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Cleric leaps from low-profile life in Canada to center of Pakistan's political maelstrom

W. Khan / EPA

Tahir-ul Qadri, with white cap, greets Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, head of coaltion party Pakistan Muslim League Quaid on Thursday after successfully negotiating an end to the four-day Islamabad protest he ignited.

Seemingly overnight, the moderate Islamic cleric and Canadian émigré Tahir-ul Qadri, whose massive protest forced Pakistan’s government to agree to major concessions on Thursday, has risen from obscurity to become a force to be reckoned with in Pakistani politics.

Until this week, local TV anchors and headlines did not scream his name, as they do now. His face was not plastered on rickshaws and lampposts, nor on signs carried by the 50,000 people who followed him to a sit-in, camp-out, anti-government protest in the cold and rainy streets of Islamabad, where they remain, celebrating his negotiated agreement with government representatives.

But the 62-year-old Qadri landed squarely at the center of Pakistan's latest political crisis, which saw a population desperate for change and frustrated by leaders long-accused of corruption and ineptitude seize upon his message of free, fair elections and accountability at the highest levels.


Qadri, who only returned to his homeland in late 2012, had demanded the immediate dissolution of the current government and sweeping reforms to guarantee free and fair national elections, which are expected to be held this spring. He agreed to something less in Thursday's declaration, signed after hours-long, closed-door discussions with government representatives. The deal calls for the dissolution of the current government before March 16, with elections to take place within 90 days, and a pledge to enforce Pakistan's Constitution regarding the eligibility of political candidates. 

Despite denying having any political ambitions, Qadri made himself a part of the political process by stipulating in the declaration that meetings to discuss Pakistan's Election Commission make-up would be held at his office's headquarters and that his own political party -- the Pakistan Awami Tehreek -- would help select a caretaker prime minister. 

Lahore-based defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said that Qadri fell short of his aims.

"His assessment was that as he raises populist demands, other groups and parties will fall in line and he will become the undisputed and popular leader of Pakistan. This did not happen," Rizvi said. "However, the federal government in Islamabad has become hostage, because he has brought huge number of his followers to Islamabad, making it impossible for the government to take any action against him."

Tahir-ul Qadri, a moderate Islamic cleric who led a protest in Islamabad that forced the government to make major concessions on Thursday, tells NBC News that his movement is aimed at implementing 'transparency' into Pakistan's government.

Still, for a country built on a feudal mentality, where political loyalties are handed down over generations like family heirlooms, Qadri’s accomplishments are no small feat.

So how did he do it? One former government official, who attended a Qadri rally this week, heard him address the crowd, and spoke to those in attendance, called that "the million dollar question."

"This chap .. he comes here and he holds a huge public meeting in Lahore, which is very well organized and very well-attended, and then this enormous march to Islamabad?" wondered the official, who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity. "How did this happen? Who's supporting him? It's a mystery to me." 

Professor C. Christine Fair, who teaches at Georgetown University and studies Pakistan, calls Qadri's sudden emergence on the national stage "theater,” and suspects the country’s powerful military helped to engineer the cleric’s return and organize his massive protest.

"If this came out of civil society, he'd be universally lauded,” she said. “The reason he's not is that a lot of people think he's got an invisible hand behind him. This isn't Pakistani civil society saying enough is enough. It's something else."

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For the last seven years, Qadri has by all accounts led a quiet life in Toronto, where he immigrated with his wife and children. But he'd made a name for himself in certain Pakistani circles much earlier. 

In the mid-1980s, early in the presidential tenure of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, the young Qadri was already a known quantity in the corridors of power.

According to a former government official, Qadri was one of a handful of Islamic scholars called in to present his views on how a proper Islamic state should function to Zia -- who came to power in 1977 in a military coup and launched the Islamization of Pakistan -- and his cabinet. Whether or not his input was used is unclear, but he left an impression -- that of a confident, moderate, articulate young scholar who was incredibly knowledgeable on Islam. 

His early political career in Pakistan, however, was brief and largely forgettable. He founded the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) political party in 1989, listing education as its top priority and promising to revive "the faith of the masses in politics, elections and the government." Qadri briefly held office as a member of parliament during the military dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, from 2002 until he resigned in protest in 2004. One local report at the time quoted him as saying that Musharraf had reduced parliament's power to "a rubber stamp." 

"I don't feel that I should sit in such a powerless parliament which can be suspended with a single stroke of a general's pen," he told Pakistan's Daily Times at the time. 

But after leaving the political arena, Qadri succeeded in developing an international network and loyal following in religious and social circles. In 1981, he established an organization called Minaj-ul-Quran International (MQI), founded to promote "true Islamic teachings and philosophy" for those "dissatisfied with the existing religious institutions and organizations and their narrow-minded approach," according to the group's website. 

The MQI manifesto espouses, "Love, peace, harmony, universal brotherhood, justice, equity and prosperity," and boasts a registered membership of 280,000 worldwide. The organization claims to be operating in more than 90 countries, including operating 69 educational and cultural centers in Pakistan, and 600 schools educating 170,000 students across the country. A social welfare and disaster relief sister organization was added in 1989, which the website says has delivered aid to victims of "the Tsunami affecting Indonesia; the Bam earthquake, Iran; the South Asian earthquake in Pakistan, as well as various developments and educational projects in Pakistan and other underprivileged countries."

