The Canadian cleric seeking revolution in Pakistan

Tahir-ul-Qadri, the Pakistani-Canadian cleric seeking to lead a peaceful "revolution" to bring down the government in his homeland, is hailed as a saviour by his followers but considered a military stooge by his detractors.

He gained a measure of international attention for his scholarship on moderate Sufi Islam including a fatwa against suicide bombings, feted by some in the West.

But his latest return to Pakistan where he seeks to topple the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for alleged election-rigging has made him a divisive figure and once again put the country's fragile democracy in the spotlight.

His critics say he is a dangerous demagogue who has allowed himself to be used by the powerful army -- which has ruled Pakistan for more than half its existence -- to carry out its own agenda of destabilising civilian authorities.

His supporters -- mainly drawn from the educated lower middle classes of populous Punjab province -- see him as a man who can effect a "revolution" and as an antidote to Pakistan's corrupt power elite.

Since Qadri's arrival in Pakistan in June amid chaotic scenes that saw his Emirates flight diverted from Islamabad to Lahore, his supporters have been involved in clashes with police that have left at least 10 protesters dead according to authorities -- though the group alleges 22.

In a telephone interview from his Pakistan Awami Tehreek (Pakistan People's Movement) headquarters in Lahore, the 63-year-old blamed Sharif for tarnishing his group's peaceful reputation.

"Since our foundation 33 years ago, there (has been) no single incident of any (even) minor violence. How could our workers become violent all of a sudden now? This is all disinformation."

A former university professor, Qadri meticulously reels off a list of articles in the constitution he says the government has violated, and lays out his own vision for a highly devolved form of democracy that would see the creation of dozens of provinces over the present four.

- Sufi moderate -

In 1981 Qadri set set up Tehreek-e-Minhaj-ul-Quran, a religious and educational network promoting inter-faith harmony that operates in more than 70 countries.

He founded a political party but took until 2002 to get elected to parliament under military dictator Pervez Musharraf, only to resign two years later after purportedly becoming fed up with the system.

Newspaper columnist Ayaz Amir sees in Qadri's movement the political expression of a traditional South Asian form of Sufi Islam, with its reverence for saints and shrines and tolerance for Shiites, that has been relegated to the background for decades.

"The dominant Islam since the time of Zia-ul-Haq has been those elements which were all right-wing Islamists," he said, referring to Pakistan's second military ruler who helped finance and train the Afghan Muhajideen who later became the Taliban.

"Only now is Qadri giving a political voice to this form of Islam... this is a positive development and something that must be strengthened."

Prime Minister Sharif has hinted that both Qadri and the protest's other leader, former cricket hero Imran Khan, are being used by the army -- which is angry over Musharraf's ongoing treason trial -- to destabilise the government.

But while Khan leads the country's third-largest party, Qadri's followers boycotted the last election following a similar "long march" on the capital last January that resulted in a peaceful sit-in lasting four days.

"Qadri is not a legitimate player in this game," said columnist Umair Javed.

Others have cited Qadri's dual citizenship as problematic, saying he has not proved he is even rooted in Pakistan where the law prevents dual nationals from contesting for parliament.

Qadri dismisses the argument.

"If the stage comes that I am going to contest election of parliament then at that time I will decide what I have to do.

"Sometimes you can bring constitutional amendments too... I don't believe this is a fair provision," he said.

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