Lahore: Tahir-ul Qadri, the cleric who for days has led tens of thousands of protesters outside Pakistan’s parliament, is hailed as a saviour by his followers but a dangerous demagogue by his detractors.
Slight of build, with a white beard, spectacles and a penchant for pin-striped jackets, the mild-mannered 61-year-old with perfect English, who rails against the Taliban, is a fiery orator who whips crowds into a frenzy.
A former university academic who taught Islamic law and jurisprudence, in 1981 Qadri set set up Tehreek-e-Minhaj-ul-Quran, a religious and educational network promoting inter-faith harmony and operating in more than 70 countries.
He founded a political party but took until 2002 to get elected to parliament under military dictator Pervez Musharraf, only to resign two years later allegedly fed up with the system.
Qadri then moved to Canada, ostensibly because it was an easier base to manage his enormous global organisation and to travel on the international circuit — where he is a favourite for his outspoken denunciation of terrorism.
Then suddenly, he returned to Pakistan on December 20.
Three days later, he pulled a crowd of 100,000 at a rally in Lahore, where he gave the government three weeks to start initiating reform or face a mass sit-in in Islamabad.
He calls himself a “caretaker” of the rights of Pakistan’s 180 million people and their interests, and refuses to be palmed off as a cleric.
“I want to tell the rulers — ‘You are not facing a mullah but a constitutional expert. I have never been a prayer leader I have been teaching law in universities’,” he told the crowd on Wednesday.
His unexplained return, just months before the elected civilian government in March becomes Pakistan’s first to complete a full term, has rattled the liberal elite and the political classes.
They are convinced he is the frontman for a military plot to bring down the government and stop the democratic transition.
He repeatedly denies he is looking for public office, and is ineligible as a dual Canadian-Pakistani citizen.
The silence of the generals in Rawalpindi, the home to military HQ, and the slick organisation of the masses in the street with an internet, email and Twitter campaign, have also been interpreted as signs of collusion.
But to his followers — members of an emerging middle class and the unemployed frustrated with lack of jobs, inflation, crippling power cuts, terror attacks and corruption — he represents hope for the future.
Where the wealthy feudal and industrial families have failed, they believe others — although exactly who is unclear — should take over.