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After founding MQI, Qadri appears to have spent years trying to be heard and cultivating his public image. He wrote books (1,000 of them, according to his website, of which 43 have been published), delivered lectures (5,000 total, 1,500 of which are available for purchase on CD or DVD at MQI sale centers "around the world"). His message and achievements are cross-published and highlighted on multiple websites, including those of his Islamic organization, his political party and his personal site

But it wasn't until March 2010 that he strode onto the international stage. Qadri wrote and published a 500-page “fatwa,” or Islamic decree, "to place the Islamic stance on terrorism precisely in its proper perspective before the Western and Islamic worlds." The document, which is available for download in four different languages, lays out Quranic laws prohibiting terrorism and the killing of others in the name of Islam. At the time, nine years into the West's "War on Terror," his unequivocal language condemning terrorist acts set him apart from most Muslim scholars, and the world took note. His fatwa won praise from the U.S. State Department, drew international news coverage and made Qadri a sought-after speaker on the international circuit. 

In November 2010, he came to Washington, D.C., and delivered a lecture at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He spoke at the United States Institute of Peace that same month about the struggle against radicalism in Islam. He traveled to England and Australia to discuss terrorism and integration. But back in Pakistan -- where gas prices ballooned, power shortages proliferated and terrorism intensified -- Qadri remained a non-player. 

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But while he enjoyed success in his adopted country, Qadri's home country was in precipitous decline. 

The International Monetary Fund last year issued a dismal report on Pakistan's deteriorating economy, citing "deep seated and structural problems and weak macroeconomic policies" that have led to low GDP growth and a drain of foreign exchange reserves. Terrorist attacks have killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis and left the country teetering on the precipice of security chaos. A 2012 Gallup survey revealed President Asif Ali Zardari's performance ratings had plummeted and that 87 percent of Pakistanis believed the country was headed in the wrong direction. Power struggles between the military, judiciary and ruling government persisted, preventing legislators hell bent on maintaining their posts from turning their full attention to the nation's needs. 

Many thought the answer to the country's ills lay with former cricketer-turned-presidential-candidate Imran Khan. His self-proclaimed "tsunami" of supporters, inspired by his reputation as an outsider determined to change the system, set attendance records at his rallies, and gave Pakistan's notoriously rough-and-tumble journalists someone to cast as the political dark horse. But the candidate of change lost some of his shine in the Fall of 2012, when he began cherry-picking senior members of the same political parties he was criticizing for his leadership team. One senior adviser, Shireen Mazari, resigned from his party in protest in September. In her resignation letter, she accused Khan of trading his original ideals for “traditional ‘electables.’”

For a country seeking salvation, Qadri, free from the confines of political process, checks the boxes that others in the current cast of characters in Pakistani politics cannot. 

Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images

Supporters of Pakistani Muslim cleric Tahir-ul Qadri flash victory signs in Islamabad Thursday as they celebrate government concessions on upcoming elections.

"Who are the other people to be supported?" asked one former government official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are maybe not as incompetent and corrupt (as the current government leaders), but they are very good runners-up."

Qadri's message, on the other hand, has been simple and consistent. 

He has demanded free, fair and transparent elections in a country where political patronage is often bought. He's demanded that political candidates meet the constitutional requirements for candidacy, such as paying their taxes. A recent investigation by Pakistani journalist Umar Cheema found that fewer than one-third of Pakistan's members of parliament file annual tax returns, including president Zardari. 

Rizvi says Qadri's support is borne of "widespread alienation" in Pakistan, and is in reaction to the poor performance by the federal and provincial governments. 

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But professor Fair believes Qadri's quick rise has all the hallmarks of Pakistan's powerful military, which has historically worked to influence policy and force political turnover -- both behind the scenes and through direct intervention. Though the military leadership has publicly taken a backseat during power struggles playing out before national elections, she believes it is privately pulling strings to prevent the same government officials from winning a majority, and to keep its hand in the game.

"They know that Pakistanis will not tolerate a direct military intervention. And this is (going to be) the second peaceful transition where parliament serves out its full term in Pakistan," Fair said of the military leaders. "Every time it happens, it makes it more difficult for the army to intervene. I don't think the intention is to overthrow the government -- it's to weaken the PPP (ruling party) before elections."

In an interview this week with NBC News, Qadri lambasted the current government as a "total failure," but insisted his goal was to reform, not topple it.

"We want to eradicate our political process and electoral process from might, money and manipulation," he said. "We want true democracy in place.”

He vehemently denied any support from Pakistan's military, or from external forces, as has been speculated in the local press, calling it "a false accusation," and "disinformation."

Now that he has the ear of the country and its leaders, it's unclear what Qadri will do next. 

Under the agreement signed Thursday, he has a role to play in the lead-up to elections. And while he insists he holds no political ambitions, that doesn't stop him from comparing himself to the elected-leader of the United States when asked what he stands for.

"I would say my slogan is like the slogan of Obama in America," he said. "He stood for change. If Americans accepted the slogan of change and voted for him, why not the same change? Democratically formed, the change in the corrupt system, why not the same change, democratically, peacefully should come in Pakistan?” 

NBC's Wajahat S. Khan and Fakhar Rehman in Islamabad, and Mushtaq Yousafzai in Peshawar, contributed to this report.

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