Toronto, Canada and Lahore, Pakistan – For years, Muslim religious leader Tahir ul-Qadri was an unknown entity to many Pakistani-Canadians, despite living among them in the metropolitan hub of Greater Toronto.
As a religious scholar and writer, Qadri eked out a low-key existence, developing a small group of followers who came to him for guidance, despite being well known for charity work back home in Pakistan.
In fact, it was not until he returned to his homeland that Qadri propelled himself back into global headlines.
In the run-up to Pakistan’s 2013 general election, the former parliamentarian led a protest march to the capital, Islamabad, and he returned again this year to champion a “revolution” in Pakistan.
“Most people realised that Qadri was based in Canada a few months ago during his rally,” Sarah Shafiq, an active member of the Pakistani-Canadian community in the city of Kitchener, about an hour outside of Toronto, told Al Jazeera.
Together with cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, Qadri, who leads both the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) political party and the Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MQI) network of religious schools, drew out tens of thousands of supporters who have been calling on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign.
On Tuesday, Qadri decided to call off the sit-in in front of parliament after 65 days, whereas Khan announced that he would continue his party’s protest until Sharif resigns.
Guidance from afar
Qadri, who is married with three daughters and two sons, moved to Canada in 2005 after resigning from Pakistan’s parliament the previous year, ostensibly to protest against former president Pervez Musharraf’s counterterrorism policies.
For much of the past decade, Qadri has concentrated on his academic research and penned dozens of books from his home in Greater Toronto Area, visiting Pakistan annually, Qadri’s spokesperson Shahid Mursaleen, told Al Jazeera.
He may wish to usher in a radically new system. Or, he may be a pawn of the security establishment that wishes to put pressure on an unpopular government that is often at odds with the armed forces.
“Dr Qadri has no headquarters or anything in Canada and he only used to do academic research from home. He never received any funding from anyone in Pakistan or anywhere else,” Mursaleen said, noting Qadri was not directly involved in any “organisational activities” while in Canada, beyond occasionally giving lectures via video link.
PAT President Raheeq Abbasi told Al Jazeera that a “revolutionary ideology” had been a primary tenet of the charity organisation MQI, back when it was founded in 1981. By then, Qadri had grown in public stature through his religious sermons and lectures.
The organisation received a major boost when he developed a close relationship with the family of Sharif, who would go on to become the prime minister twice, and currently holds the post for a third time. Qadri led Friday prayers at the Sharif family’s Ittefaq mosque in Lahore for years.
That relationship proved fruitful for MQI, too, as it allowed them to build a large headquarters in a central part of Lahore, and also introduced Qadri to the broader public through his popular show, “Fehmul Quran”, which was broadcast on state television. A bitter falling-out with the Sharifs, however, coincided with the rise of Qadri’s own political ambitions.
MQI contested elections unsuccessfully in 1990, failing to win even a single seat. He returned to the political spotlight in 1998, as the head of an anti-Sharif alliance, the Pakistan Awami Ittehad, which featured several major opposition parties, but chose to boycott elections for more than a decade.
Qadri then decided to support Musharraf, who had come to power via a military coup in 1999. But in 2002 polls, Qadri managed to win the sole seat for his party.
By 2004, Qadri quit the assembly, explaining his qualms with the system in a lengthy resignation letter. This time he moved to Canada once again to focus on MQI.
“We are one of the first parties to have raised the issue of electoral rigging, and you can see our party which caters to middle and working classes, because it is for them that this slogan of revolution is relevant. We used to make audio and video cassettes, so the maximum amount of people got our message,” said Abbasi.
Qadri had over the years maintained an image of a moderate scholar, but he gained international recognition after releasing a 600-page fatwa against suicide bombings and terrorism. He returned to Pakistan in 2012 and launched a massive rally in January 2013 against the then government led by Pakistan People’s Party.
Funding for MQI, meanwhile, has continued to come through public donations and income from the sales of Qadri’s hundreds of books and DVD lectures, according to Mursaleen.
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Although experts point out that the detailed funding structure for MQI has never been publicly disclosed, the donation network for MQI and Qadri appears to have grown exponentially through the years.
Moreover, Qadri’s alleged links to Pakistan’s military – which recently called for talks to end the ongoing political crisis – have spurred much speculation in recent months.
“Although his spokesperson maintains Qadri never backed the military while in parliament, he always had a ‘soft spot’ for the armed forces – support that has continued in recent days with speeches lauding them,” Michael Kugelman, a senior programme associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, told Al Jazeera.
While Qadri’s official line is that he wants to convert Pakistan into a “true” democracy that supports religious minorities and human rights, at other times he has suggested he wants the military to return to power and many of his speeches are laced with violent rhetoric, Kugelman added.
“In the end, we just don’t know,” he said. “He may wish to usher in a radically new system. Or, he may be a pawn of the security establishment that wishes to put pressure on an unpopular government that is often at odds with the armed forces. Or perhaps he is simply a spotlight-craving politician who wants to be in the news. We really don’t know. And we may never know.”
While it may be unclear what Qadri wants, he has been able to retain his party’s cadre and support base through the MQI. Members of MQI and PAT whom Al Jazeera spoke to, described Qadri as a spiritual leader and many spoke of their willingness “to die for him”.
Many PAT members have benefitted from the growth of the organisation, either attending Qadri’s university or even being employed by the MQI organisation.
Inamullah, a PAT worker from Lahore, who has been participating in the sit-in in Islamabad tried to explain: “We believe in [Qadri], we have a spiritual connection, we have read his work, and will stay here for however long he wants. There could be two types of relations – we have a religious and spiritual relationship, and we are willing to do anything for [Qadri], even give our lives for him and his vision.”
Kugelman described Qadri as “an enigma wrapped in a riddle”, citing clear differences in how he portrays himself to Pakistani citizens versus Westerners.
When he speaks to a Canadian audience, Qadri emphasises his support for democracy, civil rights and peace. But speaking in Pakistan to non-English audiences, “he tends to be more fiery and emphasises the need for revolutions and battles”, Kugelman said.
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