On its face, it seems absurd to seriously consider the claims by some in Pakistan that the terrorists besieging the country are martyrs, while the nation’s soldiers are traitors. However, the definition of this term goes to the root of the national narrative, and the subsequent public debate, perhaps, shows how disjointed that narrative has become. If the state were to capitalise on this moment, it would require more than mere assertions of its soldiers’ passion and bravery; instead, the situation demands a focus on defining what their jawans are fighting for.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently refuted the claims by Jamaat-i-Islami’s leader Munawwar Hassan, asserting that the nation’s soldiers are indeed martyrs as they have sacrificed their lives for future generations. However, in some deluded minds, the same could be said for terrorists, who wish to deliver a brutal and archaic future for coming generations.
The response to such an argument could be that any functional state vests the monopoly of force with the military and police, and terrorists violate that monopoly by killing and injuring citizens in their quest for control. The state’s monopoly on the use of force is not always positive, as it can be a tool of absolute brutalisation in the hands of some state actors — a la Gadaffi or Assad. This is the argument adopted by Pakistan’s terrorist apologists to legitimise criminal terrorists: deriding the Pakistani state as illegitimate due to its support of America’s war on terror.
However, it becomes harder to assign legitimacy and bestow the honour of martyrdom to criminals, if/when the state represents and respects the rule of law for all its citizens. As such, if the state is breaking from the past to challenge the terrorist apologia of the religious right wing, it will need to present a counter-narrative that legitimises its monopoly on the use of force with its respect for the rule of law.
On the flip side, if the state sets aside the law, it becomes easier to make treasonous claims concerning the martyrdom of terrorists versus soldiers. This is not to say that callous claims deriding deceased Pakistani soldiers as traitors are any more or less true based on pre-set perceptions concerning the state and its international partners.
Yet, when one considers the trial-free executions of the American drone programme, Pakistan and its international partners create an opportunity for perceptions to be swayed by ignorant claims glorifying criminals, when those criminals were summarily killed rather than subject to trials and imprisonment. While a swift death may seem far more satisfying than a trial, prosecution and adherence to the rules of law by the state annihilates the ability of terrorists to gain public sympathy and legitimacy for their extreme views through their death.
This is not to say that military operations in various parts of the country are illegal uses of lethal force by soldiers, as states around the world have legitimately used force to suppress violent insurgencies. However, as the government enters a new era of counterinsurgency by combining military operations with proper prosecutions, it will have great capacity to set the national narrative by valuing its fallen soldiers and policemen as martyrs because they fought to guarantee the rule of law for all Pakistanis.
Concurrently, history has been generous in assigning the label of martyr to civilian activists who died while exercising their civil rights to peacefully challenge injustice by the state. Pakistan is no stranger to these folk. As such, it is not merely the soldiers of Pakistan who deserve the title of martyr, but murdered activists, lawyers, writers and politicians should also be included considering that the objectives of both the groups was the same: to establish a secure and law-abiding future for Pakistan.
If one takes the opinion that anyone killed by America is a martyr, then the word seems to have no meaning as it vests more importance in the sins of the killer than the beliefs and actions of the victim. In the same way, it is not the mere bravery of Pakistan’s deceased soldiers and politicians that makes them martyrs, but what they fought to preserve. If the state wishes to truly stamp out the increasingly erratic narrative of the far right, they will have to do so through actions and rhetoric that promote the rule of law, even when it applies to undeserving terrorist criminals.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 15th, 2013.