Dr Tahirul Qadri — Islamic scholar, professor of law, founder of the socio-religious organisation Tehrik-e-Minhajul Quran International and “citizen of two worlds” — Pakistan and Canada — has returned home after eight years and taken, if not Pakistan, at least Islamabad by storm. He has arrived, messiah-like, when the disaffection of most citizens of this large country — deprived of gas, electricity and affordable staples — has reached saturation, if not boiling, point. Some 50,000 of his supporters — men, women, girls and children, many from rural areas, others from urban areas and more educated — peacefully occupied the main Blue Area boulevard in Islamabad in near-freezing winter weather for almost five days at a stretch.
His movement for electoral reforms to rid the federal and provincial parliaments of those who are corrupt and/or do not pay taxes or do not repay loans has raised many questions, not least about its chances of success. To many, the timing is suspect, as for the first time in Pakistan, a democratically elected government is set to complete in two months’ time its full five-year term, leading to a caretaker government for conducting fresh elections. Is it to facilitate another Army takeover, which the military has however denied?
Even if we accept the fact that he has a well-organised system across Pakistan and abroad, the funds required for such a large meeting that he addressed on his arrival in Lahore a month ago, for the long march to Islamabad on January 14 and the subsequent dharna (sit-in) will appear to some to be indicative of significant support from abroad. Activist Muslim sects and movements in Pakistan have been supported since the American-inspired Afghan jihad against Russian occupation by various nearby Muslim countries, leading to sectarian strife. Does the sudden rise of Qadri indicate that the western countries are now backing his moderate Muslim movement with its clear anti-terrorism message, based on the traditional and populist Barelvi sect? On its own merits, such a movement is what Pakistan needs to counter terrorism at home and rectify its image abroad.
Tactically, it seems Qadri may have over-reached. His demands for immediate dissolution of the assemblies and reconstitution of the Election Commission, isolated him from most political parties, who termed them non-serious and unconstitutional and assembled publicly and hastily to pledge their protection of the democratic system and commit to having elections on time. Had his followers become uncontrollable, the government, initially uncertain how to respond, might well have arrested him. In the event, their increased number, steadfast presence and consistent discipline impelled the government to wisely meet and negotiate with Qadri, leading to the signature of the Islamabad Declaration on January 17 between Qadri and the government/coalition partners; committing the government to issuing a date for elections, well preceded by parliamentary dissolution, and a month-long period for strict scrutiny of candidates. It is unfortunate that the opposition could not rise to the occasion and participate in this entente. While the agreement has been criticised for lacking substance and co-opting Qadri as a virtual partner of the government, it should eventually impact Pakistan’s political landscape, keeping in mind that political change is an incremental process.
Qadri was able to use his eloquence and marshalling of street power to highlight the need for electoral reform through strict implementation of the existing articles of the constitution and of electoral mechanisms. However, how to implement such reform remains a difficult process in the face of the political elite who have persisted throughout in power — a classic catch-22 situation. What matters is that the need for such widespread reforms has been publicly articulated and acknowledged.
Furthermore, irrespective of whether or not he has some hidden agenda and the people behind it, the support he has received demonstrates the demand for better governance. Walking along the Blue Area boulevard one was impressed by the courage and commitment of his followers. The mood of the large multitude of people from all over the country, waving a sea of Pakistani flags, was infectious and optimistic. One met people from the tribal areas, a boy who had come all the way from faraway interior Sindh, having sold his goat to be able to do so! Another participant said their leader had decreed that “not even a leaf be touched in this our capital city”. None of the opportunism evident in political rallies was visible in this case. To the contrary, one was struck by Qadri’s supporters’ dedication to the promise of change.
His main achievement and legacy brokering this agreement should be two-fold — to hold a mirror to Pakistan’s flawed political process, as a wake-up call to the political parties to improve their performance as befits a modern-day democracy, and to establish the foundation for an activist and nationwide religious force firmly opposed to extremism and terrorism. He has strikingly showcased the Pakistani populace’s desire for both.
Rehana Aziz is an Islamabad based analyst.