Dr. Abdullah F. Alrebh, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Grand Valley State University in Michigan
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan made headlines last month when he said Osama bin Laden had been “martyred” by the United States. Politicians quickly condemned Khan’s statement to further their own agendas. While most media outlets have focused their coverage on Bin Laden’s role as the sinister Al Qaeda chief who masterminded the 9/11 attacks, there has been little analysis on the context in which Khan made that statement.
The main focus of Khan’s June 26 speech, in fact, was not on Bin Laden, but rather the deteriorating relationship between Islamabad and Washington. Khan has been notably frustrated with the U.S. over its lack of respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty over its own territory and its lack of appreciation for its efforts in the war on terrorism. Khan said: “We sided with the U.S. in the War on Terror, but they came here and killed him, martyred him and used abusive language against us, did not inform us, despite the fact that we lost 70,000 people in the war on terror.”
Later in the speech, Khan accused the U.S. of labeling Pakistan as a supporter of terrorism in order to deflect attention from its own failures in Afghanistan. He said: “they [Americans] blamed us for every failure in Afghanistan. They openly held us responsible because they did not succeed in Afghanistan.”
Before holding office, Khan had been accused by his opponents of being “too soft” on the Taliban and even referred to him as “Taliban Khan”. Khan vehemently denies these accusations and went on the record by labeling the Taliban a terrorist group. He stated: “Anyone who kills innocent people are terrorists.”
An unfair alliance
Since becoming prime minister, Khan has made multiple statements regarding his concerns over Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. in the war on terror. He believes the alliance is unfair and does not serve Pakistani interests. Khan particularly took issue when then-US Secretary of Defense James Mattis described Pakistan as a dangerous country because of the “radicalization of its society and availability of nuclear weapons.” Defending Pakistan, Khan explained that his country’s history of radicalization was relatively short and mainly a result of its alliance with the U.S. in the 80’s when it was fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Khan believed that the war served U.S.— not Pakistani — interests. He also pointed out the irony of Mattis’ statement by explaining that before this war, Pakistani society was more tolerant. The U.S. strategy at the time was to arm jihadists in Afghanistan to fight the USSR and, as an ally, Pakistan developed a close relationship with these militants. However, when 9/11 happened Pakistan made a 180-degree turn against those same militants which, according to Khan, was a mistake. He said: “I opposed this from day one”.
Bin Laden was one of these jihadists fighting the USSR, but after the war he built Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Therefore, Khan believes that if anyone should be blamed for the rise of Al-Qaeda, then it should be the U.S. — not anyone else.
Right action, wrong manner
Now that the context has been established, let us now turn to the term ‘martyr’ and why Khan used it. In Islam, a shaheed (martyr) is a venerated term used to describe those killed while defending their faith or honor or those seeking justice. The way the U.S. went about the killing — shooting him in his own house in a secret commando operation without alerting or coordinating with Pakistan — was upsetting to many Pakistanis. Khan believes America turned Bin Laden into a martyr by killing him this way, instead of cooperating with the Muslim Pakistani army or allowing Muslims kill and arrest him.
However, the fact that Bin Laden was killed hiding in his house — not on the battlefield — does not erase his violent history of terror. By using the term martyr, Khan is clearly in the wrong and there can be no justification in referring to him as such. His reputation for tolerating the Taliban and his catering to Islamist voters — including radicals — are all problematic and, quite frankly, worrying trends. While Khan makes some credible arguments in regards to the American role in the radicalization of Pakistani society, this does not justify using flattering terminology to describe a vile and brutal terrorist leader.
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