ISLAMABAD (AP) - 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."