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Pakistan’s protest preacher

January 16th, 2013
07:23 PM ET
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Pakistani FM discusses political turmoil

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar discusses her country's political turmoil with CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

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Pakistan's protest preacher

Islamic cleric Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri discusses the protests he is leading in Pakistan with CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

Pakistan revolution or political theater? 

 By Samuel Burke, CNN

Every time the world’s attention turns to Pakistan, it seems like another wheel has fallen off the bus.

The country is seeing a new wave of suicide bombings and Taliban threats, while new tensions with neighboring India have arisen once again over Kashmir.

Last week brought some of Pakistan’s worst-ever sectarian violence. In just one day a series of bomb blasts killed nearly 100 people in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood.

Now a fiery Islamic preacher is drawing large crowds of protestors with his calls to fight Pakistan’s endemic corruption.

Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri gained prominence with his fatwa against terrorism in 2010.

Last month, massive crowds in Pakistan followed the 61-year-old cleric from Lahore to Islamabad. Now,  tens of thousands of followers  are  camped out around him at the doorstep of the country’s parliament.

Speaking to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour  on Wednesday from the bulletproof container from which he preaches, ul-Qadri said that his aim is to make the democratic process more “free and fair.”

He denied accusations that he is putting Pakistan’s upcoming elections in jeopardy, saying that this is “the most appropriate time” for him to take up his cause.

The country is poised for its first-ever democratic handover of power from one civilian government to another.

Ul-Qadri also denied allegations about the opaque source of his funding. In addition to his protests, commercials with his image are running on Pakistani television. Many suspect he is backed by the military.

“I have no connection with the military establishment,” he said indignantly.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar dismissed ul-Qadri as a “non entity” in a separate interview with Amanpour on Wednesday.

“30,000 people is no big deal,” Khar told Amanpour. Pakistan has a population of over 176 million people.

She acknowledged that corruption is a concern for the government, but said ul-Qadri lacks credibility.

“This character has launched himself in Pakistan to deliver the Pakistanis from their own elected leaders,” she said.

Khar said that a date for elections will be called before March 16, and then occur some 60 to 90 days after.

Khar also expressed uncertainty about the source of ul-Qadri’s funding, but pointed out that the military issued a statement distancing itself from him.

“There are all sorts of conspiracy theories about him, but he does have an organization which is very well organized,” Khar said.

She does not think, however, that a coup is likely, despite the attention on ul-Qadri.

“That would be the worst case-scenario,” she told Amanpour. “I would not worry about it because Pakistan has now become a civil society.”

India and Pakistan’s border

There has been a recent outbreak of border violence and military tensions over Kashmir, but it appears that one of the worst flare-ups since a ceasefire was signed nine years ago might now deescalate.

“The best way to deal with this – rather than raising the rhetoric and any sort of negative commentary – is for a political-level discussion,” Khar told Amanpour. “I am open to dialogue with the Foreign Minister of India. I invite him for a dialogue at the political level so we can resolve the cross-LoC (line of control) issue, the crossfire issue, and to ensure that we continue to respect the ceasefire. This is crucial.”

Constant attacks against Shiite minority

Human Rights Watch says more than 400 Shiites were slaughtered in 2012.

In the most recent attacks against Shiites, the victims’ families refused to bury their dead until the government addressed their concerns.

“The government needs to step up the game. There’s no question about it,” Khar said, but stressed that tensions between Shiite and Sunni are not as deeply rooted in Pakistan as they are in other Muslim countries.

“In my school, in the parliament, in my workplace I don’t know who is Shiia or Sunni. For the broad majority of Pakistanis this is not an issue – ethnicity is not an issue. However there are these fringe elements who will try and make it an issue and create chaos through it,”

Khar said that the government needs to give the minority group additional protection, adding that the focus will be to go after the groups that are attacking the Shiite minority.

Pakistani leader meets protesting families of bombing victims

CNN’s Juliet Fuisz produced this piece for television.


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