The problem with Pakistan’s ‘martyrdom’ culture

Updated August 12, 2016

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We'd rather be assured that we're safe, than be told that we're brave. —AP photo
We'd rather be assured that we're safe, than be told that we're brave. —AP photo

Would it make me less of a patriot to admit that I'd rather live for this country, than die for it?

A nation is bound to run short on tears when terrorist attacks occur, more or less, as a continuum, and not sporadic moments of horror.

J.T. MacCurdy — a Canadian psychologist — carried out a study concerning the psychological health of Londoners at the time of relentless bombings by the German Luftwaffe.

The bombings were expectedly traumatic for people who personally witnessed and barely survived the attacks. On the other hand, the “remote misses” — that is, people who heard the sirens and the explosions, but survived each time by a very safe distance — developed a false sense of invincibility.

To their minds, these tragedies were indigenous to some uniquely unfortunate quarters of Britain, rather than catastrophes that could literally happen to anyone.

We, the “remote misses” of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, may never be able to comprehend the emotions of those who’ve had their loved ones inexplicably ripped away from them.

And we make up for our ignorance, by projecting our own sense of national pride and invincibility upon the bereaved.

A new brand of opium

We portray our “wattan ki maaen”, or nation’s mothers, as iron-women stripped of maternal instinct, taking great pride in raising lambs for slaughter in the interest of some vaguely-defined national agenda; rather than ordinary human beings, like us, who strive to raise well-fed children destined to outlive their parents.



People say I should be proud because my son is a martyr. Would any mother willingly trade places with me so she could feel this ‘pride’?

—Farahnaz, mother of student Uzair Ahmed killed in the APS attack.

This is important, because if we don’t assuage the nation’s outrage with salutes and glorious titles, we may be at risk of musing out loud about how our appointed protectors — those we’ve vested such high hopes in — have failed us.

Widows and orphans make sense of their loved ones’ senseless departures, by permitting themselves to believe that these deaths, somehow, served a bigger purpose. And we’re happy to encourage this ideation, because the alternative provokes inconsolable anger and protest.

Also read: Woman of the year — The Pakistani mother

The result is a state-sponsored shahadat culture; a new brand of opium for the masses.

This is a culture where scars are worn with pride, and few questions are asked about the political policies that enable these injuries. Why would we? It’s an honour to have them.


We're not jawans. We're civilians in grief. We'd rather be assured that we're safe, than be told that we're brave.


The recent attack on Quetta, matched with our proximity to the Independence Day, has provided ample opportunity to showcase this culture.

From the latest tribute by Coke Studio to beloved classics on the radio, we’re once more beset by the same old dirges passed off as national songs.

And this time, this military language doesn’t apply to soldiers patrolling our borders; it applies to ordinary civilians enjoying an evening out in the park, and little children waiting for recess at school.

We're all foot soldiers now; and we're being taught to steel ourselves accordingly.

Explore: The concept of martyrdom

The establishment appears to be embracing extremism and terrorism as an inevitability, and training her citizens to adapt to a new hostile climate, as any brave jawan would.

But we're not jawans. We're civilians in grief.

We'd rather be assured that we're safe, than be told that we're brave.

We'd rather celebrate our longevity, than our ability to tolerate the stench of death all around us.

There’s glory in life, and there’s honour in its preservation. Now that's a thought I'd gladly wave my flag to this coming Independence Day.