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The enigmatic cleric

Shamil ShamsAugust 12, 2014

Pakistani cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri is spearheading a revolt against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But who is he, what does he want, and what makes him a force to reckon with in the Islamic country?

Tahir-ul-Qadri (EPA/STR)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It should be a matter of relief for the West that the person who is trying to bring down Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government is an Islamic cleric but not a Taliban supporter. The 63-year-old Tahir-ul-Qadri is actually an anti-thesis of the hard-line Islamist group that seeks inspiration from the rigid Wahhabi Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. Qadri is a spiritual leader of Pakistan's largest Sunni sect in South Asia called Hanafi Islam – a moderate form of Islam influenced by the Arab, Persian and Indian mystics.

Qadri's religious organization, Minhaj-ul-Quran International, which he established in 1981, eschews politics, but Qadri himself has been active on the political scene for more than two decades. He heads the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party, which is not one of the major political outfits in the country, but has a sizeable number of followers.

The cleric migrated to Canada in 2005 and acquired the North American state's citizenship. He returned to Pakistan last year in January to lead a "million-men" march against former president Asif Ali Zardari's government, which he accused of corruption, nepotism and incompetence. The rally was unsuccessful and Qadri had to leave for Canada empty-handed.

Qadri's 2013 march
Observers expect hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Islamabad on August 14Image: DW/ S. Raheem

It is yet to be seen whether his new movement will be any different. This time around, Qadri has the support of a number of political parties, including the backing of cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Qadri's Islam

"Qadri mixes Sufism (mystical teachings) with politics, and he believes that the spiritual traditions of the South Asian Islam could provide a platform for a movement for social change," Adeel Khan, a managing editor of the Doha-based "Religions" journal, told DW.

Qadri is against Islamist terrorism and travels all over the world to deliver lectures on the subject of Islam and peace. In March, 2010, the cleric issued a 600-page religious edict in which he claimed that terrorism could not be justified through Islamic teachings. The US State Department said the fatwa was a significant publication which "takes back Islam from terrorists."

"The fatwa is quite blunt, less nuanced and unequivocal," Khan said. "This shows Qadri's ability to be polemical and less scholarly on a matter of pressing concern for Muslims and the rest of the world."

In August 2010, Qadri held an anti-terrorism camp for Muslim youth at the University of Warwick, with the aim of tackling extremism in the UK.

Qadri – a political force

Qadri's PAT party has no seat in the Pakistani parliament, yet his influence on national politics is quite palpable. The motto of the party is to end corruption in the country – something similar to the objectives of the anti-graft Aam Aadmi Party in India.

But Qadri's critics say he is being backed by Pakistan's powerful military generals who are unhappy with Sharif's policies. The military is wary of Sharif's cordial moves towards the country's regional arch-rival India. The PM and the army are also not on the same page over the Islamic republic's Afghanistan policy, and more so on the future of the detained former military chief and ex-president, Pervez Musharraf.

Qadri addresses the media persons out side his house before leaving for Islamabad with Long March and declared that it is long march for democracy in 2003 (Photo: DW/ Tanvir Shahzad)
Qadri says he wants the rule of law in the countryImage: DW

"Most people in Pakistan think Qadri is being backed by the establishment, particularly the army," Ghazi Salahuddin, a senior journalist in Karachi, told DW.

Qadri denies it.

"I am against the army takeover and will oppose it," Qadri said in a DW interview.

Qadri's Thursday march on Islamabad will be a test for his political future, as he can't afford another unsuccessful show.