ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Secularism has become a dangerous, deadly label in Pakistan as Muslim extremists slowly strengthen their stranglehold on the nuclear-armed, U.S. ally and put its stability at risk.
Punjab governor Salman Taseer was a liberal, secular Muslim who, last week, was shot dead by his own bodyguard for opposing a blasphemy law that many human rights activists say is often used to discriminate against ethnic and religious minorities.
Taseer's death shocked many in Pakistan and abroad, but perhaps the widespread lionisation of his assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, was more worrying for the future of a country that Washington sees as key in its fight against militancy.
The governor's slaying, analysts say, will mean the further silencing of liberal and moderate voices, giving religious parties and their allied militants even more veto power over politics in Pakistan.
"Pakistani society has drifted toward religious militancy over the last 20-25 years," said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political analyst. "Anti-American sentiment is very strong, because that's the mind-set they've been brought up with."
Rizvi predicts that Pakistan will have a rough decade ahead as the generation born in the 1980s -- raised on extremist ideology taught in schools and repeated on television and in the mosques -- comes to power.
Qadri shot Taseer 27 times in the parking lot of an upscale market and then gave himself up. Almost immediately, militants who want an Islamic emirate in Pakistan -- one that defines itself in opposition to the West and the United States -- hailed him as a hero.
Hundreds of lawyers, and a few police officers, showered Qadri with flower petals as he arrived at a courthouse. Thousands of Facebook pages and Twitter posts from Pakistani youth who are also fans of pop singers Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber popped up in support of Taseer's killing.
More than 500 religious scholars from a sect traditionally considered moderate ruled the killing justified and warned against any show of grief for Taseer, lest the mourners meet the same fate.
"We have been concerned about increased extremism in Pakistan for some time," said U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday, a few days after Taseer's killing.
"As we've made clear, political violence is a threat to the civilian government in Pakistan, and obviously this is just the latest example."
Many fear Taseer will be the first of many to be slain for speaking out against extremism: former information minister Sherry Rehman, who introduced the bill to change the blasphemy law, has gone into hiding and the country's interior minister has suggested she leave the country.
Political stability in Pakistan is seen as key to the United States' war against Taliban militants in Afghanistan. Islamabad's willingness to take on militants on its own soil is also a key security interest of the United States, given the Times Square bombing and other plots that have Pakistani connections.
Washington has been counting on Pakistan's "silent majority" for years in its fight against extremism and Taliban militancy emanating from Pakistan's tribal areas.
But the celebration of the assassin Qadri has undermined the supposed influence of these moderates, and also shattered the vision liberals had of their country as a tolerant homeland for South Asia's Muslims, but where others can worship freely.
"The reclamation of God in Pakistan, taking back Allah and taking back the prophet and taking back the mosque is really the project of Pakistan," journalist Mosharraf Zaidi told Reuters.
"This is the most important challenge facing Pakistan. And I'm really afraid maybe the country might not be up to it."
Sajjid Anwar, deputy secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's largest and best organised religious party, told Reuters there was "no future" for secularism in Pakistan.
That implies that any national discussion, whether on tax reform or prosecuting the war on terrorism, can be framed in religious -- and thus sacred -- terms.
WHO'S TO BLAME?
Much of Pakistan's turn towards hardline Islam can be traced to president General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, who, in the 1980s, enjoyed enthusiastic support from the United States against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Haq nurtured Islamist militants and used American cash to turn a society that had previously been relatively moderate and tolerant towards hard-line Islam inspired by Saudi Wahhabism.
Some blame Pakistan's weak government for the increase in radicalism, and pine for the "enlightened moderation" of former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, who was forced to resign in 2008.
The government's inability to provide basic services, from education, to reliable electricity, to improving the economy have made it deeply unpopular. Hardline clerics often exploit anger at the government among the largely poor and illiterate population to further their harsh, unforgiving brand of Islam.
When massive floods swept through the country last year, Islamist charities spearheaded aid efforts and reached out to villagers the government was unable to.
The government's unpopularity often make it rely on extreme elements to stay in power, and to pander to their politics.
After Taseer came out against the Punjabi Taliban and opposed the blasphemy law, the leadership of the ruling Pakistan People's Party abandoned him publicly. Calls for his death rang from mosques for months. The government did nothing to stop it.
The government has backed off from its campaign to change the blasphemy law and the Pakistan People's Party tried to blame shadowy political conspiracies for Taseer's murder rather than ascribe a religious motive.
Some Pakistanis say things would be better under a truly democratic system, but others think its less about the system of government and more about basic competency.
"It's not (about) democracy, it's how the country's been politically managed for 30-40 years," said a British Pakistani who declined to be identified. "The solution is to start managing the country properly. There's no good government. They can't do anything."
(Additional reporting by Sheree Sardar, Mian Kursheed and Faisal Aziz; Editing by Miral Fahmy)
(For more Reuters coverage of Pakistan, see: here)
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