Tahirul Qadri is a man of many hats. Priest, protester, politician, public orator. He wears each with the same conviction. He weaves in and out of Parliament, the country and the political landscape effortlessly. Well, almost. Sometimes it goes horribly wrong. In 2014, the Punjab police tried to remove barriers on the road leading to the Lahore headquarters of Qadri’s Minhajul Quran educational complex. A violent clash between law enforcement and protesters resulted in over a dozen deaths in addition to over 100 people sustaining injuries. Qadri’s relationship with the Sharifs, whom he had once led in prayers in a Model Town mosque in the mid-1980s, had come full circle — the battle that had begun since their split in the late 1980s taking a bloody turn.
Born in Jhang to a respected prayer leader and preacher, Qadri – or Abdul Shakoor as he was named – got his religious spurs under the tutelage of Tahir Allauddin Al-Gilani, a Sufi saint and custodian of the shrine of Ghous-e-Azam Abdul Qadir Gilani in Baghdad. He then went on to study law at Punjab University. In 1981, he founded Minhajul Quran, a non-profit providing education, religious and cultural services. Qadri was known for his anti-jihad fatwas, a perceived antidote to the belligerence of militant Islamic outfits and their ideologies.
Qadri has also always harboured political ambitions. He founded his own political party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek, just in time for the 1990 general elections. The party managed to field popular personalities such as former Pakistani cricket team captain Fazal Mahmood. But it did not win a single seat. Disillusioned, Qadri turned his focus on his religious and scholarly endeavours before returning to the ballot in 2002. The lone seat won by the party belonged to Qadri himself.
The constituency, NA-127 in Lahore, interestingly has around 30,000 non-Muslim registered voters, mostly Christians. The Sharif brothers, in exile in Saudi Arabia at the time, would’ve done well to keep an eye on Qadri’s cajoling and alliance-making capabilities.
It didn’t take long for Qadri to take a pass on Parliament. Perhaps disappointed for not being given a more prominent political role by then President General Pervez Musharraf, Qadri resigned from the National Assembly and moved to Canada in 2005. Seven years later, in 2012, he was back as agitator at large, leading a “million-man march” against a Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) government at D-Chowk, Islamabad. His demands of the PPP were vague and the protest largely inconclusive, appearing to many as non-democratic. The 2014 sit-in that he staged with (and without) Imran Khan in 2014 also raised eyebrows. Qadri’s dislike for and distance from Raiwind was beginning to echo an affinity for and proximity to Rawalpindi. And his lavish praise for the armed forces was beginning to sound very familiar.
The invisible but ubiquitous establishment has historically used pawns to disrupt the political process. Players emerge, seemingly out of nowhere, as did Khadim Hussain Rizvi recently, to create a destructive, albeit effective distraction to discredit democracy. These players usually have no mass following, except the ability to stage protests, and no solid political agenda. And yet, they often succeed in painting a dismal, toothless image of elected representatives.
A few years and more than a few controversies later, Qadri managed to bring all opposition parties on the same stage. Well, almost. Using the rape and murder of six-year-old Zainab Ansari and the murders at Model Town to fire a fresh salvo against the Sharif brothers, he convinced the warring PPP and PTI, along with all other major parties, to unite against the “tyranny” of the government.
Imran Khan and Asif Ali Zardari did not share the stage at any point during the rally on Mall Road, Lahore, on January 17, but Qadri navigated the icy divide with tremendous tact. Qadri could well be redrawing political battle lines. And this does not bode well for the Sharifs no matter which way they seek friends. Foes outnumber them.
Qadri’s actions reek of opportunism. He has used the Model Town killings for political mileage and to bring affected families to protest on the streets of Islamabad for months. He has politicised the rape case in Kasur where he led Zainab’s funeral prayers to highlight administrative failure in Punjab, ignoring a similar crime that took place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa around the same time.
His comparison of Nawaz Sharif and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is also an attempt at exploiting a dangerous civil-military divide, leaving one wondering if there is a master of puppets behind the master of protests. Will the maulana’s Machiavellian maneuvers bring the House of Sharifs down? The jury is still out.
A previous version of this profile stated that Zainab Ansari was eight years old. We apologise for this error.
This was originally published in the Herald's February 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.