democracy points to the failure of its education system to shed its Zia-era shibboleths.

Pakistan is on track to complete the process of democratic transition. This marks the first time a civilian government "has been allowed" to complete its full term and hand over power "peacefully" to another. If not anything else, this surely marks victory for the power of ballots vis-à-vis that of bullets.

However, what I have been contemplating for the past few weeks is not the “process” as much as the “components”, the “players” in the process. Despite having completed six and a half decades of existence, Pakistan still remains a primarily feudal, a fervently religious society, where religious, feudal loyalties play a very important role (replace it with caste and you have a framework to understand Pakistan’s neighbour to the east, a fast-developing economy).

One way to understand how Pakistani society is likely to evolve over the next half-a-decade is to study the preferences of its youth. The Quaid recognised the power of its youth when he said, back in 1947, in a Lahore speech that:

“Pakistan is proud of her youth, particularly the students who have always been in the forefront in the hour of trial and need. You are the nation’s leaders of tomorrow and you must fully equip yourself by discipline, education and training for the arduous task lying ahead of you. You should realise the magnitude of your responsibility and be ready to bear it.”

By various estimates, those in the 18-29 age group comprise over 50 per cent of the country's 180 million population. Looking at things through an electoral prism, 25 million, out of the 85 million adults eligible to vote in the elections that just concluded, were youngsters — about 30 per cent of total. This section has played a decisive role in the elections as the performance of Imran Khan's party and the enthusiasm displayed at polling booths suggests.

So, does high electoral participation signify that Pakistan is likely to develop into a pluralistic society? Is that a likely portent for decimation of Jehadist influence? Recent surveys suggest otherwise.

Three individuals, three scenarios

Sometime in late 2007, a Lahore-based singer, in his mid-twenties, got strongly influenced by the teachings of a Mullah and embraced a conservative version of Islam that made him believe that mauseeki (music) was against his mazhab (religion). This made him give up singing.

In May 2010, a 31-year-old Pakistani-American, son of a Pakistan Air Force officer, tried to bomb New York’s Times Square.

On January 4 2011, a 26-year old, bodyguard by profession, pumped 27 bullets into the body of a leading politician in Islamabad.

The common element in the three incidents: youngsters seeking explanation for the moral dilemma haunting them, finding solace in a distorted, extremist version of religion and becoming tools in the hands of organised extremism in the process. What makes me curious is: Were they completely aware of the moral questions troubling them in the first place? And would they have found answers to their questions in the manifestos of various political parties that took part in these elections?

OK. I have to admit that the first incident is from a film. The protagonist is Sarmad Hussain Khan from Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda ke liye (2007), Though the film ends on a poetically liberal note -- interpreting mauseeki as being fully compatible with mazhab -- many sections of of Pakistani youth do not, perhaps, embrace the director’s take.

The second person is Faizal Shahzad, currently serving life sentence in the ADX Florence prison in Colorado, where the most dangerous of U.S. inmates are held. Throughout his trial, he is said to have shown no remorse, instead being proud of what he did.

Shahzad's Wiki profile says that on being informed of his sentence, he smiled and said Allahu Akbar and added that he would "sacrifice a thousand lives for Allah".

The third is Mumtaz Qadri, the “proud” assassin of ex-Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, whom he “punished” for his defence of a blasphemy law victim. Whether a blasphemy law (just like a sedition law) should find a place in 21st century polity of any country is in itself subject matter for another debate. Qadri, sentenced to death, is a figure of veneration among a section of Pakistani youth, there being even a Facebook profile created to “honour” him.

His profile reads

"Mumtaz Qadri is Our Hero..! This Page Is All About “TEHREEK-E-REHAYI GHAZI MUMTAZ HUSSAIN QADRI Do Join Us For This Great Cause.......

~AB TOOT GIREN GI ZANJEERAIN~♥~ZINDAANON KI KHAIR NAHI~"

It’s clear that the profile is committed to his release. More recently, Jamaat-e-Islami, a politico-religious outfit, urged the President to pardon Qadri. On the other hand, the judge who sentenced him to death had to leave the country to avoid suffering the fate of Taseer. Jamaat is likely to support Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf in the next provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Trends and portents

Two surveys conducted in the recent past, with all respondents belonging to the 'Y' generation, presented a disturbing picture. One, by the Free and Fair Election Network — a coalition of 30 Non-Governmental Organisations established in 2006 to “observe the general elections and mobilise voters” — with a sample size of 4,450, showed that only 48 per cent of the voters in 18-25 category intended to vote, compared to more than 60 per cent in the group 26-35 and more than 80 per cent in 55+.

