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Enter through the narrow gate

“The sun came up upon the left, out of the sea came he! And he shone bright, and on the right went down into the sea.” Thus began the southward journey of Coleridge’s ancient mariner. The rest of the poem is about the slaying of the albatross and the consequences of that dreadful sin. The vessel, after negotiating furious snowstorms and dreadful hazards, eventually drifts into the doldrums and remains “as idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean.” The mariner is tormented by hideous fears and redemption comes only after penance and self-reform.

It is this reform that Tahirul Qadri, the leader of the Tehreek-e-Minhaj-ul-Quran (TMQ), has been shouting from the rooftops about since his return to Pakistan. The storm that he unleashed raged through the political landscape of the country for 25 days. from December 23 to January 17, ended with a whimper and resulted in a compromise with those he had verbally mauled as brigands, rogues and fraudsters a few hours earlier.

Qadri had vowed he would overturn the status quo and bring down the ramparts of corruption. The poison-ivy-cloaked citadel that the TMQ chief had said he would raze to the ground still stands. Nothing is likely to change. Some of the clauses of the Islamabad Long March Declaration, which Qadri negotiated with a ten-member composite delegation representing the parties of the ruling coalition, contravene provisions of the constitution and can be challenged in the Supreme Court. The magic of the long march quickly evaporated like early morning dew, and, amazingly, a fruit vendor in Islamabad’s Kohsar Market described Qadri’s extravaganza as “much ado about nothing.”

But despite such criticism, the long march was a triumph for the people of Pakistan. Tens of thousands of men, women and children converged on the federal capital. For four days and nights they braved the near-freezing winter. They were disciplined, organised and as peaceful as monks sworn to non-violence.

The event showcased a face of Pakistan that was far removed from its universal image as a land where schoolgirls are shot for demanding no more than their right to a proper education; where women are buried alive for reasons of honour; where frenzied crowds, drunk by distorted religious beliefs, lynch and burn to death suspected blasphemers; and, where terrorists breed and slaughter indiscriminately. What the multitudes that had thronged in Islamabad have done is project a soft image of their country to the world, a laurel that 65 years of diplomacy failed to achieve.

Despite being a hugely controversial figure, the credit for this remarkable achievement goes to Tahirul Qadri, who galvanised and motivated the people to give their best. The same spirit can be marshalled for defeating the dreadful ideology of terrorism and promoting interfaith harmony on which the TMQ chief has done more work than any other religious or political leader of the Islamic world – and this has been acknowledged internationally.

But what catapulted Qadri into the international limelight was his March 2010 ‘Fatwa on Terrorism’. The 600-page edict was described by the US State Department as a significant publication which takes Islam back from terrorists. Foreign Policy quoted the cleric as saying: “I am trying to bring (the terrorists) back towards humanism. This is a jihad against brutality, to bring them back towards normality. This is an intellectual jihad.”

The international celebrity status goaded Qadri to organise the first ever anti-terrorist camp for Muslim youth in Britain at Warwick University in August 2010, and, eleven months later, he was invited to address the parliament of New South Wales in Australia. On September 24, 2011, the TMQ convened a Peace and Harmony Conference at London’s Wembley Arena which was packed to capacity with more than 12,000 participants representing different faiths. Messages of support poured in from the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, the secretary general of the OIC, Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the UN secretary general and others.

Had Qadri remained faithful to his pledge of waging “an intellectual jihad” against terrorism, he would have emerged as one of the outstanding men of his times. But this is a difficult and dangerous road which only a few dare to traverse. The Bible says: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate, and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Qadri has, instead, chosen the easy way and merely indulged in rabble-rousing outbursts against the fraudulent leadership with whom he eventually compromised to secure a position of influence for himself in the decrepit system which, he had sworn, he would demolish.

As a result, the TMQ chief has severely undermined his own credibility and stirred a hornet’s nest. Al-Azhar University scholars have accused Qadri of styling himself as Sheikhul Islam without any warrant. They claim that he has never been able to produce any documentation to show how he had acquired the grandiloquent title other than post a video on the Internet which showed the Al-Azhar president, Muhammad Usama Al-Abd, using this honorific for introducing Qadri during a meeting. The scholars have explained that Al-Abd’s function is purely administrative and he has no authority to confer such a title on anyone.

The TMQ leader’s critics have also alluded to his speech on February 25, 2012 in Vadodara, which infuriated Indian Muslims because he not only urged them to forget the 2002 Gujarat carnage but also thanked Chief Minister Narendra Modi for providing him security. The prominent cleric of Hyderabad, Maulana Naseeruddin, angrily denounced Qadri for adding insult to the injury of Muslims.

Similarly, Qadri’s detractors refer to his comments on the blasphemy laws. A video clip shows him telling his European audience in September last year, when the Rimsha Masih episode had lacerated Pakistan’s visage with another horrendous scar, that he was not complicit in the formulation of the laws which, at all events, applied only and exclusively to Muslims. Furthermore, he had sharp differences with the manner in which they were enforced.

But in another video recording he tells his Pakistani listeners: “The blasphemy law, Article 295-C, was only and entirely created by Allah through this servant and brother (me)! Nobody else has contributed to it. Muslim, Jew, Christian, believer, infidel, man or woman, will be executed like a dog” should they blaspheme. Such duplicity has rarely been witnessed in the past decades.

One conspiracy theory doing the rounds is that the firebrand cleric’s long march was a monumental farce enacted in connivance with the PPP and PML-Q. With an eye on the coming elections, the objective of the two dominant parties of the ruling coalition was to use Qadri’s towering stature among the Barelvi Islamic moderates in Punjab to neutralise the hard-line Deobandis and Ahl-e-Hadith who side with the PML-N and religious parties.

This is the other face of Tahirul Qadri. The ancient manner sought and found redemption through penance and regret as a result of which “a sadder and a wiser man, he rose the morrow morn.” But the TMQ leader is still as arrogant as ever. The people of Pakistan have a right not merely to ask, but demand an explanation from him.

The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@gmail.com

S. Iftikhar Murshed, "Enter through the narrow gate," The News. 2013-01-28.