Sufi Cleric Behind Pakistan Protests

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. They want to throw the bombs out. Sounds like Washington, but these demonstrators calling for change today were in Islamabad, Pakistan. This was the third day in a row that protestors took to the streets of Islamabad to demand the resignation of the Pakistani government. They accuse the government of being corrupt, and they want an interim government to take over while a new election is organized. The protestors are followers of a Muslim cleric named Tahir-ul-Qadri.

Tahir-ul-Quadri [recorded speech, translated]: "It's the beginning of a revolution, of reforms, of vote rigging, which will bring transparency, accountability, and eligibility of the candidates. This should be done now, not after the election."

Werman: Tahir-ul-Qadri is frequently described in the press as a firebrand cleric, but that phrase doesn't convey what an unusual figure ul-Quadri is. Shamila Chaudhary is Senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation and has been following Quadri's movements. Tell us first of all, Shamila, who Tahir-ul-Qadri is and why he is such an unconventional politician in Pakistan terms.

Shamila Chaudhary: Ul-Qadri was a politician in the 80s in Pakistan, and he left politics in protest of the rampant corruption and bad governance that plagued it, and moved to Canada and became a Canadian citizen. But at the same time he had started a large religious organization in Pakistan which is rumored to have thousands of schools and a large following, so he's been maintaining this organization from Canada. He himself is fairly conservative but not provocative and not very closely aligned with the Jihadist mentality that we see strong in Pakistan right now. He himself is fairly educated, is a constitutional law professor, has studied American and British law. So this is someone who's extremely knowledgeable about the world and is trying to mesh modern values in business and financial affairs with conservative Islam. He's not just appealing to this kind of radical, small, 2% group of individuals who align themselves with more conservative, militant organizations.

Werman: Just a couple of examples of how unconventional Qadri is, he preaches a progressive form of Islam embracing women's rights, he's written a long detailed Fatwa condemning terrorism as un-Islamic, he's even gone on a peace tour with people from arch-rival, arch-enemy India. So how compatible are these things with conservative Islam?

Chaudhary: I think it's extremely compatible. That's not the confusion that's affecting the situation right now. The confusion is actually, why has he arrived right now at this moment, and why is he calling for regime change? If he in fact is pro-democracy like he says and wants legitimate democratic change in Pakistan, he should let the government finish its term. It's a very historic moment for civilian leadership in Pakistan. If the PPP can finish its term, it will be the first ever government in Pakistan history to be uninterrupted by military rule or extra-constitutional measures to get rid of it. So I actually question his motives and his agenda. If in fact he's pro-democracy, this government needs to finish its term so all the political actors and stakeholders can understand what it means to have a peaceful transfer of power. He's just coming in and interrupting that entire process.

Werman: I was going to ask you how popular is Quadri? Is there a chance he could make a difference?

Chaudhary: I think we're already seeing that. His mark has generated a fair bit of momentum to make a difference. Then you have, I think, some parts of the political establishment amongst the political parties who are also curious about this, and they're waiting to see what comes of this. What I think is actually going to happen is that the government is likely to respond to some of this pressure. It's pretty significant, and the images of people spending the night in the streets, and there have been reports of unprecedented numbers of women and children in the streets protesting, these are pretty significant. I don't think that the government wants the international media to focus on these too much.

Werman: As to those protests where there are women and children out on the streets, the protests that Quadri is leading, what do you make of the fact that we're seeing a different side of Pakistan, a different demographic out protesting?

Chaudhary: I think it was inevitable that we were going to see this in Pakistan. For at least a decade now the international media has overwhelmingly focused on the counter-terrorism problem in Pakistan, which is a very real issue, but it's been at the expense of these democratic forces and the evolution that's been happening in the country. It's been independent of the counter-terrorism issue and of the United States and of the war in Afghanistan. I think what we're seeing on the streets this month means that there are actually organic Pakistanis that are also eager for change, and they want to see their country move forward, and they're sick and tired of status quo politics.

Werman: Shamila Chaudhary with the New America Foundation, thanks so much for telling us about Tahir-ul-Quadri. We appreciate it.

Chaudhary: Thank you.