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Islamic scholar Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri addresses the audience during an Islamic peace conference at Wembley Arena in London, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011. (Akira Suemori/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Islamic scholar Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri addresses the audience during an Islamic peace conference at Wembley Arena in London, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011. (Akira Suemori/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Toronto-area mullah catapults onto Pakistan's stage Add to ...

An unlikely political saviour for Pakistan, Toronto-area cleric Tahir ul Qadri has descended on his native country, promising a Tahrir-Square-style revolution with the strength of a sea of supporters, amid rumours and evidence of powerful backers.

In flowing robes, with a white beard and thunderous talk about sham democracy, the wizard-like mullah – obscure in Canada and famous elsewhere – has catapulted onto the political stage in Pakistan with such sudden force that many are convinced coming elections will now not be allowed to take place.

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Mr. Qadri aims to lead a sea of four million supporters, arriving on Monday to flood the capital, Islamabad, demanding political reforms before any election takes place, to ensure that “criminals” cannot serve in the next Parliament.

He appears to have major funds at his disposal. For weeks, television channels have carried his political advertisements, and his posters and billboards are everywhere. For the Islamabad march, he has hired 50,000 buses to take the protesters there. He wants the honesty and integrity of politicians vetted before they enter politics. A self-described “democratic reformist,” his aim, he said, is “to get rid of electoral dictatorship.”

Unlike Egypt before its revolution, however, Pakistan actually does have an elected government, and fresh polls are due before the summer. But it is a “government that couldn’t deliver anything to the people… a joke,” Mr. Qadri said in an interview. “This is a war for the restoration of constitionality.”

Like Egypt, there is massive frustration with cronyism. “Middle-class people, and those not affiliated with any party, feel a lot of attraction to Mr Qadri’s slogans, like ‘genuine election,’ and ‘no representation without taxation,’” said Moeed Pirzada, a leading political talk-show host on Pakistani television. “The middle-classes are seduced by his message and think he is saying the right thing.”

Yet many in Pakistan accuse Mr. Qadri of being a front for a military-backed plot to postpone the election indefinitely and install an unelected government of “technocrats” hand-picked by the generals. The march on Islamabad could also cause chaos or be the focus of a terrorist attack, creating a possible pretext for not holding the polls. A wave of blasts has scared Pakistan in recent weeks, including a horrific assault this week in the western city of Quetta, in which at least 93 people from the minority Shiite sect were killed in a double bombing at a snooker hall.

The election result is hard to call, with some experts predicting that a coalition led by Asif Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party will return to office, but others forecasting a victory for opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Analysts believe the military has been deeply concerned by the poor governance and economic collapse seen under the current Zardari government, while the men in uniform are even less keen on Mr. Sharif, who was last removed from office by a coup in 1999. That’s why there is so much speculation that the army will impose alternative civilian administration, while stopping short of another period of outright military dictatorship.

Mr. Qadri, who denies any link to the military or foreign powers, comes from the mystical and gentle Sufi branch of Islam. Perhaps most notably, he published a 400-page tract against terrorism and suicide bombing two years ago while in Canada, where he has lived since 2006 and became a Canadian citizen. The U.S. government praised his fatwa against terrorism as a “very important step” in “taking back Islam” from al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.

Father to three daughters and two sons, Mr. Qadri has a small following in Canada, much smaller than that of fundamentalist Islamic clerics. Close to 400 people belong to the Canadian chapter of Minhaj-ul-Quran, founded by Mr. Qadri in the early 1980s in Lahore as a self-described non-political, non-sectarian organization with networks in more than 90 countries.

In Canada, however, it has no permanent gathering space. Events are held at rented banquet halls or at Islamic centres, Mr. Iqbal said.

According to several of his Canadian supporters, Mr. Qadri, 61, had initially been living a “semi-retired” life in the Toronto area, focusing primarily on his health and academic writing and giving occasional lectures after decades of activism in Pakistan.

“He’s mainly kept a low profile [in Toronto],” noted Asad Dean, a Muslim community organizer. “He wanted to focus on his health. He wanted to focus on some of his own academic projects. He wanted to minimize his lectures because there were times where he wasn’t able to speak. He was putting strain on his throat. And also he just wanted to have some time for himself.”

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