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Pakistanis mourn a once tolerant, relaxed nation

A 60-year-old university administrator in the southern port city of Karachi is wistful as he recalls the more tolerant, freewheeling Pakistan of his youth.

Once, when a teacher suggested no book can be perfect, the boy asked if that included Islam's holy book, the Quran. That sparked a candid class discussion about religion. But in today's Pakistan, Muqtida Mansoor said he would never dare to ask the question in public.

After all, "anyone could shoot you."

Days after the assassination of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, one of the few politicians openly challenging the onslaught of religious extremism, Pakistani moderates are facing a new and troubling reality: Pakistan is a country where fundamentalism is becoming mainstream, leaving even less room for dissent, difference and many once-prevalent leisures such as public music, dance parties or other social contact between the sexes.

More liberal-minded Pakistanis have been left with a profound sense of loss, alienation and fear for the future. One rights activist forecast that at the rate Islamist groups are rising, a religious party could be ruling the country in 10 to 15 years.

The transformation is particularly disheartening for many younger Pakistanis.

"There is no concept of freedom of speech in this country," said Aaisha Aslam, 25, who works for a non-governmental organization. People with fanatic mindsets are "out to snatch this country from us."

The poles have shifted so much that it was not just bearded students from religious seminaries who this week praised the suspected killer of a politician who opposed blasphemy laws. Some religious scholars who oppose the Taliban also joined in — and lawyers showered him with rose petals.

"The silent majority does not want to take out a gun and shoot anyone, but at the same time they're not appalled by it when somebody else does," complained Fasi Zaka, 34, a radio host. "The majority are enablers."

Well before Tuesday's killing of Taseer, Pakistan's liberals had grown increasingly cautious about speaking out for minority protections, women's rights and other causes. Activists who once publicly advocated repealing the blasphemy laws — which mandate death for those deemed to have insulted Islam or the Quran — are now willing to settle for mere amendments.

"We are vulnerable," said Asma Jahangir, a small, hard-charging woman who is perhaps Pakistan's best-known human rights activist. "My name has come up, and of course you have to watch as you move around, how you move around."

Some Pakistanis are frustrated with what they perceive as a lack of Western support for their causes. They complain of receiving little more than lip service from the U.S., which is dependent on Pakistan's aid to turn around the war in neighboring Afghanistan and eliminate Taliban and al-Qaida hideouts on its soil.

"We don't matter for anybody," said Marvi Sirmed, a 38-year-old activist.

Islamists in Pakistan have flourished in part because governments have failed to provide for people's needs, such as in education and health care. Islamists fill the gap through their welfare organizations, clinics, mosques, religious seminaries and other networks. The impoverished masses then support their philosophies and political activities.

It doesn't help that those in Pakistan's small, liberal, secular wing tend to be wealthier and more educated than most Pakistanis, a cultural divide that is hard to bridge, said Burzine Waghmar, who teaches about Pakistan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

And so many liberals are increasingly nostalgic for the past, before the 1980s rule of army Gen. Zia ul-Haq. Zia, a fundamentalist Muslim, infused Islam into everything from school textbooks to the legal code — including pushing through harsh blasphemy laws and statutes that treated rape victims as adulterers.

Javed Ali, 70, remembers how bars and cinemas once flourished in Pakistan, and dance parties were advertised in newspapers — admission price, 1 rupee. While visiting Karachi, Ali would go to The Moonlight Club, where dancers would entertain middle and lower middle class visitors.

"Now, that's a dream," says Ali, who lives in the city of Multan in central Pakistan.

Mansoor remembers a more live and let-live society.

"I was a handsome man and had good taste as well," he said. "I had many girlfriends and I would liberally take them to my home and nobody would mind. I would take my girlfriend to the beach and no police would harass us. But later on, the police would ask for marriage papers even if you were with your wife."

Photographer Nazir Khan, 50, of Karachi, recalls how relations between majority Sunni and minority Shiite Muslims were far more cordial.

"I used to offer my Friday prayers in any mosque without consideration to which sect it belonged," Khan said.

The Islamization has accelerated since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Although Pakistan's government officially abandoned its alliance with Afghanistan's Taliban regime, the U.S.-led invasion in the neighboring nation was viewed by many as an attack on the Muslim world. Thousands now routinely show up for anti-U.S. rallies.

In cosmopolitan centers such as Karachi, far more women now wear face veils than in years past. Girls as young as 6 or 7 are wearing headscarves, said Roland DeSouza, a Christian who is a partner in an engineering firm. "That stuff you didn't see 10 years ago," he said.

Even in the northwest, which is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns and their conservative culture, life used to be more free. Men would take their wives to the movies, and musicians were routinely hired to perform at weddings. Pakistani Taliban threats and attacks have changed that.

"People were a bit conservative in our province, but still there were opportunities for entertainment, and there was no concept of extremism," said Zahir Shah, 70, a retired teacher.

Secular-minded political parties have aided the change by kowtowing to Islamists to stay in power.

As he struggled to stay in charge in 1977, Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the head of the secular and socialist leaning Pakistan People's Party, announced restrictions on alcohol and gambling and closed wine shops and nightclubs.

In recent years, hundreds of minority Shiite Muslims and non-Muslims such as Christians have been killed by Islamist extremists. On May 29, 2010, nearly 100 members of the Ahmadi sect were gunned down in a massacre.

"Muslims and Christians used to live peacefully. We used to attend each other's functions. We used to go to churches. They used to visit us on Eid" — Muslim holidays, recalled Ali Muhammad, 65, a retired banker.

For much of the first half of this country's 63-year existence, the standard farewell was "Khuda-Hafiz" — meaning "God Protect You." Under Zia's rule, a new term gained favor: "Allah-Hafiz." It basically means the same thing, but is more in line with many Islamists' belief that while "Khuda" can mean any god, "Allah," an Arabic word, refers to the true God in Islam.

The drift toward a more extremist Pakistan has occurred with little interference and sometimes quiet support from outside Pakistan.

The U.S., determined to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, propped up Zia and gave him money to fund the mujaheedeen fighters whose descendants now form the Taliban. U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia also has poured in funds to Pakistan, establishing religious schools, mosques and organizations that teach Wahabism, the Saudis' hardline brand of Islam.

In 2002, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf brought the religious parties into political power in two provinces for the first time in Pakistan's history by making a degree from a religious school equal to that from a university, thereby qualifying more candidates for office.

With the exception of Musharraf's era, Islamist parties have had limited success at the ballot box. But at this rate a religious party could be the ruling party within 10 to 15 years, said I.A. Rahman, a human rights activist.

For now, they have enough street power that the ruling People's Party recently insisted it would not touch the blasphemy laws, and many officials who condemned Taseer's assassination stopped short of criticizing the harsh laws he died for opposing.

Columnist Mosharraf Zaidi said Pakistanis have to be willing to stand up publicly for tolerance — even if it means risking their own lives.

"There will be casualties," he said, "but you will have a civil discourse."


Associated Press writers Sebastian Abbot and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Khalid Tanveer in Multan and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.