Pakistan’s seeming indecision over what constitutes a martyr.
National fury has been intense in Pakistan following the drone killing on Nov. 1 of Hakimullah Mehsud, chief of the officially sanctioned Tehreek-e-Taliban. The interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan—faithful defender of the DOA peace talks with the terrorists—led the acerbic anti-U.S. diatribe in Parliament and the press. His rabblerousing resonated with the all-parties consensus, which politicians think is safe populism that yields fresh support in times of weakness. Soon there was a rush to outdo Khan’s gimmicky speech: two powerful clerical leaders, normally busy bad-mouthing each other, jumped into the fray of competing statements.
Jamaat-e-Islami chief Syed Munawar Hasan, a bit of a loose-cannon orator, gilded the lily saying Mehsud was a martyr before Allah because he had died fighting an enemy of Islam. When some remnants of the liberal opinion protested, Hasan’s rival Maulana Fazlur Rehman went a notch above him in demonizing America and said that had the Americans killed a dog instead of the Taliban chief he would have dubbed the dog a martyr. Residual moderates protested, but these days any hyped-up insult targeting America is kosher. Pakistan calmly pocketed the insult of awarding martyrdom to a semiliterate man who had killed thousands of innocents across the country. But then something unexpected happened, an act of personal ambition and spleen not found in ordinary politicians.
Trapped into saying indiscreet things on TV by an anchor, Jamaat chief Hasan then delivered a fatwa-like judgment on the soldiers of the Pakistan Army dying fighting the Taliban and routinely dubbed martyrs in the media. He declared that since the Army was fighting against those fighting the enemy of Allah, they could not be called martyrs. He said he had “doubts about their being martyrs,” and by saying so stepped onto the thin-ice doctrine of martyrdom used by the nation and embraced by the Army to console the families of those whose children give their lives in battle. The media snapped at Hasan for being so blatantly a partisan of the Taliban, who are destroying property and human life in Pakistan.
Sensing that the Jamaat chief was isolated in public, the Army issued a statement through its Inter-Services Public Relations agency condemning his denial of martyrdom to its soldiers, and asking him to explain why he had chosen to hurt the feelings of soldiers under oath to lay down their lives for the country. The ISPR statement said Hasan’s remarks were irresponsible, made for political point-scoring, constituted an insult to the thousands of Pakistani civilians and soldiers killed, and needed to be recanted.
Cable talk shows followed with discussants calling Hasan names that a religious leader has seldom suffered, asking him to apologize or face punishment from a court of law for treason. Political parties lost no time in bifurcating on Martyrgate: the Pakistan Peoples Party, Awami National Party, and Muttahida Qaumi Movement hauled him over the coals and took the opportunity to denigrate the Jamaat as well for having allied itself with dictators in the past against democracy. PPP’s patron-in-chief, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, appealed to the Supreme Court to take notice of Hasan’s statement and try him under Article 6 of the Constitution, which punishes treason with death. The Sindh Assembly passed a fiery resolution demanding an unconditional apology from Hasan amid speeches of extreme harshness.
Caught off guard, the provincial Jamaat boss in Lahore, Dr. Farid Ahmad Piracha, stated that Hasan’s statement on “the status of soldiers killed in the war against terrorism was his personal opinion and not of the party’s.” This internal jolt, which must have upset Hasan, was soon corrected by the Jamaat council giving their own punning response to the statement from the Army: it turned the Army’s reference to “politics” around to accuse the Army of violating its oath of noninterference in politics through the ISPR statement. Secretary-general of the Jamaat, Liaqat Baloch, a moderate who should have taken over after the death of the party’s longest-serving emir, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, was made to deliver the defiant message to the Army. Of course, assertions were made of favoring the past martyrdoms in the Army without correcting the denial of it to those fighting the Taliban.
Cable talk shows had discussants calling Munawar Hasan names a religious leader has seldom suffered.
Hasan had to overcome two handicaps that the party had suffered vis-à-vis the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the recent past, one of them deeply personal. The Jamaat under Qazi Hussain Ahmed had sought to distance itself from the two—at times twinned—entities to make the party more acceptable to the electorate. He had pulled the party in from open collaboration with Al Qaeda and had also sought to “correct” the war of the Taliban by denying them the blessings of jihad by calling it “chaos” when it killed innocent Pakistanis. He was also upset over the validation of suicide through bombings targeting noncombatants but found the going tough because of threat to his own life. He was charismatic, unlike Hasan, who gives the impression of a petulant schoolmaster at best.
Mehsud’s death offered an opportunity to regain lost ground. An important development had been signaled last year. Following the lead of Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mehsud put out a video message declaring Jamaat’s Ahmed “a betrayer of jihad” and a secret member of the Jewish lobby because he favored democracy. Ahmed had stated that his party members had been most adversely affected by the Taliban’s terrorism, which he did not view as jihad. After Mehsud’s suicide squad tried to assassinate Ahmed in Mohmand agency in November 2012, the rattled Jamaat leader blamed the attempt on his life as the “work of the Americans.” He died the following January.
Ahmed had stepped down as emir in 2009 after a record 22 years at the helm of the Jamaat. He had cultivated a moderation that made him politically acceptable in Pakistan and abroad, but not among the affiliates of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The new emir, Hasan—his party still in electoral doldrums after an unimpressive round in power from 2002 to 2007 in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province—needed to perk up the party ideologically and get back in the good books of the Taliban poised to make a “peace” deal to their advantage with the parties in Pakistan’s Parliament. He could match neither Ahmed’s charisma nor his statesmanship, but he could re-empower the party by repairing the cracks that had developed in its relations with Mehsud.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid was prompt in praising what Hasan had achieved: “a return to the teachings of the founder of the Jamaat, Abul Ala Maududi.” This was a reference to the real course-correction with Al Qaeda warriors, who acknowledge the founder of the Jamaat as inspiration for Syed Qutb, the Egyptian prime mover of Al Qaeda.
