Tahir ul-Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), speaks to his supporters in front of the Parliament House building during a "Revolution March" in Islamabad August 28, 2014. - Photo by Reuters
Tahir ul-Qadri, Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), speaks to his supporters in front of the Parliament House building during a "Revolution March" in Islamabad August 28, 2014. - Photo by Reuters

On an oppressive afternoon during the second week of August 2014, Tahirul Qadri was clad in a thick black shalwar kameez, a black woollen cap and a brown blazer. After he sat down to address thousands of his followers in front of the Lahore secretariat of his organisation, Minhajul Quran International, he touched his spectacles, wiped his moustache with a tissue paper and fidgeted with some papers lying in front of him. He would repeat the same routine many times over the next three-and-a-half hours while delivering a long speech, interspersed with prayers, tears, challenges and exhortations.

Qadri’s speeches generally start with a measured low tone, move into a flurry of quotations and citations from religious texts and end in passionate pleas, promises and premonitions.

On that August day in Lahore, he was preparing his followers for the long haul, so the speech had to convince his audience that his was a divine mission and that deserting him on this critical juncture would be tantamount to committing a sin.

He started off slowly, mentioning the names of all political and religious leaders who had joined him onstage, then moved into the next gear, citing quote after quote from books piled in front of him to argue that all he was saying was strictly in accordance with religious precedents and edicts.

He then finished with a series of warnings and challenges hurled at Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his cabinet, as well as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his administration.

A few minutes before the speech ended, Qadri left his seat, holding the mike in his hand and frothing at the mouth. “Anyone who wants to leave can leave now,” he said, drawing parallels with the battle of Karbala.

“But if you stay here today, you’ll follow whatever direction I give you regardless of how many problems it creates for you. You may not have enough food, you may not have comfortable places to sleep but if you stay put, I promise you a revolution that uproots the rotten political system that we have,”

he thundered.

That was the beginning – a day to mourn the death of 14 Minhajul Quran activists killed in a confrontation with the Punjab police on June 17 while trying to secure barricades around their organisation’s head office in Lahore’s Model Town area. (The police had acted in anticipation of Qadri’s planned arrival from Canada to launch a “revolution”).

Since then his entourage has moved in front of Parliament House, in Islamabad, after a multi-stage Inqilab (revolution) March that started from Lahore where initially the authorities put in all kinds of roadblocks and security cordons to stop him and his followers from moving out of Model Town.

Despite the change in venue, however, his speeches have hardly changed — his obsessive compulsive mannerisms remain the same as does the content of his diatribes. Another thing that has remained constant is his praise for the military.

While parliament is full of crooks and electoral politics a means for perpetuating an exploitative system, the Pakistan Army is “our army which protects our borders and is worthy of our respect and trust”.

Qadri, expectedly, was quite excited on the evening of August 28 when he got a message that Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif wanted to see him. Off he went in a jiffy and then in the wee hours of the next day he regaled his audience with all the minor details of his “three-and-a-half-hour-long” meeting with the COAS. (Military sources said the meeting lasted 50 minutes.)

He was similarly ecstatic about a pat on the back in 2002 from the COAS at the time as well as the chief executive of Pakistan, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf.

The pat on the back came soon after the general election that year and Qadri saw it as a signal that Musharraf wanted him to be the next prime minister.

“He boasted in Minhajul Quran meetings that he had received a signal to be the next prime minister,”

says a senior member of Minhajul Quran International, wishing to remain anonymous.

Qadri’s dream of becoming prime minister never came true and in 2004 he resigned from his sole stint as a member of the National Assembly.

In his 140-page resignation letter, he claimed that parliament had been reduced to a rubber stamp and that the role of the parliamentarians was simply clerical. He was also critical of the political and electoral systems.

Disgusted and disappointed, he announced that he would never again participate in parliamentary politics. He said he was leaving the country to devote himself to conduct research on Islamic studies — that is how he ended up in Canada, where he soon became its citizen.

“His priority was to finish his life’s work (the compilation of a collection of hadiths) which he hopes to leave for future generations,”

says Khurram Nawaz Gandapur, a Qadri confidant, explaining the reasons for Qadri’s departure abroad.

Qadri’s self-assumed title until then was Quaid-e-Inquilab (Leader of the Revolution). It changed to Sheikhul Islam (Revered Scholar of Islam) soon after he reached Canada. Eight years later, in the winter of 2012, Qadri returned, promising an overhaul of the parliamentary system that he had once rejected as useless.