It is unclear how many of them would have turned out at the polling booths.

Another survey, by the British Council, conducted between December 2012 and January 2013, covering 5,000 young Pakistanis, showed that around 38 per cent of Pakistani youngsters preferred Sharia, while only 29 per cent said yes to democracy. So more than half the population dissatisfied with democracy. A major chunk of this section may have exercised its franchise for the first time or may have chosen to look the other way last weekend.

The most important finding of the survey related to the perception among 94 per cent of the respondents that the country is headed in the "wrong" direction. So, did high turnout at the hustings this time indicate that the pessimism among them has reduced? The answer would be found in the next five years.

Shafi, a young Pakistani told the news agency Inter Press Service (IPS) earlier in the year that he preferred Sharia — not the one imposed by “Taliban” but one that promoted “equity and justice”.

Another respondent, Sharafat felt that Sharia was the closest to his “socialist” values, giving example of Zakat, which prescribes paying a certain proportion of one’s income “tax”, to be utilised for the welfare of the underprivileged.

One possible justification that could be given for this cynicism is anti-incumbency -- this being the first government "allowed" to last its full term by the Establishment. However, does a change of guard necessarily indicate change in the framework in which the society is governed, considering that none of the candidates was above pandering on the grounds of religion in his/her constituency?

Who is to blame?

Though Pervez Hoodbuoy, eminent academic, blamed this attitude on the education policies of the Zia regime, which resulted in the Saudisation of the society, the question is: Why do youngsters hark back to a past which gave birth to the various brother mujahideen groups -- once touted as ‘strategic’ assets, now the biggest security threat? Perhaps they lack enough historical awareness?

Hoodbuoy said that students had “forgotten how to sing, dance, or act –- the fear of having their heads cracked open by violent fundamentalists has worked well”.

Further, even when the government made an attempt to make it pluralistic, it was forced to retreat. Hoodbuoy cited the example of an Urdu language textbook, on which the Punjab government was forced to backtrack, under pressure from the conservative section of Pakistani media, which alleged it “expunged” Islamic teachings. Nawaz Sharif, the next Prime Minister, derives his support primarily from Punjab while his brother Shahbaz Sharif is likely to become the next Chief Minister.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a defence analyst, is quoted as telling Declan Walsh in this piece that courting militant groups could give life to Pakistan’s version of Sinn Fein or Hezbollah, which is a very "dangerous proposition".

The youth see themselves more as ‘Muslims’ than as Pakistanis, Hoodbuoy said. Vilification of the West, thanks in no small measure to the decade-long U.S.-sponsored War on Terror, in which Pakistani Establishment has been a shameless ‘partner-in-crime’, goes hand-in-hand with glorification of the militant. This is explained by this article by writer-commentator Mohsin Hamid:

“At the heart of Pakistan’s troubles is the celebration of the militant…..this deadly figure has been elevated to heroic status: willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, able to win the ultimate victory, selfless, noble.”

However, the other edge of the sword, mentioned in the same article, is lost on the youth: "….as tens of thousands of Pakistanis die at the hands of such heroes, as tens of millions of Pakistanis go about their lives in daily fear of them, a recalibration is being demanded. The need of the hour, of the year, of the generation, is peace”.

To quote another piece: “Pakistan’s youth bulge consists of disgruntled and unhappy young people,” without education and a purpose in life. So, have youth have become part of the problem rather than part of the solution? Or is it about anti-Americanism translating into anti-democracy sentiments?

Secular education the answer?

Meanwhile, this report points to U.S. assistance to educate Pakistani youth. Hazara university Vice-Chancellor says “learning of English language would bring revolution in the relevant people’s life”, indicating that the answer could be found in western education

This analysis by The Hindu’s Pakistan correspondent Anita Joshua proves this far-fetched, if not entirely incorrect.

Quoted in the article is the report of a study called “The Fighters of Lashkar-e-Taiba: Recruitment, Training, Deployment and Death”, having analysis of 900 biographies of Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants killed between 1989 and 2008.

