Skip to main content

Pakistani cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, centre, heads to Lahore on June 23 following this week’s fatal raid in Punjab.Anjum Naveed/The Associated Press

Given that a brutal police raid killed at least nine of his supporters and left more than 100 wounded last Tuesday morning in Lahore, you could almost forgive Tahir ul Qadri's unstinting wrath. Talking on the phone from an undisclosed location in the Toronto area, the leader of the Pakistan Awami Tehrik party wonders what happened to some of his followers.

"About 200 workers have been arrested and totally lost," Dr. Qadri said. "Some of them have been shifted to other districts – other cities – and they are being tortured to get some statements from them."

Nearly impossible to interrupt, he reads from the Pakistan constitution, almost article by article, and explains how it is being abused.

Renowned for his 400-page fatwa against terrorism and a semi-successful sit-in last year against endemic corruption, Dr. Qadri is a mercurial contradiction, a Pakistan-style William Lyon Mackenzie. While this renowned Sufi scholar with a network of mosques and religious centres across Pakistan preaches equality and non-violence, his Twitter page refers to revolution. And it uses a phrase that could be borrowed from Orwell or a left-wing college band from the 1990s: "The alternative system will be implemented."

A champion of equal rights and free speech in Pakistan, he steamrolls just about anyone who interviews him. He talks of his humble home office and how he writes and prays at suburban shopping malls around the GTA, but confidence is not an issue: "I am the only religious leader or scholar in the Muslim world who appeared in front of the militants and terrorists and stated that any kind of armed struggle is totally unacceptable in Islam."

Once a marginal political figure, Dr. Qadri is now centre stage with an unshakeable pulpit. Thanks to this week's fatal raid in Punjab, he has the moral upper hand. A front-page fixture for most of the week, he has garnered sympathy from former political rivals, the powerful MQM party and Imran Khan, the former cricketer. Millions saw the wrenching, one-sided violence live on TV. The scholar is due to arrive in the Punjabi capital of Lahore on June 23, an event that will no doubt be dramatic.

Islamabad, which was supposed to be reaping the political benefits of an all-out war on Taliban militants, is now distracted by the repercussions of the attack, which came after the removal of a police barricade and a subsequent protest. The Prime Minister expressed sorrow over the deaths of the PAT activists and promised justice. The government of Punjab, the country's most populous province, is in disarray. Its leader, Shahbaz Sharif, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's brother, has sacked Lahore's police chief, the provincial law minister, and reportedly his own principal secretary. He has ordered the arrest of the police officers involved in shooting the protesters, and called for a judicial inquiry. He vowed to resign if he is found culpable. The police force, however, does not seem to be getting the message. It has registered complaints against 3,000 members of the preacher's party under the charges of terrorism, murder and rioting.

Still, many Pakistanis have long believed Dr. Qadri himself has a dubious agenda. While Dr. Qadri maintains his arrival coincides with the anniversary of the Prime Minister's first year in power, critics claim it is intended to distract the government's anti-Taliban campaign in the tribal regions of South Waziristan. Dr. Qadri's detractors depict him as a double-talking Ayatollah in the offing, or moreso, as a paid provocateur of the military and intelligence services trying to undermine a county that is enjoying its first peaceful democratic transition.

Dr. Qadri says such allegations are typical in Pakistan against those who agitate for change. "I swear by God as a Muslim that if I am telling this wrong or telling lies, may God Almighty Allah deprive me from Paradise and place me in hellfire," he said. "We have never received a single penny in financial assistance from the Pakistan Army or intelligence agencies or any foreign country."

A founder of a system of secular schools in Pakistan, Dr. ul Qadri also rejects the concern that he is a bait-and-switch theocrat. "I am not in favour of theocratic democracy. Theocracy is theocracy. It is a religious dictatorship," he said. "Democracy is just democracy, it belongs to all the people, like Canadian or American or Western democracy, which means equality for all the people."

Another cause for speculation is his party's use of the word "revolution," which, in a country with a martial history, could connote bloodshed. Dr. Qadri said he does not support militancy. "I am one million per cent against military coups," he said. When asked why his Twitter page uses "revolution" – and in conjunction with a call for "an alternative system" – he said it is translated from the Urdu word inquilaab, which can mean revolution or change. And it is more social than violent. "Everyone uses the word inquilaab. In Pakistan, it means change."

Asked why he or his followers don't simply use the English "change," he said that his one-time rival, Mr. Khan, already used the word too much.

In the course of conversation, Dr. Qadri called for equal schooling for girls, the abolition of child labour, free medical care for the poor, and the basic right of Pakistanis to be protected from terrorism. "This is my inquilaab: Men and women equality, Muslim and non-Muslim equality and rich and poor, equality."

Daniel S. Markey, a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations who covers Pakistan and the region, met at length with Dr. Qadri and was impressed with his political knowledge. Conversation was a little lacking. "It's more of a monologue than a dialogue," he said. "It's his vision of the world from start to finish."

Dr. Markey said the implications of real political power are always worrisome. "Many leaders will tell Western journalists how much they love democracy," he explained. "But what could be the consequence of revolution in practical way: A liberal state or disruption that could be very dangerous?"

A father of five, Dr. Qadri has been living in Canada for the past eight years. Under Pakistan's constitution, he is barred from participating in elections because of his dual citizenship.

Dr. Qadri says he lives a very modest, ascetic existence. He says he does not like spending time in his basement office, which he feels is too dim and airless. An author of 500 books, he spends up to 14 hours a day in malls, writing and praying three times a day."The mall people and the shopkeepers are my friends. They are my life," he says. "I am Tim Hortean. I'm not a very rich person, so instead of going to Starbucks, I go to Tim Hortons. Every day."

With a report from Saba Imtiaz in Karachi