January 18, 2013

The Cleric in the Container


Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri addressed supporters from his container in Islamabad on Jan. 15. 
Zohra Bensemra/Reuters Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri addressed supporters from his container in Islamabad on Jan. 15.
LONDON — Between 25,000 and 50,000 people marched on Islamabad this week to demand the resignation of the government and electoral reforms. At the head of the movement is Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, a cleric who recently returned to Pakistan from Canada.

Qadri says he wants to ignite a "people's democratic revolution." Others say the protests are being orchestrated by a Pakistani security establishmentthat wants to weaken civilian authorities months ahead of a historic election.

But perhaps more than Qadri's calls, or the controversy over his intentions, it's his curious abode that may say more about Pakistan's prospects: Since Monday the cleric has been sounding the clarion from within the confines of a yellow shipping container parked in front of Parliament.

Qadri's container is bullet-proof and powered by an electric generator; it contains a heater, a fridge, a microwave oven, mattresses and a toilet. As onetweeter put it: "Wow!!! #TuQ's container is better than a normal middle-class family's house." What's more, Qadri can safely address his supporters for hours on end from within, thanks to a reinforced window.
Zohra Bensemra/Reuters Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri addressed supporters from his container in Islamabad on Jan. 15.
These, and other, precautions — which are expected to cost the Pakistani government more than $2.5 million — are meant to protect Qadri from"credible" militant threats, but so far they've only served to shield him from a stray bullet fired by an antiterrorism squad.

Ah, the ironies of staying safe in Pakistan.

Growing up in Karachi, I was accustomed to seeing blue, orange and red containers stacked high along the roads leading to the city's port. But what were once symbols of the globalized economy and regional trade have become markers of Pakistan's deteriorating security situation.

Shipping containers, which have been used to transport NATO supplies through Pakistan to Afghanistan, now represent rocky U.S.-Pakistani relations. In 2011 and 2012, to protest the killing of Pakistani soldiers in American airstrikes, the Pakistani government blocked the passage of containers for seven months and threatened to only allow the resumption of shipping for exorbitant transit fees. The containers have also become a favorite target of militants who oppose Pakistan's cooperation with the United States in the fight against terrorism.

More routinely, the Pakistani police use shipping containers to try to keep suicide bombers at bay or block off buildings and control traffic during tense times. Last year, the authorities in Karachi requisitioned containers from shipping companies to create a protective barrier around President Asif Ali Zardari's residence in Karachi. These makeshift fortresses have bred resentment among locals by signaling the political elite's growing disconnect from — and fear of — the public.

And now, there is Qadri's refuge. While he kicks back in his big box, warm and secure, his supporters have to sleep on the cold, hard roads of Islamabad. One tweeter described the disparity like this:


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