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'Martyr bin Laden' and Khan's 'slip of the tongue'

June 26, 2020

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has sparked a big controversy by calling ex al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden a "martyr." DW's Shamil Shams believes it is consistent with the premier's personal and political views.

US President Donald Trump greets Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York City, New York, September 23, 2019
Image: Reuters/J. Ernst

It is not a secret that Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has a soft spot for Islamists, even for those who carry out militant attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He blames the United States for destabilizing the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and justifies the Taliban militancy as a reaction to an imperialist invasion. But calling former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden a "martyr" is a new low even for Khan.

Some people say it was a "slip of the tongue." I'd say it was a "Freudian slip" and revealed his unconscious thought.

In his June 25 parliamentary speech, Khan was supposed to allay opposition's concerns that his government has badly mismanaged the coronavirus crisis in Pakistan. But he tends to digress. In an extensive speech, he spoke about many issues, including the war on terror and how it damaged Pakistan. This has been his political narrative for the past 19 years.

Read more: Pakistan avoids FATF 'black list,' gets stern warning

Pakistan's state narrative

Bin Laden was killed by US forces in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in 2011. Islamabad appeared to have cooperated with then US President Barack Obama in the bin Laden operation. It probably had no other choice but to support it. But the fact that the ex al-Qaida leader had been hiding in the garrison city raised many questions about Pakistan's anti-terrorism support. Let's not forget that Islamabad had received billions of dollars from Washington to go after al-Qaida and the Taliban leadership.

DW's Shamil Shams
DW's Shamil Shams

Pakistan's dubious role in the war on terror has always been a problem for the West, which needs Islamabad's support to manage the crisis but does not have control over the country's foreign and domestic policies. Islamist sympathy runs deep in Pakistan — both at state and societal levels. It is an instrument to stir up anti-India sentiment and keep the military generals in a powerful role.

Khan's close ties with the military are also no secret. Therefore, what Khan said about bin Laden is actually a reflection of the state policy. So let us not just blame the premier for saying something that many in the country's power corridors actually believe in. It is, however, not said openly, and definitely not in parliament.

Read more: Opinion: Imran Khan — one year of stumbling ineptitude

Battle lines

Khan is entitled to his views, of course. If he actually thinks that bin Laden was a "martyr," then he should stick to his opinion. He should make it clear to the US that his government would not cooperate in the war against terror. It is an unnecessary facade — Islamabad has never really cooperated in the war against terror.

Pakistan should also stop playing victim. Khan keeps reminding the world that Pakistan paid a heavy price for participating in the war on terror. Thousands of civilians and soldiers have been killed by militant groups since 2001. If those who killed innocent people are "martyrs," then the premier has no right to talk about his country's "sacrifice."

Read more: Al Qaeda still a threat to South Asia

Dear Prime Minister, the people of Pakistan have indeed suffered immensely due to terrorism. Liberal politicians who took a stand against extremists were killed by militants. You, on the other hand, have maintained friendly ties with the Taliban. You didn't have to pay the price for challenging extremism and militancy.

Lastly, Mr Khan, progressive and secular people will continue to challenge the state narrative and your policies. There wasn't any doubt that you sympathize with Islamists, but now you exposed yourself even more. The fight against extremism will continue in Pakistan. You have made it clear which side you are on by glorifying bin Laden.