Irfan Ali  /  AP
Mumtaz Qadri, who allegedly killed Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, sits in a police van in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Tuesday.
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updated 1/5/2011 5:21:47 PM ET 2011-01-05T22:21:47

Lawyers showered the suspected assassin of a liberal Pakistani governor with rose petals as he entered court. Some 170 miles away, the prime minister joined thousands to mourn the loss of the politician, who dared to challenge the demands of Islamic extremists.

The cheers and tears across the country Wednesday underscored Pakistan's journey over the past several decades from a nation defined by moderate Islam to one increasingly influenced by fundamentalists willing to use violence to impose their views.

Even so-called moderate Muslim scholars praised 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri for allegedly killing Punjab province Gov. Salman Taseer on Tuesday in a hail of gunfire while he was supposed to be protecting him as a bodyguard. Qadri later told authorities he acted because of Taseer's vocal opposition to blasphemy laws that order death for those who insult Islam.

As Qadri was escorted into court in Islamabad, a rowdy crowd patted his back and kissed his cheek as lawyers at the scene threw flowers. On the way out, some 200 sympathizers chanted slogans in his favor, and the suspect stood at the back door of an armored police van and repeatedly yelled "God is great."

Many other Pakistanis were appalled.

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"Extremist thought has become so mainstream that what we need to question in Pakistan is what people think constitutes extremism now," said Fasi Zaka, a 34-year-old radio host and columnist.

Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, helped establish the country in 1947 as a moderate Islamic state welcoming all minority groups and religions. But that foundation has slowly been eroded over the years, especially in the 1980s during the military rule of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, who imposed a more conservative brand of Islam on the country.

The U.S. participated in this process by providing Zia's government with billions of dollars that it funneled to the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in neighboring Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia also provided billions and established scores of conservative Islamic schools that have played a major role in empowering the religious right in Pakistan.

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Analysts say a majority of Pakistan's Muslims still follow a moderate form of Sufi-influenced Islam. But there are signs that even some of those beliefs may have shifted to the right. An influential group of 500 clerics and scholars from the Barelvi sect, which opposes the Taliban, praised Taseer's assassination.

The Jamat Ahle Sunnat group said no one should pray or express regret for the killing of the governor. The group also issued a veiled threat to other opponents of the blasphemy laws.

"The supporter is as equally guilty as one who committed blasphemy," the group warned in a statement, adding politicians, the media and others should learn "a lesson from the exemplary death."

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and other senior ruling party officials joined up to 6,000 mourners under tight security to pay homage to Taseer at a funeral in the eastern city of Lahore. Other parties, including the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N, which is more aligned with religious groups, had limited presence at the event.

The response to Taseer's murder among ordinary Pakistanis seemed mixed. Some praised Qadri for targeting the governor, who in recent weeks had spoken forcefully in favor of clemency for a Christian woman sentenced to die for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

"Salman Taseer committed a grave crime calling the blasphemy law a 'black law,'" said 30-year-old Ghulam Murtaza, a farmer on the outskirts of the southern port city of Karachi.

Others condemned the killing.

"It is sad that he spoke from the heart and was murdered," said Farhat Firdous, a communications professional in Karachi.

But even critics said the government must be very careful about how it deals with the blasphemy laws, which rights activists say are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.

Marvi Sirmed, 38, said human rights activists such as herself increasingly have less room to maneuver as the Islamists have gained power. Twenty years ago, rights groups were demanding a full repeal of blasphemy regulations. Now they are willing to settle for simply amending, or at least weakening, laws they view as detrimental to women and minorities.

Conservative religious parties staged a massive one-day strike at the end of December to protest any attempt by the government to amend the blasphemy laws. In the face of such street power, the ruling Pakistan People's Party, a largely secular minded party, said it had no plans to amend the laws.

But 66-year-old Taseer, who was a senior member of the ruling party and close ally of U.S.-backed President Asif Ali Zardari, refused to back down, triggering death threats. He is the highest-profile political figure to be assassinated since Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was slain three years ago.

Qadri, who allegedly pumped more than 20 rounds from his assault rifle into Taseer's back in an Islamabad market, has yet to be charged. Questions have arisen over how he managed to be assigned to Taseer's security detail.

Faisal Raza Abdi, political adviser to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, said Punjab police told him that the department had months ago deemed Qadri as a security risk and warned that he should not assigned to protect high-profile figures. Abdi said the fact that he was allowed to guard Taseer suggested others may have played a role in the killing.

"I do not think this is an individual act. It is a well-planned murder," he told The Associated Press by phone.

After the attack, Qadri threw his weapon down and put his hands up when one of his colleagues aimed at him, pleading to be arrested alive, a senior police official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case.

The assassination has further deepened turmoil in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where the economy is barely scraping by and suicide attacks by Taliban-linked groups are an ongoing threat. The government is also struggling with the collapse of its ruling coalition.

Mosharraf Zaidi, an independent analyst and columnist in Islamabad, said Taseer's death indicated just how dire the situation in Pakistan has become.

"There has been a steady erosion of reason from the public space," said Zaidi. "Words like liberal and secular have become demonized in Pakistan."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: 'An act of true moral heroism'

  1. Closed captioning of: 'An act of true moral heroism'

    >>> you hear the word martyr tossed around a lot, especially in reference to politics to describe politicians. rarely is the term used accurately. rarely are the politicians in question actually willing to accept death rather than renounce their beliefs. rarely have they endangered themselves in an act of true moral heroism. that is not the case of the governor of pakistan 's punjab province . somebody took a stand who took it knowing it would put him in danger. today taking that stand cost him his life. police say the governor, salman tesir was gunned down at a market in islamabad by one of his own elite bodyguards. he was shot at least nine times by a man assigned to protect him. the bodyguard surrendered to police. that's him there. he told them he killed the governor because tasir opposed pakistan 's harsh blasphemy law. the law was being used to prosecute or persecute a christian pakistani woman after she angered some of her fellow agricultural workers. her supporter says the problem started when she touched the water bowl of fellow workers and ended with charges against her for making derogatory marks against the prophet mohamud. and when she was convicted of making those alleged derogatory remarks she received the mandatory tense sentence which is death. two months ago governor tasir paid that woman a visit. he was photographed with her. he proposed changing the blasphemy law and he took his very public campaign to save her life to twitter. on new year's eve he posted, quote, i was under huge pressure to cow down before rightest pressure on blasphemy. refused. even if i'm the last manned standing. one day later he wrote unimpressed by mullah rightest madras is a demo yesterday. small numbers abusive, well-organized no general support . here is the demonstration tasir was talking about. in protests religious leaders warned the government about altering the blasphemy law, the one with the mandatory death sentence . most politicians tried to play indicate the religious extremists by assuring them the government did not intend to change or repeal the law. one politician did not do that. one politician said he was unimpressed and call the protesters abusive. that kind of honest and courage rare. that kind of honesty and courage being t orn apart by religious extreme is. for years after the assassination of benazir bhutto . nearly ten years into the war that the u.s. is raging near if not increasingly inside of pakistan . he knew he was risking his life by speaking out. fat was were issued against him. today gunned down by his own bodyguard for defending a woman against a mandatory death sentence . it cost him his life. he suspected it is. that is worthy of chivalry. it is worthy of the title of martyr. she

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