In earlier times, Greek playwrights who had allowed their script to become inextricably complex would use a theatrical device to unravel the knotted plot and bring the play to a satisfactory conclusion. The device, which came to be known as the deus ex machina (literally, “god in the machine”), found expression in the advent into the story of a “godly character” who would descend onstage from a mechanical crane — and move in myriad ways his wonders to perform. However contrived the device may have been, it provided both playwright and theatregoers a way out of theatrical dead-ends, leaving room for a closure.
In the long-running Greek tragedy of Pakistani politics, which has in recent times revealed a horribly tangled plotline, just such an improbable deus ex machina has entered, stage left, hoping to bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion. He comes in the bearded form of Tahir-ul-Qadri, the Pakistan-born, Canada-based Sufi cleric who returned to his homeland with a call for a mass upsurge against the democratically elected civilian government, and whose advent adds a twist to the convoluted tale of Pakistani politics.
Qadri himself hasn’t outwardly conveyed that he is looking for political power for himself, but is for now merely channelling his influence — as an “outsider” to the feudal political system and as a world-renowned moderate Muslim scholar of Islamic jurisprudence — in order to throw out the “corrupt” civilian government.
In fact, it is this that accounts for Qadri’s dramatic ascent on the platform of Pakistani politics, virtually from nowhere, and the mass popular appeal that he holds for now. Qadri’s rise, and the manner in which he has positioned himself as a moderate Muslim leader, will inevitably give rise to expectations in India that he is perhaps the kind of leader that India can do business with – but such scenario-building is unrealistic for now, given the volatility that characterises the polity in Pakistan.
Qadri’s credentials as a moderate Muslim who speaks out boldly against the jihadism that has overrun Pakistan is well-earned. In 2010, he famously unveiled his fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombing, which channelled his rigorous study of Islamic scriptures.
In his preface to his 600-page fatwa (which you can read in its entirety here), Qadri reasoned that he thought it necessary to explain to the Western and Islamic worlds “the proper Islamic stance on terrorism” in the context of the Koran, the prophetic traditions (hadith) and the classical books of Islamic jurisprudence and theology. “The underlying purpose,” he wrote, “is to present this point of view to significant institutions of learning, important think tanks and influential opinion-making organisations around the world, so that both the Muslims and non-Muslims who entertain doubts and reservations about Islam are able to understand Islam’s stance on terrorism more clearly.”
As Dr Joel S Hayward, Dean of the Royal Air Force College in Cranwell, noted in his introduction to the book, the power of Dr Qadri’s argument stems from the fact that for the first time in a fatwa, an internationally renowned scholar has demonstrated that there can be no possible justification for deliberate violence in the name of Islam outside of the context of organised warfare. “This is itself only permissible when undertaken according to strict criteria based only on self-defence and adherence to justice,” and Dr Qadri demonstrates that “regardless of any claimed motives, however righteous they may seem, evil acts will remain evil.”
Last year, Qadri visited India, and generated a bit of controversy with his advice to Muslims in Gujarat that they needed to move on from their sense of victimhood arising from the 2002 riots. He even thanked Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for providing him security during his visit to that State.
As typically happens in such situations, Qadri’s comments were pounced upon by those who have a vested interest in keeping the wounds of the 2002 riots from healing. Leaders of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema accused Qadri of “praising the killer of Muslims” and “calling Muslims terrorists”. Such statements, noted Jamiat leader Moin Ahmed, echoed the views of America and Israel, or the RSS and the Bajrang Dal.
The controversy even compelled Qadri to clarify that he had merely suggested that such “unfortunate incidents” (as the riots in Gujarat) should not be repeated, and that people should learn to live in peace.
For a religious scholar, Qadri has also exhibited a keen understanding of the power dynamics of Pakistani politics, and in particular the pivotal role of the judiciary and the Army. He counts on these two institutions as the only ones that function in Pakistan.
All this has triggered speculation that Qadri is perhaps fronting for the military. Such perceptions have been reinforced by his calls for political reforms, which could have the effect of delaying the next round of parliamentary elections. The Pakistani Army has been effectively kept out of political power for the past five years — the longest that it has been away from power in Pakistani history — although its influence behind the scenes stands undiminished.
Qadri’s ascent could have the effect of undermining the political support base of cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, who was long seen as the incorruptible “outsider” to the feudal political system who would rescue Pakistan. Khan too was widely perceived to be acceptable to the Army-ISI establishment for his public articulation of dissent against the US-led war on terror within Pakistan and the drone attacks inside Pakistani territory. But in recent times, Imran Khan’s support base has eroded somewhat, and Qadri is looking to fill the political vacuum, ostensibly with the tacit support of the military.
It is hard to predict precisely how the course of politics will run in Pakistan in the next few weeks and months. Yet, for now, the advent of the “godman in the machine” — in the form of Qadri — has provided an interesting twist to the plot.