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Pakistani scholar returns from Canada to lead demonstrations

Pakistani-Canadian scholar Tahir-ul-Qadri, right, has emerged as a political wild card in Pakistan whose sudden prominence has sparked queries about his motive and his backers. Mian Kursheed/Reuters

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.

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"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.

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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.

"Everything was being decided in the military offices. The government was just a rubber stamp. … It was dysfunctional," he said.

General Musharraf, meanwhile, is orchestrating his own return to Pakistan on March 24 after nearly four years of self-imposed exile in Dubai. After seizing power in a military coup in 1999, he resigned in 2008 amid threats of impeachment. Gen. Musharraf has signalled he plans to run in the election and his camp has hinted at forming an alliance with Mr. Qadri's party. However, it's not clear whether Pakistan Awami Tehreek is interested.

While the mid-January Islamabad protest didn't draw millions, as the Pakistani-Canadian cleric had billed, tens of thousands of people did show in chilly, damp weather. They camped out on the capital's main avenue for four days, leaving only after Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and his Pakistan Peoples Party government agreed to a list of demands. Among them is an agreement to dissolve the National Assembly by March 16, when the government's term ends, and a commitment to ensure the election commission vets all candidates for improprieties. The government also agreed to consult Mr. Qadri's party on who will run the caretaker government, installed during campaign periods in Pakistan.

Mr. Qadri insists there is no link between him and the military. He also maintains he would not support a caretaker government lasting longer than 90 days, the limit under the country's constitution.

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"How can I support any kind of act which is against [the] constitution, against democracy? I can never think of that," he said.

This year's election is a pivotal moment for Pakistan, which has a long history of military coups. A successful campaign would mark the first democratic transition of power for the South Asian nation.

"There is a lot of speculation right now over what Qadri's purpose was, what his continued purpose will be, how he will use his new-found political clout, and, really, who's backing him? Where is his money coming from?" said Shamila Chaudhary, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, a think tank with headquarters in New York.

Despite these uncertainties, Ms. Chaudhary believes the Islamabad rally was positive for Pakistan because, overall, it was free of violence. It also showed that Pakistanis aren't interested in an Egypt-style revolution, she said.

"There is this genuine sentiment on the street of, 'This government hasn't served the people and we're sick of it,' " Ms. Chaudhary said. "But people want a peaceful, democratic transfer of power more than they want overt regime change at whatever cost. That was, I think, the ultimate lesson of this Qadri march."

In a poster advertising Sunday's rally, the thin, white-bearded cleric stands in the foreground with his right hand punching the air, his fingers shaped like a "V" for peace. Behind Mr. Qadri is a sea of people, waving the green-and-white flag of Pakistan.

His anti-corruption and anti-terrorism messages have resonated with many Pakistanis. The country's economy is faltering. Its currency hit a record low in January and it is expected Pakistan will soon need a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, deadly sectarian violence continues to rattle the country.

Mr. Qadri said he wants to stay in Pakistan until he is confident the country's elections are on a solid footing. He plans to eventually return to Canada and dismisses allegations that the RCMP wants to question him about his Canadian status, saying these are lies and part of a smear campaign. (The RCMP would not confirm or deny the report; a Canadian immigration official said she could not comment on Mr. Qadri's status because of privacy policies.)

Not long before Mr. Qadri resurfaced in Pakistan in December, he met with Faheem Bukhari, a Toronto-area mortgage agent. Mr. Bukhari was worried for the cleric's safety. In Pakistan, Mr. Qadri has delivered speeches behind bullet-resistant glass. His 2010 fatwa denouncing suicide bombings and terrorism had angered many Islamic militants.

"Obviously, he's in a lot of danger," said Mr. Bukhari, who first heard the cleric speak about 35 years ago at an Islamic centre in Pakistan.

When Mr. Qadri moved to Canada, Mr. Bukhari encouraged him to play an active role in the Muslim community here. But the cleric told him he wanted to focus on his research and writing, and so Mr. Qadri retreated to a quiet corner of his house, the exact location of which he has kept private.

The Sufi scholar started opening up and giving more talks after he released his fatwa, said Mr. Bukhari, a member of Minhaj-ul-Quran, which operates in more than 90 countries and oversees hundreds of schools in Pakistan.

"If anyone can shake up Pakistan's national conscience, that's him," Mr. Bukhari said. "He is the right person to do it."

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