The Jamaat is not the only party getting ready to greet what is thought to be the dominance of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan. The Deobandi madrassahs and the parties affiliated with them have declared their allegiance to the Taliban—if they are not already part of their terrorist edifice—but the non-Deobandi clergy sees its doom writ large if the Taliban ever come to power even marginally. The Barelvi and the Shia have both condemned Hasan’s canonization of a murderer but the two schools of religious thought hardly matter to him as potential targets of inter-clerical assassinations after the announced debate on martyrdom between them and the Taliban. The sun has arisen on Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) of Maulana Fazlur Rehman as well who has used the hyperbole of equating a dog with a martyr “if killed by America.” Had it not been for the Army, the nation would have tamely accepted what amounts to the death of Pakistan’s already complicated martyrology.
In Christianity, martyrdom is reserved for canonized saints who die not in the battlefield but in cities tortured by infidel tyrants. But in Islam, martyrdom is reserved for those who die “in the way of Allah.” Before the advent of the proxy militias, there was no doubt that the nation-state alone could engage in jihad and whoever died in the battlefield defending the state was a martyr. Today, of course, this application of non-death—“the martyr doesn’t die and indeed lives among us”—has spread to nonstate actors and complicated the concept. Already, “martyr” is loosely applied to big leaders who die unnaturally. Further, almost limitless latitude is allowed by the tradition recorded in Al Bukhari and Muslim hadith collections: “Martyr is one who dies in a plague, the one who dies of a stomach ailment, the one who drowns, the one who is crushed to death, the one who perishes in the path of Allah.”
Pakistan’s long list of political martyrs is contested impolitely according to who you are talking to. The current discussion is marred by the bitterness of this shifting definition. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, hanged by an Islamizing military dictator, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, is referred as a martyr by his PPP. His daughter Benazir, killed by the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine, is also canonized as a martyr on renamed airport terminals and cities; while Haq, killed mysteriously in an air crash, is a martyr in the eyes of those—now dwindling in their numbers—who think he was a soldier of Islam killed by rascally Americans.
Pakistan’s list of political martyrs is contested impolitely according to who you speak to.
Presiding over this proliferation of martyrdom is the Pakistan Army which has muddied the waters further by inducting jihad into its repertoire of cross-border aggression. In May 2012, a seminar on jihad in the capital had Prof. Mushtaq Ahmad of International Islamic University, Islamabad, quoting from the Quran and other Islamic literature to assert that “only the state could wage jihad and no private individual or organization could take on that sacred responsibility.” But where does one place the mujahideen or Pakistan’s nonstate actors who fight proxy wars for the Pakistan Army after training in camps in Mansehra and Pakistan-administered Kashmir? Are they also doing jihad and therefore entitled to martyrdom?
The terrorists, however, regularly produce martyrs in Pakistan. A teenage suicide-bomber, who failed to explode his booby-trapped jacket that would have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in a market in Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province last year, came out of his faint and asked, “Am I in Heaven? And where are the pretty divine girls promised to the martyrs?”
A week after the bitter martyrdom debate unleashed by the top pro-Taliban clerics, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif decided to express the opinion he was reluctant to make public—the Pakistani Taliban under the new leader, Fazlullah, had threatened to target him and his family in the Punjab—by visiting the military martyrs’ memorial together with Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who last year had shocked the national political consensus against “America’s war” by saying that the war against terrorism was Pakistan’s own war. Yet, the Army would not make the necessary tweaks in their India-centric strategy after this ownership of the war mainly because of Kayani’s embrace of populism even at the cost of the country’s internal security.
As Martyrgate heated up, another shock was delivered to a world wary of Pakistan’s romance with terrorism. Nasiruddin Haqqani, a son of Jalaluddin Haqqani who heads the Afghan Taliban network located in North Waziristan, was killed by two gunmen in Islamabad amid rumors that his brother Sirajuddin was also present at the scene of the murder. The media talked about Nasiruddin as a fundraiser for the Haqqani network and that the Haqqanis survived on Pakistani handouts because they targeted Americans across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Mike Mullen, the retiring chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, had spoken angrily against Pakistan’s double game, telling the U.S. Congress in 2011 that the Haqqani network was “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Pakistan itself is a martyr—to a kind of hypernationalism based on hatred of America. Civilian rulers and the Army have used it to unite the nation behind a geostrategy that the Army will not amend given its indoctrination of jihad against India and India’s perceived allies in the region. In his new book, Magnificent Delusions, Husain Haqqani observes: “[ISI chief] Shuja Pasha and the ISI continued to propel hypernationalist sentiment. Pasha once told me that this was one of the few tools Pakistan had for leveraging itself in an asymmetric relationship. Americans often ignored the rumors and misinformation routinely circulated through Pakistan’s media, though sometimes they reacted to point out the absurdity of the tactic.”
Martyrgate has subsided for now. But each new terrorist killing by drones, each new deadly attack on security forces, and each new sectarian flashpoint will revive the debate, which will remain unresolved given Pakistan’s chosen confusion about who its enemies really are.
From our Nov. 29, 2013, issue.