ISLAMABAD – 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.
"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.
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."
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed, Asif Shahzad, Nahal Toosi and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Babar Dogar in Lahore and Ashraf Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.