This week, an ailing Pakistani preacher has travelled to the United States for medical treatment. The visit has generated few headlines – he is not a well-known global figure.
However, in Pakistan, in Canada (where he is now based), and within some Muslim communities elsewhere around the world, people know all about Tahir-ul Qadri.
They know not just about his frail health, but also about the network of religious institutions that he runs across Pakistan, his work as an Islamic scholar, and the street protests he has recently staged in major Pakistani cities as the leader of the Pakistan Awami Tehrik (P.A.T.) party.
Yet, even many of those familiar with him would admit that he is a mystery.
“Yet, even many of those familiar with him would admit that he is a mystery.”
He is, above all, a man of immense contradictions. He has issued fatwas against suicide bombings and casts himself as a voice of peace, yet he also delivers fiery speeches calling for revolution. He casts himself as a man of the people by calling for the elimination of corruption and energy shortages in Pakistan (and by expressing his preference for Tim Hortons coffee in Canada), but he has also spoken to the shivering masses from the comfort of a heated container. And he flies first class.
In recent years, Qadri, who is not a top politician, has developed close links to Pakistan’s top politicians. First came his friendship with the family of Nawaz Sharif, the country’s current prime minister. For years, Qadri led Friday prayers at the family’s mosque in Lahore. Then came a partnership with Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former military leader, and in recent months, Qadri has teamed up with Imran Khan – the former cricket hero reinvented as a populist (and deeply polarizing) politician – to lead an anti-government movement.
Additionally, Qadri – who likes to keep a low profile in Canada – is frequently associated with big-ticket happenings. The sit-in that his young and fervent supporters staged with Khan’s supporters in Islamabad this past summer represented a major threat to Sharif’s rule, and brought Pakistan perilously close to a takeover by the military, which has ruled the country for nearly half its existence.
In Pakistan, whenever someone enjoys relationships with high-profile people, is associated with seminal political events, and boasts the ability to mobilize scores of people on the streets – all while being based abroad – there is a tendency to suspect some level of support, if not sponsorship, from Pakistan’s über-powerful security establishment.
However, the idea of the Pakistani military latching onto the frail preacher seems a bit far-fetched, not to mention infeasible. After all, it’s hard to stage-manage the moves of someone living thousands of miles away.
What’s more likely is that Pakistan’s security establishment views Qadri (who often praises the military in his speeches) as a useful if indirect proxy who can pressure and weaken a Pakistani government that the military cannot stand. Sharif is no friend of the Pakistani army – his interest in reconciling with archenemy India and his decision to charge Musharraf with treason have not gone down well at military headquarters.
By mobilizing young people on the streets (some of whom, according to one media report, are paid by P.A.T. leaders to stay on the streets), and by delivering anti-government diatribes, Qadri in effect helps cut the government down to size, and consequently strengthens the hand of the Pakistani military.
To be sure, this is what Khan does as well, and he enjoys a larger following and bigger name than Qadri does. Ultimately, however, the military may find Qadri more useful and consider him more pliable and disciplined than Khan, who some observers see as a grandstander who often goes off script.
Herein, then, lies the significance of the mysterious Tahir-ul Qadri: Whether inadvertently or not, he helps facilitate the Pakistani military’s iron grip on politics. He helps the armed forces maintain this tight grip without needing to hold power directly – something they likely have little interest in, given Pakistan’s many unprecedented and seemingly intractable challenges.
All this said, Qadri remains a wild card. Consider that his past relationships with both Sharif and Musharraf eventually soured. And several weeks ago, he attacked Khan in a speech and claimed that the P.A.T.’s “alliance” with Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party was no more.
Qadri doesn’t seem terribly invested in deep and long-term political relationships. Given the volatile vagaries of Pakistani politics, one can’t dismiss the possibility that for the Pakistani military, a proxy today could become a pariah tomorrow.