 Pakistan Awami Tehreek Chief Tahirul Qadri. — File photo
Pakistan Awami Tehreek Chief Tahirul Qadri. — File photo

He announced he would march on Islamabad in January 2013 to

“bring about an Islamic revolution that will usher in a system of justice for all”.

He added, however, that his revolution would materialise through a parliament elected after a thorough reform of the electoral system on strictly moral and religious grounds. The then government made an agreement with him to implement all his proposals for reforms during the electoral process, following which he went back to Canada and remained there for the next 18 months.

When in June this year Qadri announced that he would be returning to Pakistan to lead an Inqilab March many wondered what he meant since he currently has no parliamentary presence and next-to-no prospects of winning any National Assembly seats in the coming election, whenever they happen.

The only way his inqilab can materialise is through an overthrow of the government and the only institution capable of doing that is the military.


Where it all began


The Minhajul Quran Secretariat looks like a perpetual work in progress. Its ambience reeks of the 1980s, plain and unimaginative, only designed to get the job done. Constructed in 1987 on a plot of land handed over to Qadri at less than market prices by the Punjab government at the time – headed by Nawaz Sharif – it has 20-foot high walls barricading it from the rest of the neighbourhood.

The entrance is marked with fresh graffiti in red paint. “Is this democracy?” reads one chalking; “V for Vendetta” and “Revolution is coming soon”, read others.

Qadri’s ‘revolutionary’ ideas go as far back as 1971 when he was studying law and Islamic studies at Punjab University. Writing in his diary at the time, he outlined how the primary purpose of his life was to bring about a global Islamic revolution.

The idea of such a revolution originally came from Dr Burhan Ahmed Faruqi who in those years was teaching at the same university. Faruqi – a graduate of Aligarh Muslim University who also had worked with Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Mohammed Ali Jinnah – became disillusioned by the state of affairs in the country shortly after its creation and shifted his focus on educating his students about how Quran was a revolutionary text like no other book in the world.

Faruqi’s essays and ideas from the early 1970s would culminate in a book titled Minhajul Quran.

“Faruqi devised Minhajul Quran – translated as The Path of Quran – as a method for restructuring society in accordance with Islamic values,”

says Dr Tahir Hamid, a director at the Iqbal Academy who has also edited several books written by Qadri.

According to Hamid, Qadri was inspired by Faruqi’s ideas and wanted to put them into practice.

“Qadri learned a lot from Faruqi but what Faruqi really gave him was inspiration.”

After a short stint as a lecturer in Mianwali for four years after his graduation, Qadri returned to Punjab University as a teacher of law and later as a doctoral candidate in 1977. It was here that he began to gain a following through his regular lectures in private gatherings.

A highly articulate speaker, he advocated the revival of Islam as a movement that had to go beyond rituals and dogma.

But, he would assert, such a revival could take place only as a result of a revolutionary movement for social change. His lectures coincided with two major developments – an Islamic revolution in Iran and an Islamic martial law regime in Pakistan – premised on putting Islam at the centre of the polity.

In order to legitimise his rule, General Ziaul Haq required religious scholars who could argue for changing the state and the society along Islamic lines so he personally requested Qadri to deliver lectures on the state-run television station, PTV. The lectures, aired as a show called Fehmul Quran (Understanding the Quran), became phenomenally popular during the mid-1980s.

It was through his television programmes that a dedicated congregation started to build around his lectures, people started to invite him to speak at public gatherings.

As these congregations swelled, more and more people became aligned with his thoughts. The same people would later become part of Minhajul Quran,” says Hamid. That was also when Qadri started building a media apparatus of his own.

The audio and video cassettes of his lectures and dialogues with religious personalities from other faiths, especially Christianity, were reproduced by this media machine in thousands and spread all over central Punjab.

Today Qadri’s media unit includes a fully equipped production studio and the Minhaj Internet Bureau which controls over 25 websites and is responsible for the organisation’s rapidly growing social media presence.

These early broadcasts and the books accompanying them articulated Qadri’s idea of an Islamic revolution. More importantly, they set out how Minhajul Quran, as an umbrella organisation consisting of educational institutions and grass-roots level religious activist groups, was to work as the vanguard of that revolution.

The organisation today is a well-oiled machine requiring very little direct handling from Qadri but still, everything eventually revolves around his personality and ideas.

