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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.”

In 2010, Mr. Qadri stopped flying under the radar in the West, releasing in London, England, his 600-page fatwa condemning terrorism and denouncing suicide bombers. As a result, he garnered widespread media attention in North America and Europe.

That same year, Mr. Qadri and his Minhaj-ul-Quran group organized an anti-terrorism camp for Muslim youth in England and a one-day conference on restoring balance in Islam that drew several thousand Muslims to a convention centre in Mississauga. Mr. Qadri told the gathering that it was time to repair the image of Islam, which, he said, has been distorted by violence-seeking radicals.

“Balance and moderation has disappeared and extremism has taken its place,” he said in the address, which has been posted on YouTube. “And this is our responsibility – not only to remove imbalance from our own lives, thoughts and ideas and behaviours, but to remove this misunderstanding from the minds of the people all over the world.”

But not everyone agrees with Mr. Qadri’s tactics. Tahir Gora, a Pakistani-Canadian TV host in Mississauga, is concerned that he is disrupting the country’s fragile democracy. Mr. Gora also dismisses the suggestion Mr. Qadri was in semi-retirement in his early years in Canada.

“He was building his followers. He was doing underground work all the time,” Mr. Gora said. “He was not leading a semi-retired life at all.”

He returned to Pakistan last month to a triumphant rally in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab, the region that traditionally determines Pakistan’s political destiny. Hundreds of thousands attended the rally. Mr. Qadri claimed it was two million people.

Mr. Qadri insisted his coming demonstration will be peaceful and that he will keep his supporters in Islamabad, a small and normally quiet city, until his demands are met.

But in a country plagued by long periods of army rule, Mr. Qadri seems, to many, to be a stalking horse unleashed by the generals at military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Many also believe that he must have support from the West, which has decided to play along with the powerful Pakistani military, in order to ease the exit of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

“It is not Qadri we are worried about,” one senior government official said. “We’re worried about who’s behind him.”

The current five-tenure of the current government, led by the Pakistan Peoples Party, is almost over. Usually governments are toppled before the end of their tenure by coups or military-backed political challenge. If an election takes place, it would be an unpredented transition from one elected government to another.

For that transition to take place, the country’s constitution demands that a neutral caretaker government be appointed for no more than three months to oversee the election. Politicians fear that a pretext will be found to prolong the caretaker regime and the election not held. Mr. Qadri has said that the military should have a say in the composition of the caretaker administration, although under the constitution, the government and the main political opposition party decides on the interim prime minister.

Stung by the questions about his motives, Mr. Qadri insisted that the reforms he is demanding could be implemented within the 90 days. He called for a new procedure, where the Election Commission would “pre-clear” candidates, after checking that they paid taxes, not defaulted on bank loans and so on.

“I just want to put true democracy on track. It is an absolute lie to say that I want to derail democracy,” said Mr. Qadri. “We have a Parliament of defaulters, tax evaders and other criminals. These law-breakers are the law-makers.”

Given Pakistan’s history of short-lived periods of civilian rule, seasoned political observers see a much wider agenda.

Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director at Human Rights Watch, the international campaigning group, said: “It appears that Tahir ul Qadri wants to derail the democratic process and the constitutional order. This would be entirely unacceptable because Pakistan is on the cusp of the first transfer of power from one civilian government to another.”

Last week, the military’s spokesman was forced to deny that it is supporting Mr. Qadri and certainly there is no proof of it. An official in the U.S. embassy here has also denied supporting him.

In Pakistan, religious extremism grabs the headlines, but most of the population broadly follows the non-violent and tolerant Sufi traditions of Islam. It is this deeper, older, vein of Islam in the region that Mr. Qadri is tapping into for his support.

“I interpret Islam in a modern way. I believe in harmony, protection of the rights of non-Muslims and I totally condemn the culture of terrorism. I follow the Sufi traditions of Islam, of peace, brotherhood, kindness, tolerance.”

Asked what similarities there were between him and Pakistan’s other religious clerics in politics, Mr. Qadri pointed to his face and said, “Only my beard.”

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