July Issue 2014
Tahir-ul-Qadri: Revolutionary or Stooge?
Tahir-ul Qadri has returned to Pakistan with fresh threats for the new government elected in 2013. His slogans are the same as last year’s: eliminate a corrupt system and allow him to bring about a ‘green revolution’ expected to turn Pakistan into a different country. What the Canada-based cleric means by the term ‘green’ is an open question. On one end, it could refer to some kind of environmental change, on the other end it might imply bringing an Islamic form of government through which he would then eradicate corruption and other vices. In case of the latter, this does not sound very different from what other religious ideologues want to do — turn Pakistan into a theocratic state to be run according to the Sharia. The problem with this formula, however, is that since there is a lack of consensus on which sect would control the official narrative, we may end up with greater bloodshed. But Qadri understands that his slogans will turn a few heads around, if not all.
An important question worth asking at this stage is: does he have the capacity to bring about a revolution? Is there a consensus on Qadri among the Barelvi school of thought or within the people at large regarding his change mantra? To answer these questions we have to first figure out where Qadri comes from. Born and raised in Jhang, South Punjab, Qadri comes from a lower middle-class family. There are people who claim his father was a religious cleric, while others say he ran a dispensary. Qadri refers to his father as a doctor, which he certainly was not. The Barelvi cleric got his early education in religion from a madrassa in Jhang and not the Arab world, as he often claims. He also studied in Faisalabad and received his law degree from Lahore. Later, he shifted to Lahore, where he reportedly worked closely with the Sharif family, which is essentially Barelvi.
The 1980s is the period when he himself claims to have worked closely with General Zia-ul-Haq for incorporating the blasphemy law, a role that Qadri denies before the foreign media. He subsequently went abroad and got Canadian citizenship. He also established a support network under the umbrella of his outfit, Minhaj-ul-Quran, which claims to be a recipient of funding from expatriate Pakistanis in 90 countries. Qadri draws his support from two types of expats: Firstly those who are generally dissatisfied with the state of Pakistan and its politics and would buy into anything that offers change. Secondly, those who consider him something close to a pir.
And Qadri manages to draw attention to himself, which is evident from the manner in which he launched himself on both the international and national scene. People started to notice him, especially after his 600-page fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombing. Many of the western countries found him interesting because he seems to have vigorously contested the idea of takfir, which is tied up with the concept of jihad. Interestingly, the fatwa seems to have a stamp of approval from the British security establishment, which is also one reason that some people feel foreign governments are backing Qadri. Notwithstanding such skepticism, the fatwa is not rigorous since it does not engage with hardcore Deobandi philosophy or deconstruct it. But some feel that such fatwas provide a counter-argument which may dissuade Barelvis from becoming Deobandis or even takfiri. It is worth noting that people from the Barelvi sect are under tremendous pressure for conversion to Deobandiism. This is mainly because Deobandi militants and ideologues seem to have political, military and financial support that their Barelvi counterparts do not enjoy. This naturally attracts Barelvi youth towards Deobandism. At a glance, the sight of Minhaj-ul-Quran activists brandishing sticks offers an alternative Barelvi militancy that Qadri now seems to denote. He would certainly be able to capture Barelvi militancy, which is on the rise but is not fully documented or commented upon.
However, when Qadri chose to return to Pakistan in January 2013, with his agenda of social change and saving the country from the menace of terrorism he could have tried to give a helping hand to the existing politicians. Instead he chose to challenge them. He promised to take Islamabad by storm with his slogan of “Intikhab sey pehley inqilab” (Revolution before elections). He argued that the political system was flawed and that only the most honest and sagacious should be elected to Parliament — a view echoed by the military as well. While he put the people of his organisation, Minhaj-ul-Quran, through acute discomfort by laying siege to the government in Islamabad, he did not succeed beyond extorting a vague set of promises from the previous Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government. While there were threats that he might return to participate in the elections in 2014, he did not because being a dual national, the law disqualified him from seeking membership of the Parliament. Later, he issued statements questioning the authenticity of the election result.
The timing of his arrival, when the army and the Sharif government’s relations are strained has led to speculation of his being invited by the khakis to rock the Sharif boat. Given his questionable past, and the many alleged skeletons in his closet, one cannot rule out a link between him and the military establishment which is known for investing in and bringing on board Pakistani expatriates to run the state, be it Moin Qureshi, Shaukat Aziz or Qadri. However, Qadri proved to be a source of embarrassment to the military, when he refused to speak to the government and constantly called out for senior generals — no less than the army chief/corps commander — as he temporarily hijacked the Emirates aircraft on his return last month. Around 90 people from his organisation were said to have travelled to Pakistan with him. These people ensured that no one disembarked from the plane as it landed in Lahore. Not surprisingly, many of the people cursed him as they finally got a chance to disembark. Many believe that Qadri’s blatant calls to the military forced them to demonstrate that the army or its agencies were not involved with him in any way.
Even if Qadri’s links with the military are not proven, he does tend to benefit as an agent of instability, especially at a time when the federal government and the armed forces seem to be headed in different directions on several issues, starting with Musharraf. But the overall socio-political scene now is far more complicated. The military’s other ideological partners, like the Deobandi and Salafi militants and ideologues, would not want Qadri to dominate the scene. Also, the society and politics has come to be so dominated by the Deobandi and Salafi narrative now that Qadri would not stand a chance if he tried to play on their turf. Moreover, he is not a consensus candidate among the Barelvis either. The Minhaj tends to get noticed because militancy and militant politics among the Barelvis is subdued. Consequently, Qadri and his gang seem to stick out. Would Qadri be able to do much better than what he has done so far without the military’s help? The answer would be in the negative.
The fact is that Qadri is a secondary player with a bloated ego and a sense of self-importance, who was given a tremendous boost by the Punjab Government with the Lahore operation which resulted in the deaths of about 10 activists of Minhaj-ul-Quran. He has little political value beyond that of a pawn who can be used to shake the existing government as and when the need arises. Even in that case, the actual beneficiary may be other parties such as the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), who are also looking for an excuse to destabilise the government and occupy the throne. So far, the PTI has kept a safe distance from Qadri, due to opposition from within its ranks. However the military and many of its ideologues often talk about a Bangladesh model — an idea translated as appointing a group of people, possibly technocrats and politicians, to govern Pakistan. Qadri could probably be used to this end if one day the generals finally lose their patience.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s July 2014 issue.
The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter