An unlikely avenger in a winter of shortages
For years, armchair analysts have spoken of an Islamist takeover in Islamabad but not a single one predicted that the onslaught would be led by an English-speaking Barelvi who had been marked by the militants for his fatwa condemning terrorist attacks and suicide blasts as un-Islamic.
Dr Tahirul Qadri, who does not like to be called a maulana, has emerged as an unlikely avenger of the people’s discontent in this winter of shortages.
Inexplicably he has managed to capture the airwaves and the crowd’s imagination and the analysts’ horrors.
Dressed in his untraditional attire (for local clerics) but with a cleric’s traditional mastery over oratory and demagoguery, he has kept the nation hostage through television channels since he returned in December.
After all, it is a universally acknowledged truth that not even the best politician can compare to a religious orator when it comes to public speaking. Thus when he spoke late at night at Islamabad, not only did he keep his audience spellbound, some felt that the angry unyoung man had overshadowed Imran Khan and emerged as the performer of change and revolution.
Intriguingly this is one figure who has won nothing but criticism from the credible media even though this did not discredit him in the eyes of his (captive) fans.
He is a Teflon leader in other words — nothing sticks to him.
Columnists and anchors and politicians have brought up murky details from his past — the skeletons that were pulled out of his closet included his once closeness to the Sharif family and controversies about how he was once a protégé of the family.
When the attacks became more serious, a judicial inquiry was dusted off and made public — ordered when Dr Qadri, who had by then lost his closeness to Sharif, accused the latter of having tried to get him killed.
The judicial commission, working in the days before the judiciary became truly independent in 2009, discovered less than flattering facts about the doctor such his involvement in petty crimes and how the forensic evidence of blood collected from the attempted murder site was of an animal — no human blood means no attempted murder attempt on a human.
And then there are his recorded interviews and speeches – where he writes the account and concept of Blasphemy law and then re-writes it again. Or where he narrates his dream about the Prophet (Pbuh) and his message specifically for the doctor — the scepticism is no less than when messengers were sent from the heavens.
His political career is no less controversial.
Journalists remember his first big rally in Lahore in 1989, which was no less impressive than the one held a few weeks ago — “It was back then being compared to the 1986 rally of Benazir Bhutto,” remembers Amir Mateen, who has covered politics for two decades.
It should not be forgotten that back then the military establishment was trying to send an elected parliament home — a year later elections had been called, which were rigged and manipulated, and yet the doctor lost them.
His next appearance was in 2002 when another military-led dispensation held elections. His critics allege that the “ambitious doctor who is not averse to short cuts” lived happily with a dictator till he realised that he was not going to get much beyond a seat in the parliament.
Hence, eight years ago in October the insider turned ‘revolutionary’ and stormed out of the National Assembly after handing in his resignation.
In parliament as a representative of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (his political party which is not mentioned much these days as the focus remains on Minhajul Quran), he called it a black day — the parliament had just passed a law allowing General (retd)
Pervez Musharraf to hold the office of president and chief of army staff — and said goodbye.
Calling the parliament a rubber stamp, he said he was insulted to sit “with those who have cut off their hands”.
As an aside, one of the opposition parliamentarians who tried to stop Dr Qadri from storming out was the man he now wants out — Raja Pervez Ashraf.
His departure from the parliament then also translated into his departure from Pakistan for the snowy and affluent shores of Canada.
But apparently this was a self-imposed exile which could end whenever he felt there was an opportune moment — once again shortly before elections are due.
But this time around, there are a few new factors at play.
Thanks to the international context, he has won some credibility as a moderate religious leader — always in short supply in Pakistan where political and religious leaders are always widely available.
His big fat and detailed Fatwa declaring terrorist attacks un-Islamic was celebrated by some quarters — though still unidentified.
His was never the only such Fatwa to have been delivered in the post-9/11 world.
He also flaunts his tolerant credentials by constantly using Shiite references as he whips up ‘revolutionary’ fervour — Karbala has always been the preferred slogan for the ‘revolutionaries’ in the Muslim world, but for those worried about the extremist drift in Pakistan where Muslims with a difference are branded wajibul qatal, his references are said to be music for some ears.
Take Murtaza Poya, former publisher and politician, who says that Qadri is the best option for the country — provided that one assumes that “Pakistan’s destiny is Islamic”.
This is a sweeping statement that sounds impressive but does not stand up to scrutiny.
Tolerance or religious credentials are not enough to win elections in Pakistan. If Musharraf is a good example of the electoral unattractiveness of the first value, the Jamaat-i-Islami is an example of the second.
And those who are in awe of the people’s power that Qadri has harnessed and brought to Islamabad, then they need to remember he has done this before without getting very far.
People can be carted from his vast empire for a jalsa but will they follow suit with their votes?
A politician points out that in Shakargarh alone, there are over 20 schools run by his Tehreek Minhajul Quran and these can easily send 20 buses full to a venue. The passengers will stay put for as many days as they have been paid but not more.
The oratory on its own is not pulling in crowds independent of the buses sent under a plan — D-Chowk is proof of this.
In fact, his rhetoric is not much different from what the mainstream politicians say even if he says it better.
From thundering demands for change, to hard-nosed political demands such as a neutral caretaker set-up formed under the tutelage of the army and the judiciary to third world staples such as his promise to put “feeders” in the mouths of infants, Qadri’s rhetoric has been as varied and as uniform as his outfits from Lahore to Islamabad. He changed clothes more than once but they all looked the same.
By Tuesday morning, there were flashbacks to his younger days preserved in black and white videos about his earlier, profitable dreams. He burst into tears while assuring his followers that he would not blame them if they decided to slink away in the darkness of the night — as convincing as the tears he has shed while recounting his sleepy wonders.
Is he really the next great hope?
The people who have never voted for him? The Western powers who are said to have given up on mainstream parties after the PPP failed to deliver on extremism? The military which is now said to need a new partner in crime? Or will he simply fizzle out like he did twice in the past.
No-one knows for sure but history has a bad habit of repeating itself in Pakistan.