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Tahir-ul-Qadri has vowed to topple Pakistan's government. Now he wants his supporters to join opposition leader Imran Khan in a rally in Islamabad which is likely to end in violence, as analyst Michael Kugelman tells DW.
Qadri, who returned from Canada in June vowing to lead a revolution against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government, made his announcement to join Khan just hours after the authorities opened a murder investigation against him. A police officer was killed in clashes with the cleric's supporters over the weekend in Lahore, the capital city of the Pakistani province of Punjab. Authorities say the investigation against the anti-government cleric was launched based on recordings of him inciting people to violence.
Qadri, who led anti-corruption protests in January 2013 that paralyzed Pakistan's capital, has a network of mosques and religious centers across the country. The Pakistani cleric was until recently based in Canada and has called for a military-backed government in Pakistan after accusing the country's civilian administration of corruption.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says in a DW interview that the military looks favorably on what Qadri is doing but adds that it is unlikely that the military would use Qadri - and any unrest that his protests may stir up - as a pretext to declare martial law and/or to intervene and to take power once again.
DW: What does the cleric Tahirul ul-Qadri stand for?
There is much mystery about who Tahir ul-Qadri is, who supports him, and where he gets his money from. To many, this uncertainty is quite unnerving - not to mention very controversial. What we do know is that he is a Canada-based preacher.
Kugelman: "Qadri's use of street protests and apparent support for extrajudicial politics is troubling for a country where democracy remains deeply fragile"
According to Qadri himself, he spends much of his time writing, praying, and speaking with common people -including at various shopping malls in the Toronto area, which he apparently enjoys frequenting. Though he has been based in Canada for nearly a decade, he retains strong links to Pakistan. He runs a series of mosques and religious institutions across the country, and he also heads a small Pakistani political party. He has also, in recent years, led a series of anti-government protests in Pakistan.
Why is he such a controversial figure in Pakistan?
What is so striking about Qadri - in addition to the ambiguity surrounding his background and backers - is that he is a man of immense contradictions. On the one hand, he preaches moderation and nonviolence. He famously issued a long fatwa against terrorism, and has also bragged that he is the only religious leader in the Muslim world who has condemned terrorism and armed struggle as unacceptable to Islam.
Yet on the other hand, he has often called for "revolution" in Pakistan - a word that in the Pakistani context has violent connotations. His supporters - a small but vocal group - have also been involved in violent protests in recent years.
Additionally, Qadri has sought to cast himself as a man of the people, and tapped into the anger of common Pakistanis - from bad governance to energy shortages. Yet even as he has done that, he has made a show of flouting his perks of affluence. The Pakistani press has derided the climate-controlled indoor containers he has delivered lectures from during outdoor rallies on cold winter days in Pakistan. He was also photographed flying to Pakistan from a luxurious first-class seat.
Why does he want to topple the government of PM Nawaz Sharif?
Qadri has specific and vague demands. His specific demand is justice for the members of his political party who were killed by government security forces during anti-government protests in Pakistan earlier this year.
His vague demand is that Pakistan be replaced by an "alternate" system of "true" democracy. He hasn't specified what this means, other than to emphasize that the current Pakistani government must go. It is his apparent disgust for the current government that has led him to repeatedly praise the Pakistani military.
In terms of his political goals, there is a glass-half full and glass-half empty interpretation. The optimistic assessment would suggest that he is a democracy-minded cleric with the views of the Pakistani masses at heart- a leader who wants to tap into the deep grievances that Pakistanis harbor toward a civilian government whose ineffective rule and soft approach toward militancy often make democracy seem like a sham.
The more cynical interpretation is that Qadri is simply a rabble-rouser who wants to cause trouble for a democratically elected government - with a very large mandate - and distract the country from tending to urgent matters - from a military offensive in North Waziristan to a crippling energy crisis and sinking economy.
What does Qadri represent for the future of democracy in Pakistan?
There's something to be said for a moderate cleric who preaches non-violence, condemns terrorism, and claims to champion the issues of the masses. However, his use of street protests and apparent support for extrajudicial politics to bring about political change - with a vague and undefined end goal- is troubling for a country where democracy remains deeply fragile.
