Tahir-ul-Qadri could well be called Imran Khan with better timing, a beard and a more religiously appealing resume

Whether or not the neatly bearded cleric commanding the crowds in Islamabad will succeed in toppling the flailing Zardari government may not be known, but he has undoubtedly been blessed by the benevolence of good timing. The week before Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri began to gather his supporters for the march on Islamabad was bloody even by Pakistan’s recent death smeared standards. On January 10, 2013, the Wednesday before the march, two bomb blasts ripped through the embattled city of Quetta killing over a hundred of the city’s beleaguered Shia Hazara minority. North of Islamabad, in the town of Swabi, another bomb blew up a seminary killing another 20. In the south in Karachi, in the shadow of a 2012 that saw over 2,000 killed in targeted attacks of varied origin, a single hour of the same day saw 11 shot dead outside a homeopathic hospital. Two days in Pakistan and over 200 killed. And those were the extraordinary troubles, the ravages that came atop the fuel strikes in Karachi that routinely paralyse millions of commuters, the natural gas shortages in Punjab that prevent hordes from cooking their evening meals, the measles epidemic sucking life out of hundreds of children in Sindh and scores of health workers felled by the Taliban.

Scepticism to blame

Against this grim backdrop of failure; arrived an Allama from Canada, the leader of a group named Minhaj ul Quran; known not for its politics but long advocated “moral and spiritual reform.” It is not that Pakistan has not ridden the heady waves of fiery reformers before. Most would remember the rousing rallies in which Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf leader cricketer Imran Khan drew thousands and, by some ebullient estimates, even hundreds of thousands to his ranks. His too was a promising cross-sectional mix; fervent Pakistani youth, bearded and clean shaven, headscarved and not, rich and not so rich all united under the umbrella of change. The dimensions for the cricketer of yore were similar to the cleric of now; a new figure willing to take on the feudals who have clutched onto power for too long; able to whet with sportycharm the nationalist passions of a politician wary Pakistani public. Imran Khan spoke of accountability and avarice and grabbing the collars of all the fattened bureaucrats and lethargic leaders; the men who didn’t pay taxes and turned their backs on the poor and cared little for the tears of the unconnected and the ordinary. But if the ache for change was on the side of the charismatic cricketer; timing may not have been, and the space between the engagement and the wedding proved too long, as the months to the promised elections of 2013 crept by ever so slowly, the slow poison of scepticism began to settle into the cracks in the promised upheaval and wedge themselves into crevices. Was he accepting too many feudals into his ranks, wasn’t his house just as big as those of other leaders, and wasn’t his ex-wife British? None of it was damning, but together it dampened the flames of a fire-driven machinery just enough.

Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri then could well be called Imran Khan with better timing, a beard and a more religiously appealing resume. To the Pakistani public, all of it makes him absolutely irresistible, a harbinger of change at a time when any change at all seems better than the crushing punishing status quo. Like the protesters in other parts of the Muslim world; Tahir-ul-Qadri’s supporters seem to have no decided agenda; asking at once for the dismissal of a duly elected government and a return to constitutionalism and the rule of law. The microphones at the Qadri march blared at one moment thumping patriotic music and at another the calls to prayer. The mix would be confusing if it wasn’t so particularly Pakistani — with his amalgamation of faith and moderation, his repeated avowal of spiritual and moral reform and his insistence on peaceful protest; Tahir-ul-Qadri seems to have evaded all the usual categories that have exhausted and enraged Pakistanis. He is neither the violent Islamist nor the fattened feudal, not the ethnic commander nor the tattling technocrat and in being nothing, he seems to have come dangerously close to becoming the something many Pakistanis would like to follow.

The danger of course lies in the very ambiguity Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri has been able to harness. Most troubling among these is the fact that unlike Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, he has decided to operate outside the party system, never attempting to create a political party but harnessing the reformist power of a faith-based reform movement to gather thousands in the streets. To the most pessimistic, watching a bearded man, who speaks of constitutionalism but not of contesting democratic elections; of getting rid of a government without enumerating the basis of selection of the next, who gives few details of what would happen after the corrupt and inept leaders of now are finally dragged out of office, seems a dangerous mix away from Pakistan’s always delicate democracy. If they are correct, the appearance of Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri may seem the first visible symptom of a long secret ailment ravaging Pakistan; the Pakistani public’s decades long move away from feudal and technocrat dominated politics and decrepit institutions to the faith-based reform movements that have no faith in the party system. Or it could be the usual Pakistani disease; a new front for a military always waiting in the shadows, always impatient with political transitions and able perhaps to create just the right man to fit just the morose mood. To the supporters of Tahir-ul-Qadri huddled in borrowed blankets and threadbare sweaters, in the settling fog of a cold Islamabad night, the details of such dynamics may not matter at all, their chilled and weary focus remaining instead simply on change, in any form and at any cost and under the leadership of any man.

(Rafia Zakaria is a PhD candidate in Political Theory/Comparative Politics at Indiana University, Bloomington. E-mail: rafia.zakaria@gmail.com)

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