When Salman Taseer, the assassinated Punjab governor, was being lowered into the ground on Wednesday, two of his sons looked on with eyes that had not stopped shedding tears for a day. Among the 6,000 men who had gathered to pay their respects to the flamboyant Pakistan Peoples Party loyalist were Yousuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, the interior minister, Rahman Malik, and members from the political party MQM. Conspicuous by their absence were political rivals Nawaz Sharif and representatives from his PML-N group, as well as members from PML-Q, who also sit on the opposition benches in parliament. Even more visible were the missing mullahs, members of the Jamatt-e-Ulema Islam and other parties who were choosing to stay far away from the funeral.
Hours before his funeral, more than 500 mullahs from the Barelvi school of thought issued a statement urging Muslims to stay away from the governor's funeral, and to refrain from offering regrets or condolences over his death. Barelvi loyalists style themselves as ardent followers of the Holy Prophet, and in Taseer's case they adopted a particularly hard-line stance. The most influential Barelvi organisation in the country, the Jamaate Ahle Sunnat, minced no words in expressing how they felt over the murder of PPP's most visible representative in Punjab. "No Muslim should attend the funeral or even try to pray for Salman Taseer or even express any kind of regret or sympathy over the incident."
Another senior religious leader, Maulana Shabbir, said he believed the governor, who was often in the headlines for his blunt remarks, was someone who should be killed according to divine law. "He had called the divine law of God a black law and tried to protect a condemned blasphemer," he said.
A day after the crowds disappeared from the sprawling lawns of Taseer's final residence, 300 lawyers offered to defend the governor's assassin free of cost, and said they would take his case all the way up to the Supreme Court.
While Taseer's Facebook page has been silenced forever, Mumtaz Qadri now has numerous fan pages to his name. Religious conservatives stayed away from the site of the state funeral, but Qadri was showered with rose petals and welcomed with cries of Allahu Akbar when he made his appearance in court. Qadri viewed his welcome with the same disdain and smug grin that he had exhibited when being arrested at the site of the murder.
Meanwhile in Khangarh, the Punjab, police picked up a man who had proudly declared that he would give anyone who murdered Taseer 20 million rupees (Dh850,000) as prize money. He later raised the award to 30 million rupees.
This may be the first political murder in Pakistan where the victim is buried in the graveyard of martyrs but the killer is celebrated, applauded and cheered. It may also be the first time a high-profile murder has fewer critics than cheerleaders. What was Taseer's crime, and why was he not forgiven even after he died?
"He spoke on an issue few have the courage to raise their voice against, and he trod in an area no one dares to visit," said a newspaper columnist, Asadullah Ghalib.
Taseer is one of a handful of politicians who repeatedly spoke out against Pakistan's blasphemy law, and in no uncertain terms. The controversial law, which human right activists describe as unjust, is the strictest anti-blasphemy law on the books in any Muslim country. Christian organisations say that this law is often abused, leading to the arrest and imprisonment of innocent non-Muslims who are simply picked up because of a complaint by a Muslim.
But the event that probably evoked the wrath of the religious right was Taseer's visit to the Sheikhupura jail, where he asked for a presidential pardon for Aasia Bibi, a mother of four who had been arrested on charges of blasphemy. A lower court has already sentenced her to death, but she is appealing against her sentence in the High Court.
A mullah I spoke to justified not attending Taseer's murder by saying that someone who associates with a blasphemer and tries to defend that person is equally guilty of disrespecting Islam. His reasoning was that since the governor had supported Bibi, he was as guilty as she was.
Taseer's killing illustrates an important fact about life in Pakistan: that today the religious right is all-powerful and disrespecting them is dangerous and can be life-threatening. Benazir Bhutto was supposedly martyred on the instructions of the militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was enraged at her liberal ideas. Attempts were made to murder the former president Pervez Musharraf after he supported US action in Afghanistan and enraged religious extremists.
But the man who emptied 26 bullets into Taseer wasn't a religious militant and was apparently acting on his own.
"The assassination of the governor is frightening at many levels," said one television commentator. "It represents religious fervour in the average person of a degree we hadn't anticipated before."
What incites a young man trained in the Punjab police's elite squad and paid to protect Punjab's governor to raise his gun at his boss and shoot him to death? Unlike other terrorists, he is not poor or destitute, did not attend a training camp or a madrassa and was leading by most accounts a stable, middle-class life. Why did his passion for defending Islam inspire him to kill?
Rasool Baksh Raees, a Lahore University management and sciences professor, believes the problem is manifold. "Intolerance is becoming an acceptable norm in our society," he said. "And slowly but steadily we are moving toward a society where only one version and one point of view is allowed to exist."
Though Pakistan has a long history of sectarian killings, murders motivated by religious passion such as that of Taseer are new, as is the current religious temperature in the country. Some analysts believe the power of the mullahs can be dated back to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, which for the first time united the conservative religious parties and gave them legitimacy in the eyes of the public. It was after 9/11 that Pakistan encountered its first suicide bombing and religious parties were elected to the assembly in significant numbers for the first time.
Even today, religious parties remain united in Pakistan against the continuing drone attacks and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Their point of views on these issues are popular among the public, which fears that the government is becoming a stooge of the United States. This popularity provides the religious parties with legitimacy, which makes their word indisputable for a young man like Qadri.
It is not that liberal voices do not exist in Pakistan, or that Taseer didn't have followers. Many of the educated elite, the upper class, lovers of music and culture as well as the Ivy league-educated Pakistanis who have returned to their homeland, believed in him and echoed his words in drawing rooms and intimate gatherings. But their beliefs never left the privacy of their homes, and rarely did they feel motivated to take a public stance. This may be the biggest tragedy Pakistan is facing: that those who believe in a secular and liberal society prefer silence to opposition. As one op-ed writer wrote: "There is no 'silent majority' any more, only a frightened and confused flock hemmed in by the darkness, trembling at the howling of the hyenas around, huddled together under a vanishing light, barely enduring the great dark absence beyond.
"No words will soothe their fears, no courage will call them to action. No strength exists any longer to lift this cowering multitude into the ranks of humanity, no mind's eye to light the way for them."
* The National