By Reema Abbasi
Jan 10 2013
Pakistan’s news media is awash with a man of slight frame currently casting a towering shadow on Pakistan’s political landscape, Maulana Tahirul Qadri.
Most find his agenda both suspicious and unclear, replete with contradictory claims: he suggests a Tahrir Square-like uprising in a country that has, despite all upheavals, completed a democratic term; his mission of “electoral reforms” arrives in the presence of an impartial chief election commissioner who can be asked to intervene at any given point and that too without blustering rhetoric or a revolution. Qadri demands a caretaker government in three weeks when it is already poised to take charge in a matter of three months; his idea of delaying elections is swiftly followed by a denial. And last but not least, he raves on about the merits of democracy while soliciting the army’s resistance towards the directives of an elected administration.
As Qadri continues to devour news space, amid denials from both the military and US envoy Richard Hoagland of having any links with him, let’s take a look at the man who, having returned from self-imposed exile in Canada, has created some unease in political circles by drawing huge crowds to his rallies a few months ahead of the polls. His public relations machinery has dubbed his arrival a “revolution”. The jury is still out on that, but the debate is on. To make sense of this debate, his origins must take centrestage.
Qadri started out as a maulvi patronised by the Sharif family. He was stationed at their Ittefaq Masjid in Lahore’s Model Town. As the Sharifs grew in stature and power, more and more people began flocking to Qadri’s Friday sermons. Ever the clever player, he took ample advantage of the spiritual and religious confusion that plagues Pakistan’s masses by adopting a modern route — he injected his addresses with scientific discoveries, such as the theory of reproduction being found in the Quran centuries before it was discovered by biologists. Such gimmicks catapulted Qadri to definitive prominence. On the other end, he was close to Mian Sharif, better known as Abbaji, whose politics was driven by religion (but whose religion did not drive his politics). This forced Qadri to take a somewhat “secular” approach to his preaching.
In 1990, Qadri distanced himself from his patrons as he stood for elections. By then, he had acquired a significant following not just through his khutbas (sermons) but by having them printed into booklets. He thus became the “author” of thousands of booklets with a tremendous and avid readership. Ironically, he failed to secure a single seat, despite the fact that he had pulled off massive public rallies.
But defeat didn’t quell ambition. By the mid-1990s, the cleric began issuing statements that betrayed deep-seated delusions of grandeur — he spoke of dreams where Prophet Mohammad had entrusted him with the task of spreading the message in the Quran, provided the blueprint for this project and had also coined its name. Qadri unabashedly denied making these claims in an interview with a leading channel this week. “Mera sar qalam kar kay le jaaye jis kay paas proof hai (whoever has proof against me, can sever my head),” he yelled.
In 2002, allegedly backed by the army, Qadri attempted another foray into mainstream politics as a candidate of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek. He contested from three constituencies — Gujar Khan, Jhang and Lahore — and arrived in parliament on a single ticket from Lahore. Alienated as a maverick lone ranger in the Upper House, he abandoned his political aspirations to return to his highly expensive, donation-oriented madarsa network that arrived on the scene in the post 9/11 chaos. The Idara-e-Minhaj-ul-Quran, an apolitical project or NGO for the projection of the Quran, was cleverly positioned away from political Islam or Islamism. Its signature is its “secular” fine print that sets it apart from a rabid Lal Masjid model. But it still cannot be read as anything more than spin.
Qadri’s network began to achieve supersonic growth — it has since multiplied into a mammoth organisation comprising hundreds of centres across the globe — and he left for Canada to procure another citizenship, along with funds. However, he was always opportunistic enough to tap into any schism carved out of collective vulnerability, a pattern that must be watched closely as it is on repeat in the present scenario. Where 9/11 gave him a colossal, enormously funded madarsa system, it was the rise of militant Islam that provided him with a chance to create another stir — he made a timely landing in London to deliver a fatwa against the Taliban.
In his current avatar as a self-styled messiah for a failing Pakistan, Qadri has returned on pure personal delusion. His cry of a “million-man march” on January 14 — clearly inspired by Nawaz Sharif’s exceedingly successful example in March 2009 — has, for reasons of fear and surprise, gripped the populace, as well as local and foreign media. Pakistanis being Pakistanis are easily hypnotised by the word “change”, and choose to erase the reality that every single political party has announced and participated in a million-man march.
Second, Qadri has the savoir faire to keep his agenda ambiguous. “Electoral reform” is the kind of bait no political outfit will refuse, as it is perceived as a statement of immense political mileage. This brings his journey to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) headquarters in London. The MQM has always positioned itself according to the prevalent political climate in the country and is clever enough to negotiate itself away from it, if need be.
Last, the crowds at Qadri’s jalsas are not to be confused with a political following, which is the most glaring misperception about the man. He is riding on his madarsa network cohorts and on the hold his booklets still manage to wield on some — an element that harks back to his 1990 electoral defeat.
Tahirul Qadri is summed up in the most apt and succinct analysis by none other than his former patron, Nawaz Sharif, “Tahirul Qadri’s way is the way of confusion.”
Reema Abbasi is a Karachi-based journalist