Surprises in the Asia Society poll done in June, 2009, of attitudes of Afghans. It was a big poll, with some 6400 respondents from all over the country. It reveals a society increasingly connected by new communications technology, where devotion to democratic values is deepening and commitment to women’s rights is rapidly growing. The stereotype of Afghan traditionalism and rigidity, and the stagnation of a traditional society, is powerfully challenged here.
So too is the idea that Talibanism is coming back as an appealing ideology.
Here are some things I didn’t expect:
Afghans were more optimistic than before about the direction of their country. They also had, in June, a touching confidence that the August presidential election would be carried out in a fair way.
Afghans said in unprecedentedly high numbers that that freedom (54%) and peace (41%) were among the greatest benefits they expected from democracy. They are more realistic, though, that it won’t end corruption and may not lead to prosperity. But it seems that a sense of personal liberty is growing in most of the country, to which people are becoming attached. They also seem to have reached a conclusion that democracy leads to social peace because conflicts are reworked into politics.
On the other hand, they are not sure they have liberty. Some 40% said that people are now free to express their opinions publicly, while 39% disagreed, complaining that speech is restricted. Fewer (29%) cited security concerns as a limit on free speech than ever before (in 2007 it was 40%). One in five specifically name the Taliban as part of that threat to freedom of expression.
Some 61% said it is unacceptable to speak ill of the government, a pretty authoritarian, pro-Karzai stance. But that was down from 69% in 2007.
Some 78% say democracy is the best form of government in 2009 (down slightly from 2008, but still the overwhelming majority). Last summer, 69% said that they were satisfied with how it is working in Afghanistan, unchanged from the previous year.
Half of Afghans believe that illiteracy is the major problem bedeviling Afghan women. There is also growing support for their right to work outside the house. The report says: “over the same period there has been a consistent rise in the proportion of respondents who identify the lack of employment opportunities for women as a significant issue, from two percent in 2006 to 19 percent in 2007, 24 percent in 2008 and 28 percent in 2009.”
A quarter of Afghans now think there are too few jobs outside the home for women up from 2% three years ago! Some 67 percent think women should be allowed to work. (This employment for women outside her own house had been forbidden by the Taliban, even though the country is awash in widows).
Afghans, aside from a small Taliban fringe, strongly support education for women and equal rights for them under the law. Some 87% support equal opportunity for education for both sexes, and 83% favor women continuing to have the right to vote.
On the other hand, Afghans’ enthusiasm for women serving at all levels of political life has declined.
Most get their news from transistor radio, although radio ownership is declining.
A majority of Afghans (52%) now use cell phones–a big increase over previous years.
The ubiquity of cell phones would have implications for political mobilization, since people can now network more easily. We’ve seen it in neghboring Pakistan.
It is clear from these responses that the hard line ideology of the Taliban is rejected by the vast majority of Afghans, for whom it has no appeal. Indeed, openness to new thinking– the importance of personal liberty, freedom of speech, employment opportunities and education for women– has been rapidly increasing.
One rather fears that Karzai’s alleged stealing of the presidential election may have weakened faith in democracy. We’ll know more the next time such a survey is done. One thing is clear: ideas and values are in enormous flux, and the idea of a return of the Taliban to power in a country that thinks like this is highly unlikely.
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