Time will tell what Qadri means for Pakistan's democracy. If he leads non-violent protests and pressures the existing government to be more accountable - and with clear results - then he will have achieved something significant. However, if his protests become violent and lead to government crackdowns - or worse - then it will be hard to argue he's made a positive contribution to democracy.
How volatile has the situation become in Punjab, especially in Lahore, since Qadri's return?
Punjab is arguably at its tensest level since the new government came to power last year. Barricades have gone up, roads have been sealed, and in Islamabad the military has been called in to provide security.
It's worth pointing out, however, that it is arguably the government response to Qadri's planned protest on August 14 that has caused the tension - and not the planned protest itself. Qadri does not have the mobilizing power of Imran Khan, and his total number of supporters is more modest than is Khan's. There's only so much that Qadri-led protests can do; it's hard to believe they could paralyze the main cities of Punjab.
Qadri demands that the Nawaz Sharif-led government be replaced by an "alternate" system of "true" democracy, says Kugelman
The key issue here is Punjab itself. Qadri has chosen - intentionally, most likely - to stage his protests in the political bastion of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party. The PML-N party has essentially concluded that Qadri is threatening its turf, and that this simply cannot stand. If Qadri was staging his protests in Karachi or Peshawar - areas outside of Punjab - than the heavy-handed government response would not be nearly as pronounced.
There is widespread suspicion in Pakistan that Qadri's return was encouraged by Pakistan's powerful military, following recent tensions with the prime minister. What is your view on this?
This is one of the biggest unknowns about Qadri, and another reason why he has sparked such controversy. In Pakistan, whenever a relative outsider - in Qadri's case, someone based outside of Pakistan for a long time- appears on the scene with a whole lot of resources and people willing to take to the streets in anti-government fervor, one needs to suspect some type of sponsorship from the security establishment.
Why is the military unhappy with the Nawaz Sharif-led government?
For numerous reasons - from putting former President Pervez Musharraf on trial to dawdling for months before authorizing a security offensive in North Waziristan. Given the military's unhappiness with the government, it has good reason to use someone like Qadri as a proxy to stir up anti-government sentiment, to put the government in an uncomfortable position, and, perhaps, to back the government into a small enough corner that it feels a needs to step down.
My sense is that the military looks favorably on what Qadri is doing, though there is no formal link between the military and Qadri. I also think it's unlikely that the military would use Qadri - and any unrest that his protests may stir up - as a pretext to declare martial law and/or to intervene and to take power once again. I say this because I don't think Pakistan's military has any desire to be directly saddled with the unprecedented challenges the government faces now; it much prefers to influence matters from behind the scenes. In other words, the time isn't right for the military to take over.
It is unlikely that the military will use Qadri as a pretext to declare martial law and retake power, says Kugelman
That said, the military could regard the Qadri protests as a situation similar to what happened when an activist judiciary effectively fired Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani during the previous Pakistani administration. In that case, the military likely offered its support to the judiciary as it found a legal pretext to remove a leader that the military disliked.
Today, the military may lean on Qadri just as it did on the judiciary - a behind-the-scenes, engineered effort to undercut the government without actually bringing down the government or taking over power.
Qadri announced that his followers would stage a demonstration in Islamabad on Thursday, on the same day as an opposition protest led by Imran Khan. How dangerous could these protests become for the political stability in Pakistan?
A protest with Khan is more dangerous than one with Qadri, because Khan can mobilize many more people than Qadri. And while Qadri has now delinked his August 14 march from that of Khan, the fact that they are happening on the same day will give the whole event much more momentum and drive - and the fact that they are led by two politicians with rumored ties to the security establishment injects even more intrigue into the whole story.
That said, even Khan can't necessarily count on a huge turnout; many of those that voted for him in last year's election have soured on him based on his insistence on negotiating with the Taliban.
My sense is that these protests will make a lot of noise, unfortunately violence will occur, and the Nawaz Sharif-led government will look bad in forcefully putting down some of the demonstrations. But it shall end there. The government will come away looking weak and wounded - and scared - but it will remain in power. And for that, government critics could at least claim half a victory.
Michael Kugelman is senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.