Martyrs and the law

Published: November 14, 2013
The writer is an adjunct professor at the Howard University School of Law and holds a Juris Doctorate and LLM specialising in international law. He tweets @warishusain

The writer is an adjunct professor at the Howard University School of Law and holds a Juris Doctorate and LLM specialising in international law. He tweets @warishusain

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.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • Parvez
    Nov 14, 2013 - 11:24PM

    As it stands right now this discourse has nothing to do with intellectualism or religion but more to do with the sound-bite effect of slogans on the minds of the simple, frustrated masses, its a ploy to hurt and confuse.
    The pitiable part is that this needs to be strongly countered by the state but does not look as if this will happen. The country will then wait for the next assault…….and the result would be anyones guess.


  • MSS
    Nov 14, 2013 - 11:46PM

    Soldiers join the army being perfectly aware of the dangers involved in their line of duty and get paid by the state for taking that risk. So if they die during an armed conflict they should not be called ‘martyrs’ unless of course they willingly die (sacrifice their life) to protect others (their comrades in arms). Most people join the armed forces for money. The term ‘martyr’ is generally reserved for people who die or suffer for their beliefs whether in religion or some other social cause and are made to suffer torture. To be killed by the enemy in action is NOT martyrdom.
    In Pakistan, this term is used too frequently and does degrade the sacrifice of those who actually deserve to be called ‘martyrs’. I think the term ‘victim’ should gain more currency in Pakistan than ‘Martyr’.
    Finally, going purely by the dictionary definition, regardless of other factors, keeping in mind that he wanted Sharia and believed it to be a just cause, (and I absolutely hate to say it), and encourage a murderer of thousands of innocents be given an honour, Hakeemullah might fall under this definition.


  • Rex Minor
    Nov 15, 2013 - 7:19AM

    The author gives the impression that in his school of law, military operations with drones instead of law are taught. Sir, we are not having a debate here on martyrdom but talking about people who are being killed, whose loved ones were told that they have earned the martyrdom. Now this myth has been challenged and neither the Prime Minister of the country and nor you sir, have any knwledge of the religion. You could look it up in the English dictionary the prerequisite for martrdom. Pakistan Government must now face the truth and ask a very simple question, ” Was it worth fighting the ‘Resistance’ against the war on its own soil?

    Rex Minor


  • Deendayal M.Lulla
    Nov 16, 2013 - 1:58PM

    What about martyrs of judicial excesses,and judicial corruption? No one talks about them.


  • csmann
    Nov 17, 2013 - 1:13PM

    @Rex Minor:
    Martyrs fight the enemy,not the innocent masses.TTP are murderers-nothing less,whatever the apologists for them Sharia becomes shar in the hands of shameless killers,and their supporters.And by your definition,H. Mehsud was also killled by the enemy,so how does he qualify as a martyr,if soldiers don’t by your perverted logic.


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