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Controversial Cleric Stirs Protests Upon Return To Pakistan

Wed, February 20, 2013 8:03am

Story by Jackie Northam




Listen to this story on npr.org »

Pakistani Muslim cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri (center), speaks to a crowd from a bulletproof box in Islamabad in January. The cleric recently returned to Pakistan after years in Canada, and his calls for an end to corruption have brought supporters to the streets in large numbers.

Pakistani Muslim cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri (center), speaks to a crowd from a bulletproof box in Islamabad in January. The cleric recently returned to Pakistan after years in Canada, and his calls for an end to corruption have brought supporters to the streets in large numbers.

In Pakistan, a controversial Muslim cleric has been shaking up the political scene.

Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri returned to his home country late last year, after spending eight years in Canada. Since coming back, he has ignited a disgruntled electorate and has left many people wondering what exactly his plans are.

On a recent day, a lively drum band wandered among a crowd of about 15,000 Pakistanis gathered in the eastern city of Faisalabad for a rally organized by Qadri.

The slight, 61-year-old cleric, wearing his trademark blue pin-striped cloak and shiny white religious cap, captivated the crowd with a long and fiery speech.

Qadri says Pakistan's oppressed and destitute are with him in his fight against inequality and corruption. His speech touches a nerve for many in the crowd.

"We have come here because we want change ... and [to] get rid of this corrupt system," says 45-year-old Kaneez Fatima.

This was Qadri's second series of rallies since he returned from Canada last December. The crowds are made up primarily of followers of his movement, Tehrik-e-Minhaj-ul-Quran, which is a vast religious charity overseeing about 600 schools in Pakistan and offices in 80 countries.

In an interview with NPR, Qadri said he wants to enlighten people about their democratic rights.

"I am trying to create an awareness of the true concept of democracy, an awareness of human rights, real human rights," Qadri says. "People here are treated like goats. They don't have any concept of democracy."

Qadri is taking on Pakistan's government, saying it has failed to curb militancy or improve the economy. He's also demanding electoral reforms to prevent corrupt politicians from holding office.

"I am fighting just to make the electoral and democratic process transparent, free of corrupt practices," he says.

Qadri became a powerful force almost immediately after his return and created a media blitz as he jumped from one city to another, pulling in huge crowds at his rallies.

In January, the center of Islamabad was paralyzed for four days as thousands of his followers camped out on one of the city's main avenues. The protest ended when members of the main political parties sat and negotiated with Qadri inside his bulletproof enclosure.

His Motives Questioned

Hamid Mir, a political commentator for Geo News, is a critic of Qadri.

"The man ... has no credibility," says Mir.

Mir has known Qadri for 25 years, and says that when the cleric lived in Pakistan previously, he switched alliances with major political players several times. Mir says Qadri has used the financial resources of his charity to help pay for all the recent attention.

"He was putting a lot of money in media; he was giving millions of rupees to the owners of the TV channels," he says. "He was even able to influence the content of some very popular talk show hosts."

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and political commentator, says the message may be good, but he questions the messenger. Masood calls Qadri a demagogue.

"He is a very good orator, and he's very knowledgeable as far as Islam teachings are concerned," Masood says. "So he was able to ... have a wide following amongst [the] lower and middle class in Pakistan. People in Pakistan are always looking for a change, and I think he exploited that."

Many people do question Qadri's motives. There's widespread speculation that he's working with the military to manipulate upcoming elections, but there's no proof. Qadri himself can't run for office because he now holds Canadian citizenship. Masood thinks Qadri may just like the limelight.

"He actually wants to be in the center stage. He wants power, he wants to be in prominence all the time," Masood says.

Last week, however, Qadri suffered a setback when Pakistan's Supreme Court denied his petition to make a fundamental change in the electoral process. But Masood said this turn of events is unlikely to hold back Qadri for very long.

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