On the eve of a raucous anti-government march to Islamabad in January, billed as a revolution that could draw millions of protesters to the Pakistani capital, former Canadian MP Wajid Khan paid a visit to the fiery protest leader.
Mr. Khan wanted to know what Tahir-ul-Qadri was up to, peppering him with questions as the pair met late at night inside Mr. Qadri’s heavily fortified home in Lahore. It had been years since Mr. Khan had seen the 62-year-old Sufi cleric, who left Pakistan for Canada 14 years ago. Like most political observers, Mr. Khan – once Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s special adviser on South Asia and the Middle East – was surprised that Mr. Qadri had returned to Pakistan just months before a crucial general election in May.
Mr. Qadri had never been a prominent political figure in Pakistan, yet he drew hundreds of thousands of people to a December rally in Lahore. He has led four demonstrations since, in January and February.
“He’s very convincing. He is very passionate and I think that is why all these people came out,” said Mr. Khan, who has been in Pakistan since late November for business and to visit family. “He has a very, very strong following.”
Overnight and seemingly out of nowhere, Mr. Qadri has emerged as a political wild card in Pakistan, but how exactly he came to return with such fanfare is still not entirely clear. His sudden prominence has sparked queries about his motive and his backers. Many remain suspicious, accusing the Pakistani-Canadian scholar of being a front man for a military-backed bid to promote a hand-picked caretaker administration over an elected government – a claim he denies.
“I came here [to Pakistan] for democratic reform … to bring real democracy on track and do enforcement of the constitution and the enforcement of rule of law,” Mr. Qadri told The Globe and Mail in a recent telephone interview from Lahore.
Despite lingering questions about his return, Mr. Qadri’s campaign for electoral and economic reforms has gained traction with many Pakistanis weary of political corruption and poor employment prospects. Thousands of people attended his most recent anti-government demonstration on Feb. 22 in the Punjab city of Multan. It was the Sufi cleric’s third mass gathering since his mid-January Islamabad march. After returning to the Toronto area in late February for medical appointments, Mr. Qadri is now back in Pakistan, planning to lead a large rally on Sunday in Rawalpindi, near the nation’s capital.
He has pledged to make his political intentions clear at the rally. Although he has previously said neither he nor his two sons – one of whom studied economics and political science at York University in Toronto – will run for political office in the election, the political party he founded in 1989, Pakistan Awami Tehreek, could still enter the race. The party did not participate in the 2008 elections.
There was no hint of Mr. Qadri’s Pakistan plans until this past autumn, when he announced his December homecoming in an Oct. 14 video address from Canada. Mr. Qadri told The Globe that a wide range of Pakistanis – from lawyers to human-rights advocates and farmers – began urging him to return in September because they “were looking for social and economic change.”
A long-time scholar, Islamic moderate and advocate of interfaith dialogue, Mr. Qadri gained some stature in the West when he published a 600-page tract against terrorism and suicide bombings in 2010, but for the most part he kept a low profile while living in the Toronto region. He did, however, maintain communications with Pakistan, recording lectures in Urdu for broadcast on television there and addressing members of his international Islamic organization, Minhaj-ul-Quran, through frequent video conferences.
Mr. Qadri had briefly held a political position in Pakistan, serving in the National Assembly from 2002 to 2004 under military leader Pervez Musharraf. He was already a landed immigrant in Canada then, he said, moving to the Toronto area with his wife and five children in 1999, not in 2006 as previously reported. He said he divided his time between the Greater Toronto Area and Pakistan until he quit the assembly and became a Canadian citizen in 2005.
Asked why he resigned, Mr. Qadri said he was disillusioned with the government because it wasn’t tackling important issues, such as strengthening the economy, democracy and international relations. It was also doing little to combat terrorism, he added.