Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has drawn sharp criticism after he called slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden a martyr.
Khan made the comment during a televised session of parliament on June 25 as he described the country’s fraught relations with the United States.
When U.S. special forces raided a hideout in the northern Pakistani city of Abbottabad in 2011 and killed bin Laden, they “martyred him,” Khan said.
In the Muslim world, the word “martyr” is usually reserved as a laudatory term for those who die or are killed in the name of the Islamic faith. It is also widely used for fallen soldiers in Muslim-majority countries.
Khan said in his speech that he felt humiliated and embarrassed when the United States conducted the raid after a 10-year manhunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist.
“After that, the entire world started abusing us. They invaded our land and then criticized us,” Khan said, responding to criticism Pakistan had faced for failing to find bin Laden while he was in the country.
While several Pakistani leaders have criticized the U.S. raid on bin Laden’s hideout as a breach of the country’s sovereignty, this is the first time such a high-profile figure has praised the man behind the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
Pakistan has officially denied knowing bin Laden was in Abbottabad, but some have suggested the country’s intelligence services may have known he was there and were cooperating with the terrorist network as part of its Afghanistan policy.
Khan, who critics sometimes call “Taliban Khan” for his alleged support for militants, faced a backlash from the opposition and social-media users following the comments.
Bin Laden “was a terrorist, and our prime minister called him a martyr. He was behind the massacre of thousands,” said Khawaja Asif, a former foreign minister and senior leader in the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).
Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, the spokesperson for the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), called Khan a “national security threat.”
“If [bin Laden] is a martyr, then what is the status of those civilians and members of our armed forces who embraced martyrdom in the attacks by Al-Qaeda?” he wrote on Instagram.
Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, wrote that Khan’s comments were “not a good look.”
“Imran Khan’s description of Osama Bin Laden as a martyr badly undermines Pakistan’s narrative that it no longer supports terrorists,” he wrote on Twitter.