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26 shots that sent Pak on edge

world Updated: Jan 24, 2011 00:03 IST
Highlight Story

At a fashionable plaza in this serene Pakistani capital, a few dozen people gather in the evenings at the spot where provincial governor Salman Taseer was gunned down on Jan. 4. More than the man, their candlelight vigils mourn the open debate and religious compassion that have been lost with the assassination of the politician.

In a working-class alley of Rawalpindi, thousands flock each day to the home of Mumtaz Qadri, the elite police guard who killed Taseer. Qadri is in jail, but the site has become a shrine to many Pakistanis, who see it as a heroic act against a blasphemer. There are even posters of Qadri riding a white horse to heaven.

Since Taseer's death, Pakistan has become a different country. A crucial US ally in fight against terrorism seems incapable of stopping a tide of intolerant Islam at home.

Qadri has little chance of being convicted. Instead of suffering ostracism, he was greeted with garlands by courthouse lawyers, who offered to defend him pro bono. "There is no justice in our country for the common man, but Qadri's act against a blasphemer has made all Muslims feel stronger," a shopkeeper in Rawalpindi said. "They can punish him, but what will they do with a million Qadris who have been born now?"

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani has assured the restive Muslim masses that not a word of Pakistan's blasphemy law will be changed. The law makes any purported slur against the Prophet Muhammad, grounds for execution.

Taseer had proposed softening the law. Another legislator who did the same has received death threats.

Pakistani commentators have expressed shock at the demonisation of Taseer, who did nothing worse than criticise the blasphemy law and commiserate with a Christian peasant woman who was sentenced to death under it. The atmosphere is so charged most clerics refused to officiate at Taseer's funeral.

(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post)