A cleric’s return throws Pakistani politics into turmoil ahead of election
He earned praise in the West when he came out with a 600-page fatwa in 2010 condemning terrorism, using the same language in the Quran and Islam that militants often use to justify their actions. He’s spoken at such institutions as Georgetown University and the United States Institute for Peace, and held rallies in Britain against extremism.
Supporters say the fatwa led to death threats, and his security precautions are obvious at his events. A man with a Kalashnikov rifle watched over as he spoke this week to a crowd of lawyers supporting next week’s march, and people entering his home and offices are patted down for weapons.
But it is his anti-government message that has drawn the most support in Pakistan. Many people are frustrated with a political system they believe is corrupt and dominated by two political parties: the Pakistan People’s Party, which controls the government, and the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
Both are political dynasties run by powerful families: the PPP is controlled by the Bhutto family and run by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain politician Benazir Bhutto. The PML-N is the party of the Sharifs, a powerful family from the largest province, Punjab.
After five years of democracy, Pakistanis are grappling with widespread power outages that leave them freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer, frequent terror attacks and rampant corruption. For many, Qadri represents hope. “We really feel that he can bring change to the electoral system,” said Aqeel Ahmed Rana, who owns a textile business in Lahore.
But other Pakistanis question whether he’s a front for Pakistan’s powerful military. The military in the past has also suggested that free and fair elections can be held only after the system is cleaned up, said Raza Rumi, director of the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute.
“His clear stance is that elections should be delayed, that we should cleanse the electoral system and then go for elections. This is also the military line,” Rumi said. “The best way to clean up is through the democratic process itself. Let the people clean up.”
The Pakistani military is widely believed to dislike both the PPP and the PML-N and want a more pliable government that would protect its interests, though it has denied playing any role in Qadri’s campaign.
In a country where conspiracy theories abound, there are also rumors the U.S. and Britain are backing him, something both their embassies have denied.
Many detractors ask why he’s returned now, just when Pakistan is poised to have an all-important transition from one civilian government to another. Why did he not come back in 2008 when the civilian government was first elected and then work from within the country for reforms?
Qadri is also facing questions about his character. Videos have surfaced on the Internet of Qadri appearing to take credit for the country’s controversial blasphemy law, which calls for death in some cases, but distancing himself from it when speaking to an international audience. In another video making the rounds, he describes to his ardent followers how Islam’s Prophet Muhammad came to him in a dream.
Tariq Azeem, of the PML-N, called Qadri a “slightly dubious character” who says one thing when speaking to a domestic audience and another when speaking to foreigners. He questioned why Qadri only recently became involved in politics and where the money is coming from to finance his march and recent appearances.
“Suddenly he comes up with all these demands,” he said.
Qadri denied to the AP that he wants to delay the elections or that he’s a front for anyone’s agenda. He said many of his comments have been taken out of context and distributed on social media in an attempt to discredit him.
On Thursday, Pakistan’s Minister of Interior Rehman Malik issued a strongly worded statement that Qadri would not be allowed to rally in Islamabad, warning that the Taliban might attack the event. He described Qadri’s use of “agitation” as “illegal and unconstitutional.” Large shipping containers have already been set up to block protesters from getting close to government buildings.
Qadri calls this type of language a ploy by the government to scare off his supporters. But he said he and his followers would show up, optimistically predicting a turnout of 4 million people.
“I hope when there is an ocean of people and they are peaceful and they are just and honest in their demands and they are standing up for democratic rights, I hope almighty God will help them,” he said.