Who is Islamic cleric Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri? And why should Pakistan care?

He only arrived from Canada last month and already he's sparking protests and making headlines with his demands for a radical overhaul of the current political system

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Why is a Canadian Islamic cleric marching on the streets of Pakistan and talking about creating a “peaceful” Tahrir Square in Islamabad?

This is the question which has been perplexing many political analysts and TV anchors in the South Asian country over the past few weeks. This weekend supporters of Dr. Tahir ul Qadri, a dual Canadian nationality holder who arrived in Pakistan last month, led a march of tens of thousands (it was supposed to have been millions) from Lahore to Islamabad to stage a sit-in in order to bring about political reforms in the country. His demands include the dissolution of the Election Commission and ensuring the candidates standing for election pay taxes. He has also made a call on dissolving the assemblies and the formation of a caretaker government.

But what gives a religious scholar, particularly one who has been living in Canada for some seven years, the right to put forward such radical demands? The timing of this protest, only months before a scheduled national election, is also troubling; it risks derailing an already fragile democracy.

Outside Pakistan, Qadri is often been presented as a “moderate” Sufi scholar who famously wrote a 600 page fatwa against terrorism in 2010 which won him international applause.  However while his work to counter extremists has brought him his share of admirers, there hangs a question mark over the extent of Qadri’s own moderating influence. For example one video doing the rounds over the internet shows Qadri giving what appear to be two contradictory statements on blasphemy – the subject of so much controversy in Pakistan. In one clip he is shown speaking in English where he says: “Whatever the law of blasphemy is, it is not applicable on non-Muslims. It is not applicable on Jews, Christians and other non- Muslims minorities. It is just to be dealt with Muslims.” Yet then in Urdu in a different clip he says:  “My stance was that, and this was the law which got made, that whoever commits blasphemy, whether a Muslim or a non-Muslim, man or woman – whether be a Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, anyone –  whoever commits blasphemy their punishment is death."

Certainly Qadri is a contradictory man. While he presents himself as a supporter of democracy, he was elected to parliament under the previous dictatorship of General Pervez Musharaf in 2002. A bigger question to ask is where he is getting all these funds to spend on his campaign? Since last month the city of Lahore has been flooded with Qadri posters advertising his arrival and call for change. TV advertisements have also been airing frequently. On the backs of rickshaws his photo has become the most popular advertisement staring back at all vehicle drivers. One TV station at his sit-in in Islamabad interviewed a woman who described how she had never planned to come to the protest. But after her power supply and cable TV were cut-off she decided to join the protest as she was so fed-up. A few protesters even talked about having traveled all the way from Canada and the United States to participate.

No doubt the current political system is in need of a painful reform. Last month an investigative report showed how nearly 70 per cent of the country’s lawmakers did not pay tax in 2011. Among those who did not file a tax return was the President himself Asif Ali Zardari. Power cuts, gas shortage, bans on mobile phones and daily terrorist bombings have all become associated with the current government. Yet surely the ballot box is the way to bring reform. The Supreme Court has this week ordered the arrest of the Prime Minister Raza Pervez Ashraf over corruption charges – proving there are other avenues towards change without resorting to revolutionary tactics.

The medieval Persian poet, Saadi Shirazi, in his famous work Gulistan narrates a short story about a man of lower than average intelligence. One day, feeling a pain in his eye, he went to see a vet, instead of a doctor. The vet put some medicine in his eye intended for animals and as a result the poor man went blind. To complain about what had happened he took the case to court, but the judge ruled that the vet was not to blame. After all, he pointed out, only a donkey would go to a vet for treatment.

It would appear Dr. Qadri is something of a vet himself. If matters end-up taking a turn for the worse, then perhaps he is not the one who should be blamed.

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