Dear Tahirul Qadri, you cannot be a leader as you are three years too late to demand justice for the Model Town brutality

Published: August 15, 2017
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Tahir ul Qadri waves to supporters. PHOTO: AFP

In January 2013, The Express Tribune reported,

“Dr Tahirul Qadri’s ‘million-man march’ began from Lahore towards its destination, Islamabad.” 

For much of Pakistan, and the rest of the world, this was the first time people had heard of Tahirul Qadri. Before he rose to eminence, Qadri was best known for the altruistic and educational activities of his international religious charity, the Minhajul Quran Foundation. He also issued a 500-page long fatwa against terrorism at London’s Wembley Stadium, securing his place amongst the moderate clerics in the Islamic spectrum. In just a few weeks’ time, he became part of the defining political movement in Pakistan in 2014 – the Islamabad Long March.

Perhaps the aspect of the movement that drew the most attention was one which Qadri was most personally vested in – the Model Town incident on June 17, 2014.

The New York Times reported,

“At least seven people have been killed and about 100 wounded in Lahore in violent clashes between the police and followers of Tahirul Qadri. The clashes started about midnight when a large contingent of police officers reached the headquarters of the Pakistan Awami Tehrik, Mr Qadri’s party, and demanded that his supporters remove barricades that they called illegal outside the office and an adjoining residence.”

The incident drew the attention of national and international audiences while typically divergent political factions united behind the Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT), Qadri’s party, to denounce the excesses of the Punjab police. Many individuals saw this as a direct consequence of Shehbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif’s involvement in the incident.

Qadri was hence propelled to the international stage on the back of tragedy and used his new position to stall government machinery in the nation’s capital with fellow populist leader, Imran Khan. Their demand was simple, that Nawaz should step down from office since the elections which had propelled him to premiership were illegitimate.

Three years later, Nawaz is out after the Supreme Court’s verdict, but Qadri is back to “claim justice for the victims of the Model Town incident”. Two days after Pakistan’s Independence Day, Qadri is set to lead a sit-in on Lahore’s busy Mall Road. This isn’t the first time Qadri has returned from Canada, where he lives, to demand justice. In 2016, Qadri led a sit-in at Rawalpindi, demanding justice for the families of the Model Town victims. In January 2016, the PAT chief decided to enlist himself as a party in the Model Town incident.

As reported,

“Advocate Rai Bashir’s 11-member panel will appear in the Anti-Terrorism Court to represent PAT in the case. As the first step, the order of declaring Tahirul Qadri and other leader of PAT as proclaimed offenders will be challenged by the party. Earlier Qadri said that he and his workers will go to any limit to get the justice for the victims of the Model Town incident. He was addressing a press conference at Minhajul Quran secretariat Lahore. Tahirul Qadri said that PAT’s FIR on Model Town incident is against 160 people and they will not sit back until they get justice for their martyred workers. He said that the Judicial Commission should publish the report on the Model Town incident and the case should be run in a military court. Qadri said that his party will go to any limit including long march or sit-in but the ball is in the government’s court now.”

Qadri’s actions are a classic case of the oft-mentioned legal division between mens rea and actus reus –the intention and the act. For many, Qadri’s sermons and fatwas as a cleric are a breath of fresh air for Pakistan’s suffocating conservative cleric-dominated group of religious experts. In addition, the recommendations he has given for electoral reform, particularly those pertaining to electoral malpractice, are not only constructive but also well informed. He was, after all, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Punjab.

Moreover, his work through the Minhaj Welfare Foundation, which provides emergency aid, health care, welfare support, education to the poor and those affected by natural disasters on a global level, is certainly worthy of commendation.

However, here is where mal-intent intertwines with benevolent action, as it so often does in Pakistan. Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), despite its extremist ideology, has won the hearts and minds of millions because of its almost unparalleled non-government involvement in disaster relief, education and healthcare.

Similarly, the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), hailed by economists and social activists alike, has been seen as a pawn used by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to mobilise support in rural Sindh. Qadri’s actions might not fall into this category, but it is important to analyse the Model Town incident once more before we pass judgment.

I am a resident of Model Town where Qadri’s Minhajul Quran Foundation is headquartered and where the massacre of 2014 took place. In the days preceding the incident, it was nearly impossible for local residents to leave their homes. Men armed with sticks patrolled the streets, evoking images of an enforced martial law. In fact, the barricades that hinder mobility within the area – the stated reason for the police clashes in the first place – remain to this day, a blatant violation of not just zoning laws but also municipal authority.

Qadri’s movement and his reasons for it were arguably justifiable, but the means with which his followers conducted themselves evoked more fear than respect from Model Town’s citizens. And they continue to do so today.

There is a chance that Qadri’s return this year is indeed altruistically motivated – to seek redress for innocent protesters who were killed while exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech. At the same time, Qadri’s inflammatory rhetoric against all things government, coupled with the fact that it is simply impossible to control the actions of every zealous follower, worry those, like myself, who were witness to the tragedy of 2014.

We are hopeful that his scholarship and following can bring about positive change in democratic and religious discourse, but we are also afraid of the possible violence which might precede it. Until these apprehensions that the people of Model Town hold are addressed, Qadri cannot be a leader of the people.

What do you think of Tahirul Qadri returning to Pakistan?

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Hamza Tariq

Hamza Tariq

The author is set to start a BSc in International Relations degree at the London School of Economics. He worked as an intern under Ambassador Haqqani at Hudson Institute and under Dr Ishrat Hussain at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He tweets as @hamzataq (twitter.com/hamzataq)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.