Canadian imam gathers crowds and raises questions in Pakistan
Who is Tahir-ul-Qadri, the Canadian imam who, mere months before Pakistan’s national elections, has shaken the country’s political establishment?
Journalists, foreign diplomats and Pakistani government officials are grappling with that question as Qadri’s support continues to grow, attracting thousands to an anti-corruption march from Lahore to Islamabad on Monday.
The march didn’t quite live up to its namesake, the “four million march,” but Qadri, who had lived in the Toronto area for the past six years before returning to Pakistan last month, is not being dismissed.
Qadri’s spokesman told The Star that millions of supporters were still on their way to join the demonstration in Islamabad by Tuesday morning.
“It will take the whole night for people to get there,” Shahid Mursaleen wrote in an email. “There was a (32 to 48 kilometre) queue of cars, vans, buses and bikes. It will be about two million (people) in total.”
Agence France-Presse, citing security officials, reported that the turnout was closer to 50,000 by late Monday afternoon.
Following his march to Islamabad, Qadri addressed his supporters at about 2 a.m. Tuesday.
“The march is over, the revolution has now started,” he said, according to Newsweek Pakistan.
Qadri said that the mandate of President Asif Ali Zardari and the country’s chief ministers is over. He gave the National Assembly until later Tuesday to dissolve.
Promising to return at 11 a.m. (1 a.m. EST), Qadri asked his followers to set up a stage and beds closer to the parliament buildings and asked them to swear on the Qur’an that they would remain in Islamabad as long as he does.
Some protesters pushed through barricades and moved toward the parliament buildings after his speech, the Associated Press reported, but there were no reports of clashes.
Qadri began making headlines in Pakistan when he demanded election reforms be passed before the upcoming national election, expected in the first half of the year. The imam, who is also a trained lawyer, was a supporter of former general Pervez Musharraf, who seized control of the country in a 1999 coup. After spending two years in Pakistan’s national assembly, which is the country’s parliament, Qadri resigned and moved to Canada.
The 61-year-old is an unlikely Pakistani political figure. A month ago, he was living in Toronto, speaking with his followers and spending leisurely lunches at the Mandarin restaurant, said his friend Ovais Iqbal.
During a demonstration in Lahore on Dec. 23, Qadri attracted an estimated 100,000 supporters to hear him critique the country’s fragile democracy, long accused of widespread corruption.
“It’s clear the government is worried about him big time,” Iqbal said. “Ten days ago (Interior Minister) Rehman Malik said he would welcome Qadri into the capital and give him food. Now, Malik says he doubts Qadri is Muslim and says he looks like the pope.”
Malik has offered a cash reward to anyone who can offer proof about Qadri’s financial supporters. Some critics claim Qadri is an agent of the Pakistani military, arguing the country’s generals want to reclaim power in the country. But military officials deny any connection to the Sufi preacher.
Qadri’s message has resonated with everyday Pakistanis. He has scorned the government for not addressing the country’s energy shortages or finding a way to stop attacks on the Shia religious minority. In a posting on his website, he cited research by the Pakistani journalist Umar Cheema that 70 per cent of parliamentarians don’t pay income tax, yet are not prevented from running in elections.
Qadri wants to have most politicians disqualified from running for another term, on the grounds of either tax evasion or using government money for their personal use.
Preparing for Monday’s march to Islamabad, the government suspended cellphone service throughout Pakistan, deployed 15,000 police and paramilitary officers to Islamabad, and placed large shipping containers in the streets of the capital to prevent Qadri’s supporters from marching near the parliament.
TV ads supporting Qadri are everywhere in Islamabad and Lahore, and his organization has rented around 50,000 buses to transport demonstrators, The Economist magazine reported.
Still, not everyone believes Qadri’s efforts are sustainable.
In India in 2011, Anna Hazare attracted many thousands to marches throughout the country organized to stamp out corruption. But Hazare’s efforts fizzled out after a few months.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a human-rights activist and university professor in Islamabad, said Qadri’s success may bring more troubles.
“He might weaken the political parties still further and make it still harder for them to govern,” Hoodbhoy said. “He has nothing to say about Pakistan’s larger problems: jihadism, unbridled population growth. He just keeps harping on the corruption of rulers and inequitable distribution, an uncontestable fact but scarcely the cause of Pakistan’s problems.”