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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 ...

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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