In the gallery entrance to the Minhajul Quran Secretariat, three large portraits of Qadri, his father and his spiritual mentor, Pir Tahir Allauddin, hang side by side. Allauddin – a grandson of the first prime minister of Iraq and a descendent of the revered 12th century saint from Baghdad, Pir Abdul Qadir Jilani (or Gilani) – migrated to Quetta after his family was forced to leave their native country.

Today, he is buried in Lahore, in a compound owned by Minhajul Quran.

Allauddin brought two changes in Qadri’s life. Born as Abdul Shakoor, he chose a new name for himself – Tahirul Qadri – referring to his spiritual connections with Allauddin and, by extension, Abdul Qadir Jilani.

The second change was his coming into contact with one Mian Muhammad Sharif, a Lahore-based industrialist who was also a spiritual follower of Allauddin.

Sharif, whose sons Nawaz and Shahbaz are now respectively prime minister of Pakistan and chief minister of Punjab, was at the time the head of the Ittefaq family – a clan that owned several industries in Lahore.

He had also built a mosque close to his residence in Model Town, called Ittefaq Masjid, where Qadri had the job of delivering Friday sermons in 1982.

The association between Qadri and the Sharifs continued up until 1989 when the two parted in a controversial way. That personal vendetta still rankles on both sides as they spar in the political arena.


Leading the believers


The manner in which Minhajul Quran workers and supporters refer to Qadri immediately brings to mind a sense of selfless devotion. They talk of the miracles he performs and the dreams he has; they aspire to follow him till their every end — they even wish to lay down their lives for him.

Meraj Din, a 60-year-old worker from Manawan, a village on the outskirts of Lahore, lost his 22-year-old son, Asim, in the June 17 clashes that occurred between the Punjab police and PAT supporters at the Minhajul Quran Secretariat in Model Town. Din believes his son embraced martyrdom for the noblest of causes.

Muhammad Shabbir, who has been following Qadri since the days of his Ittefaq Masjid khutbas, has seen his leader perform many miracles. During a public gathering on The Mall in 1990, says Shabbir, Qadri predicted that Nawaz Sharif’s then government would last only two years and so it did.

At another public meeting in Chakwal, held around the same time, Qadri’s opponents unleashed a swarm of bees to disperse his audience.

“But Qadri, with a wave of his hand, made the bees go away.”

Most religious leaders belonging to the Barelvi school of thought, to which Qadri also belongs, are, however, not sure if he qualifies to be a pir, a spiritual mentor mandated to have a spiritual following of his own.

“I don’t know if he is a pir,”

says Hamid Saeed Kazmi, a former federal minister whose father, Ahmed Saeed Kazmi, was a prominent Barelvi scholar with a large following in and around Multan. Kazmi is also critical of the way in which Qadri operates. He has invited various scholars and pirs belonging to different Sufi orders to join his struggle but one apprehension we have always had is that he never discusses his plans with any one of us.

This tendency to keep himself at the centre of his religious and political activities led Qadri to set up his own political party, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), in 1989 even when a Barelvi political party – Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan – was active in national politics at the time. In Qadri’s own system of thought, PAT was the vehicle to overthrow the corrupt political order and replace it with an ‘awami’ – people’s – parliament.

On the ground, the party had a different appeal. Qadri’s ties to the house of Sharifs was seen by many of his prospective supporters as a means to get access to political and economic goodies, says Alvi, who was one of the main organisers of PAT’s inaugural public meeting in Lahore’s Mochi Gate.

“When these ties failed to translate into tangible favours for PAT supporters and Qadri himself, he fell out with the Sharifs,”

says Alvi who resigned from PAT in the mid-2000s and is now affiliated with the Pakistan Peoples Party.

“It was also a clash of personalities. Qadri can be very rigid at times.”

Since those days, PAT has become an instrument for Qadri to challenge and browbeat the Sharifs, his benefactors-turned-bête-noires. “The PAT has a support base predominantly in urban Punjab so Qadri’s natural adversary politically is Nawaz Sharif.

His rift with the Sharif family adds a personal dimension to this rivalry,” says an analyst based in Lahore.

One of the first political moves by PAT was to enter into an alliance with Tehreek-Nafaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jafriya Pakistan and the Asghar Khan-led Tehreek-e-Istiqlal. The alliance was called Majlis-e-Ishtraq-e-Amal and was aimed at countering the Sharifs in Punjab during the 1990 general election.

