POLITICIANS are known to make embarrassing statements, and then row back by saying they were misquoted or that their words were taken out of context. But when a country’s prime minister speaks in parliament, with the eyes of the world on him, there is very little room for error, and words must be weighed carefully.

Speaking in the National Assembly on Thursday during the ongoing budget session, Prime Minister Imran Khan raised many an eyebrow when he referred to slain Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden as a ‘shaheed’ (martyr) just after saying he was “killed” in the 2011 Abbottabad raid. While the opposition in the house quickly pounced on him for making this grave error of judgement, the international media has also run with the story, using the prime minister’s words as a peg.

Two senior members of the cabinet have — going into damage-control mode — referred to Mr Khan’s words as a ‘slip of the tongue’, but perhaps it would be better if the prime minister himself cleared the air.

It should be reiterated that Osama bin Laden’s killing on Pakistani soil by American forces was without doubt an extremely low point in this country’s history. The Saudi militant, who earned his stripes in Afghanistan in the US-sponsored ‘jihad’ against the Soviets, evolved into one of the world’s most dangerous men, overseeing a deadly terrorist network that wreaked havoc around the globe.

Therefore, bestowing the title of martyr upon him is unwise, and will not help to improve Pakistan’s image among the comity of nations. Mr Khan has in the past avoided labelling the late Al Qaeda chief as a terrorist, and his views on militants have often been described as ambiguous. But in the given circumstances, especially with hostile actors looking to make things difficult for Pakistan, the prime minister must send a clear message that Osama bin Laden has done no great service to Pakistan or the Muslim faith, and certainly does not deserve to be called a ‘shaheed’.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2020

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