Populist Islamic Scholar Vows to Turn Islamabad Into World’s Biggest ‘Tahrir Square’

By Patrick Goodenough | January 3, 2013 | 4:32 AM EST

Pakistani Islamic scholar Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri addresses a mass rally in Karachi on Tuesday, January 1, 2013. (Photo: Minhaj-ul Quran)

(CNSNews.com) – As Pakistan heads towards a springtime election, a charismatic religious leader has vowed to turn Islamabad into the world’s largest “Tahrir Square” on January 14, predicting that millions will gather in support of a peaceful revolution against what he describes as a corrupt and feudal capitalist system.

The challenge posed by Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a populist Islamic scholar, has rattled Pakistan’s political establishment, with some accusing him of acting as a front for the military.

Pakistan has endured four military coups and a fifth unsuccessful attempt, and more than half of its 65-year history as an independent state has been spent under military rule. Its stability is a key concern for the United States, given its nuclear weapons arsenal, its troubled relationship with India and long entanglement in Afghanistan.

This year’s election would mark the first time in Pakistan’s history that power is transferred democratically by a civilian government having completed a full five-year term. The ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) are both worried that Qadri’s movement may jeopardize that.

On December 23 Qadri called a rally in Lahore that drew more than one million people, and his pledge to quadruple that turnout in a “journey for revolution” – a march from Lahore to the capital, a distance of some 130 miles – is not being viewed as an empty threat.

Adding to the government’s concerns, a leading political party that is a member of the PPP-led coalition, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), has now agreed to support and participate in Qadri’s mass rally.

So concerned is President Asif Ali Zardari that he dispatched his interior minister, Rehman Malik, to London on Wednesday to discuss the matter with MQM leader Altaf Hussain (Hussain has lived in the British capital for a decade, since surviving an assassination attempt at home.)

Malik delivered a message from Zardari urging the MQM leader to reconsider support for Qadri’s planned long march.

Qadri is demanding that the government hold consultations with the judiciary and the military, resulting in the formation of a caretaker government to introduce electoral reforms before voters go to the polls.

“Our agenda is the elimination of feudalism and capitalism,” he told a large rally in Karachi on Tuesday, calling for a return of a “genuine democracy.”

“We want a caretaker government which is totally impartial, powerful and honest and possesses the courage and the political will to bring about electoral reforms.”

Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri draws large crowds to his rallies, including this one in Karachi on Tuesday, January 1, 2013. Last month more than one million people attended a gathering in Lahore, and he has vowed to bring four million to Islamabad on January 14. (Photo: Minhaj-ul Quran)

On January 14, Islamabad would boast the biggest “Tahrir Square” in the world, he said, invoking the Cairo site where the uprising against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was launched.

Four million people would gather to “demolish the wall of cruelty with one stroke,” Qadri said, but also cautioned that the event would be peaceful: “No leaf will break and no bullet will be fired on January 14.”

Addressing the same Karachi rally by phone from London, Hussain of the MQM called the planned event “a revolution against tyranny and injustice,” and said the army and other national institutions should support rather than hinder it.

Qadri denies having any political ambitions himself, saying he has no wish to become a caretaker prime minister, as some have claimed. Allah has bestowed more honor on him than any prime minister or president enjoyed, his website quoted him as telling a gathering in Lahore last weekend.

Qadri, who recently returned to Pakistan after living in Canada for seven years, is a former law professor who heads an international organization called Minhaj-ul Quran. Its stated goals are to promote religious moderation, education and interfaith harmony.

He is an adherent of the Sunni Barelvi school of thought, the largest in Pakistan. Barelvis are sometimes viewed in the West as moderates because they oppose al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But they hold extreme views regarding shari’a and blasphemy towards Mohammed.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow