Mercurial philosopher and political agitator Tahir ul Qadri left his home in Greater Toronto this month to begin a dramatic if not outrageous quest. A dual citizen of Canada not even allowed to run for office in Pakistan, he’d engineer democratic reform in his native land and overthrow a prime minister with whom he had close ties decades ago.
His arrival 10 days ago has triggered one dramatic government reaction after another – including a deadly raid on his Lahore compound. In its attempts to diminish him, the Sharif government has given him a front-page lectern to rail against what he sees as a venal government with no democratic authority.
Famous for his fatwa against terror and suicide bombing, the cleric recently likened his onetime friends, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz (the chief minister of Punjab), to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
On Friday, the Sharif government escalated its tension with Dr. ul Qadri by playing the hypocrisy card, alleging that Dr. ul Qadri had long ago been on the payroll of the Sharif family. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, minister Rana Mashood said that Dr. ul Qadri received thousands of dollars’ worth of donations and expenses from 1984 to 1993 for his religious and educational work. The Sharifs, he added, have documentation to prove it. “They took him under their wing and provided him with a monthly stipend and all the travels abroad were taken care of by the family,” said Mr. Mashood. “Even when he was in the U.S.A. receiving [medical] treatment.”
Mr. Mashood did not offer a total sum but instead said that there was “tens of thousands of dollars” involved. At one point, he said, the family was giving Dr. ul Qadri a monthly stipend of around $1,500.
Dr. ul Qadri denies the allegations, saying he has never accepted any offer of assistance from the Sharif family. “They are liars, and this is character assassination,” he said. “I have never taken a penny from the Sharifs for any purpose.”
Islamabad is also investigating Dr. ul Qadri’s finances, alleging that he is documenting his money improperly. “Now he is a billionaire,” said Mr. Mashood. “How can he be a billionaire if he is not doing any business?”
When asked whether the money could have come from supporters, he posed a question: “Are they giving him money to promote his religious duties, his educational duties or his personal use?”
Responding to those allegations, Dr. ul Qadri said: “Never. Ever. Ever.”
Conversations with both sides reveal that the Qadris and Sharifs shared a somewhat profound relationship that soured in the late 1980s or mid-90s. Decades later, the legacy of this feud has had lethal and significant consequences for the country that is, in effect, at war, hoping to flush the Taliban out of South Waziristan.
It is widely believed among some analysts, never proven and hotly denied, that Dr. ul Qadri is supported by either the Pakistani military or its intelligence services. Somewhat paradoxically, the same people believe he arrived at a time to distract the efforts of the military.
The government has been twitchy – if not lethal – toward him and his political party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek. An unrestrained police attack last week on Dr. ul Qadri’s compound left at least 10 dead and 100 wounded.
His flight to Islamabad was diverted to Lahore. Reports said that cell service in both cities was shut down when he arrived.
Judging from Dr. ul Qadri’s recounting of events, he is paying for a dramatic schism between the two families in 1988. Both sides say the Sharif patriarch, industrialist Mian Muhammad Sharif, saw great promise in Dr. ul Qadri in the early eighties and the two clans grew close. “We had an agreement,” said Dr. ul Qadri. “I would never accept any grants from them and the Sharifs would never expect my political support.” Insisting he never took money from the family, he offered various Web links in which the late Mr. Sharif corroborated publicly, in Urdu, that the two did not have a financial relationship.
According to Dr. ul Qadri, the relationship was severed in 1988, when the patriarch came to him in tears, apologizing for breaking their agreement and asking for his political support for his son Nawaz. Dr. ul Qadri thought that the family’s political conduct was corrupt and refused to back them.
Yet Dr. ul Qadri recalled a fond moment. The two families had once travelled to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage, and on the way to the Cave of Hira, about three kilometres from Mecca, his failing health wouldn’t permit him to continue to Jabal al-Nour, the mountain where it is believed that the Prophet Mohammed received his first revelations.
“But Nawaz Sharif,” he said, “put me on his back and carried me.”
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