Joshua says that the recruits are “picked young” — 90 per cent joining before they turn 22. Militants’ mean age at the time of death is 21. At least 44 per cent of them have studied upto the tenth grade, more than most Pakistani males. So they are products of secular education and not madrassas, amount of time spent at the madrassas by them being less than three years on average.

So, secular education, though part of the solution is surely not sufficient.

The report's authors are quite pessimistic about the Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) programmes, which, they say, will not weaken LeT’s capability to “recruit, train and deploy" militants.

They say that CVE would have to “undermine” the trust LeT has built in the minds of members of Pakistani society, no less through their humanitarian gestures — they were among the first to offer support following the quake earlier this year. LeT is also supposed to have its patrons in the Establishment. LeT’s and its affiliate Jamat-ud-Da’wah’s (JuD) omnipresence reflects a “degree of tolerance if not outright assistance from the Pakistani state”.

Luxury as a moderating element

Meanwhile, Saudi Kingdom, where the Salafist ideology -- from which these youngsters primarily seek inspiration -- originates, is trying a different approach — that of offering luxury an incentive to wean away militants. The Kingdom offers counselling, spa treatments and exercise, apart from religious instruction, at the workshops conducted by various wings of the Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Counselling and Care, named after the country's Interior Minister.

The facilities offered include: Olympic-size indoor swimming pool, a sauna, a gym and a television hall.

The director of the rehabilitation centres Said al-Bishi, believes that:

“In order to fight terrorism, we must give them an intellectual and psychological balance... through dialogue and persuasion". He adds that a total of 2,336 prisoners have been rehabilitated and less than ten per cent of them have shown a tendency to go back to the “deviant” extremist groups, a result he finds “encouraging”.

Social scientist Khaled al-Dakheel is of a different view. He tells AFP that we need an “enlightened philosophy” not just other “less extreme” Salafist ones. He nails it on the head when he says:

“There must be pluralism and an acknowledgement of the rights of others to be different".

Pluralism, an undesirable element?

One way to arrive at the tolerance quotient of a political leader is by evaluating his stance on various issues concerning the minorities. This piece gives some indication of the plight of Ahmadis, who constitute four million of the country's population. They are banned from "posing as a Muslim", meaning that almost any public act of devotion by them is deemed a criminal offence, attracting death penalty under the country's infamous blasphemy law.

Imran Khan, once accused of courting the Ahmadis, had to issue an apology. He was quoted as telling that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party "totally subscribes to the articles of the constitution concerning Qadianis [a reference considered derogatory by the Ahmedis]".

Heterogeneity, acknowledgement of it, respect and appreciation for it could surely act as an antidote. Is it possible in Pakistan, where percentage of non-Muslims is three per cent and declining -- down from about 23 per cent at the time of its independence?

This piece, written just a few days before the elections, provides the perfect coda for this piece. The youngsters the Guardian correspondent spoke to mentioned 2008 -- the year in which General Pervez Musharraf stepped down and the elected Pakistan Peoples Party-led government took responsibility for governance -- as the fateful year in which their living standards started eroding.

Though many of them have endorse the Western culture, they lament the "vulgarily" associted with Western value system. The blame Indian programmes as equally culpable source of such degradation. The manager of an outlet, Khurram Shahzad (25), is quoted as saying:

"Pakistan was founded on Islam, and our Islamic culture should be protected,".

The Saudisation of their personal value system is exemplifed by the opinion of shop manager: "Saudi is good because when people hear the call to prayer they all leave their shops and go and pray," His uncle works in the kingdom. More than one million Pakistani expats are part of guest workforce there.

In the psychological battle -- taking place in the voters' minds -- between religious conservatism and political corruption on one hand and economic growth and democracy on the other, pluralism as a liberating force becomes a casualty.

A recenly chronicled proile of Nawaz Sharif had this to say: "In Mardan, Sharif promised the crowd he would build a bullet train from Karachi to Peshawar: the train would leave Karachi after the fajr prayer, at dawn, and arrive in Peshawar just in time for the evening isha prayer. He pointedly mentioned that passengers would have to perform only the afternoon prayer inside their cabins. It was a classic Sharif image, blending the promise of economic development with the rhetoric of religion.”

Let’s hope that rhetoric of pluralism also finds its place in the next half-a-decade. Pakistan's 'youth missile' is threatening to go on the ballistic mode. Its politicians need to show some foresight. They can consider Turkey as a model -- where both secularism and Islam find a place in the Constitution -- while embarking on the reform process.