ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The increasing radicalization of Pakistani society was laid bare Wednesday when the nation's mainstream religious organizations applauded the murder of provincial governor Salman Taseer earlier this week, while his killer was showered with rose petals as he appeared in court.
Taseer, 66, the governor of Punjab, the country's most heavily populated province, was assassinated Tuesday by one of his police bodyguards after Taseer had campaigned to ease Pakistan's blasphemy law. Religious groups threatened to kill others who questioned the blasphemy statute, which is designed to protect Islam and the Prophet Muhammad from "insult."
Pakistan is a key partner for the U.S. in the global fight against terrorism but waves of fundamentalism have produced an increasingly intolerant and anti-American country, making the alliance with Washington hugely unpopular.
While terrorist acts are generally associated with an extremist fringe, the gunning down of Taseer appears to have significant support that reached into the heart of society.
And in an odd dichotomy, the slaying also is limiting the already restricted levels of free speech in Pakistan even as the hate speech by the clergy, including calls for Taseer's murder before his assassination, goes unpunished.
For 30 years, Pakistan's powerful military have had a policy of supporting Islamic militant groups, and propagating a hard-line religious culture to feed the jihad. Some analysts think that protection has caused moderates to stay silent.
"The state has become weak because it has supported non-state actors," said Khaled Ahmed, an analyst based in Lahore. "There are many centers of power as a result."
The accused killer, Mumtaz Qadri, appeared Wednesday in court, unrepentant, where waiting lawyers threw handfuls of rose petals over him and others in the crowd slapped his back and kissed his cheek, as he was led in and out of the court room under heavy security. The Internet had already been hosting fan pages for Qadri, with one page on Facebook attracting over 2,000 followers before it was taken down. In addition, there were small demonstrations in north west Pakistan in favor of Qadri.
While the regular big political parties strongly condemned the murder, and thousands attended the funeral prayers for Taseer Wednesday in his hometown of Lahore, both major religious parties declared that he deserved to be killed for his views.
The issue was spark by Taseer's championing of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy late last year. He said she was wrongly convicted.
"Salman Taseer was himself responsible for his killing," said Munawar Hasan, the head of Jamaat e Islami, one of the two big religious political parties, in a statement. "Any Muslim worth the name could not tolerate blasphemy of the Prophet, as had been proved by this incident."
In the meantime, questions linger over the assassination.
Local media reports suggested that Qadri, 26, was a known radical in the police service who had previously been declared by his superiors as unfit for guarding VIPs. He told interrogators that he was proud to have killed a "blasphemer."
News accounts also said that Qadri, part of Taseer's security detail, had tipped off other guards about his plan to kill the Punjab governor. The other bodyguards didn't seem to react as Qadri on Tuesday emptied a whole clip of bullets into Taseer, in a market in central Islamabad, and then laid down his weapon. It is thought that more than a dozen police officers were taken into custody following the murder.
Taseer had long warned that extremists were gaining ground in Punjab province, Pakistan's heartland, telling McClatchy last year that "there has to be zero tolerance" of militant groups.
His Pakistan Peoples Party, which leads the coalition government in Islamabad, suggested that a wider plot was behind the slaying. The party's leader, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in December 2007, and her killing remains unsolved.
"This is a political murder," senior member of the PPP, Fauzia Wahab, told reporters. "There will be an investigation. It is a conspiracy."
Taseer's call for the widely abused blasphemy law to be amended or abolished was so incendiary that it united rival Islamic schools of thought against any change. Even the moderate Barelvi sect joined the pro-Taliban Deobandis in opposing critics of the law. The majority of Pakistanis follow the Barelvi version of Islam.
"No Muslim should attend the funeral or even try to pray for Salmaan Taseer," said a statement from Jamaate Ahle Sunnat Pakistan, one of the biggest organizations of the Barelvi sect, representing 500 religious scholars. "We pay rich tributes and salute the bravery, valor and faith of Mumtaz Qadri."
The religious scholars warned politicians, the media and others to learn "a lesson from the exemplary death" because "the supporter is as equally guilty as one who committed blasphemy."
Religious parties get little support in elections in Pakistan, with the Islamists polling less than 5 percent of the vote at the last ballot in 2008. However, Ijaz Gilani, head of Gallup Pakistan, a pollster affiliated with Gallup International, said it would be "a very serious miscalculation" to equate that share of the vote with the level of religious fervor. He said that voters tactically supported parties likely to win.
"There's a vast difference between acceptability of religious parties as a voting entity and overall religious views," Gilani said.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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