But it fell apart before the election over who would lead it.

 Pakistan Aawami Tehrik leader AllamaTahir ul Qadari speaks during Dharna at D chowk here on Tuesday, August 26, 2014. Photo by Tanveer Shahzad / White Star
Pakistan Aawami Tehrik leader AllamaTahir ul Qadari speaks during Dharna at D chowk here on Tuesday, August 26, 2014. Photo by Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

Taking part in the 1990 election was a humbling experience for PAT and Qadri. The party had candidates on dozens of seats, mostly in Punjab, but all of them suffered massive defeats. Disheartened, Qadri announced that he would take a break from politics and, instead, launch an educational revolution.

“It was a considered decision that election was not our field. We wanted to fight a war according to our liking and if we continued to struggle through constituencies and parliamentary processes, we could never win that war,”

says Alvi, explaining PAT’s internal thinking at the time.

For years, Qadri focused on expanding Minhajul Quran’s network of educational institutions. His next political appearance was as part of a short-lived anti-Sharif alliance, Pakistan Awami Ittehad, in 1998. That alliance, however, also broke down due to differences over its leadership.


A political odity


The initial PAT units were derived from the support base and membership of organisations affiliated with Minhajul Quran. In order to end the overlap, Qadri tried to create a separate sense of identity for PAT by conducting party elections and giving it an organisational structure independent of Minhajul Quran.

In 2013, when he came back to Pakistan to lead a march onto Islamabad, the organisation handling the arrangement was not PAT but Minhajul Quran.

Even his ongoing protest was initially being managed by Minhajul Quran, mainly because the PAT cadres and organisational infrastructure have disappeared due to his long absence from the political scene.

It was only after he decided to take his followers to Islamabad under what he calls his Inqilab March that PAT started resurfacing as the front organisation.

The fact that almost everyone in his sit-in outside Parliament House is either his religious follower or an employee or beneficiary of Minhajul Quran’s educational network means that protesters in his camp are not bothered about the political outcome of their endeavour.

All they care for is how and when Qadri announces that he has achieved his objectives.

 A burial shroud that Pakistan Awami Tehreek chief Dr Tahirul Qadri said he had brought for himself is shown to his supporters at the sit-in on the Constitution Avenue on Monday.—INP
A burial shroud that Pakistan Awami Tehreek chief Dr Tahirul Qadri said he had brought for himself is shown to his supporters at the sit-in on the Constitution Avenue on Monday.—INP

He keeps them engaged through his antics. In a speech in the early stages of Islamabad sit-in, he bared his chest challenging his opponents to shoot him before shooting his followers. In another, he waved a piece of white cloth, calling it his shroud and proclaiming he was willing to don it for the sake of his mission.

“I have one shroud here. Either I will wear it or Nawaz Sharif’s government will wear it,”

he announced.

In the same breath, he berated the economic and political system as exploitative and declared that if these institutions could be put in the shroud the poor would be free of exploitation.

“If the government – and the system – do not wear the shroud, I will. This place will then become the graveyard of martyrs.”

Such unspecific rhetoric helps Qadri mask his concrete demand which, in this latest episode of his start-stop political career, is the registration of a murder case against the Sharifs and their confidants.

How he expects the case and the {subsequent) demise of the government to transform into a change-all revolution is never made clear to those sitting in miserable conditions in front of parliament.

Equally ambiguous is how Qadri expects the government to be dismissed — unless the military steps in and scraps the entire political system.

What is in it for him? He refuses to engage in electoral politics and has no expectation of heading a future political government. So why is he so bothered about trying to put an end to the current democratic dispensation in the country? Part of the answer is that the real beneficiaries of his obstructive politics are those forces – call them the military establishment – that want a democratically-elected civilian government to remain under pressure of survival.

Another part of the answer lies in viewing Qadri as a political figure who derives his legitimacy from his ability to create a ‘state of exception’ for himself through the support of his dedicated followers.

This ‘state of exception’ allows him to retain the ability to interrupt the functioning of the political system through political agitation as and when he wants – without having to be a part of the system.

The paradox of this kind of politics is that it eventually aspires for recognition by the very system it opposes. In 2013, the government conferred legitimacy on Qadri by signing an agreement with him.

Today, his endgame will again be a formal recognition of his strength.

This article was published in the Herald September 2014 issue. Click here to subscribe to the Herald.