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In Pakistan, the battle is intensifying between those who want a largely secular state and those who want a fundamentalist religious one. The governor of Punjab province, whose large population is at the heart of Pakistan, was assassinated recently after he spoke out against the country's strict blasphemy laws. And most shocking to secular Pakistanis, many on the religious right cheered the killing. NPR's Julie McCarthy has this report.

JULIE MCCARTHY: The assassination of Salman Taseer, an audacious advocate for modernism, revealed the conservative attitudes about Islam that are sweeping through Pakistan.

(Soundbite of call to prayer)

MCCARTHY: A visit to the cloth market in the old city of Lahore, with its deafening traffic and muffled call to prayer, illustrates a growing and dangerous dichotomy.

(Soundbite of traffic and crowd chattering)

MCCARTHY: We're in the Mehood Cloth Market here in Lahore and we're speaking with Zafar Iqbol, who has a fabric store here in the market.

Do you fear for the future here? I mean you had the voice of the governor, here, snuffed out. Do you fear for the future?

Mr. ZAFAR IQBOL (Cloth market vendor): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: He says he feels utterly helpless here. He says we feel utterly helpless. The market is under the dominion of elements who have affiliations with religious parties, he believes. He says they've come along and they insist that they shut things down, and of course they're afraid not to, so they do close things down and they lose their business.

(Soundbite of motor revving)

MCCARTHY: A few of the men who run the trader's association here hoist themselves onto the counter of Iqbol's stall and lean in to listen, causing the owner obvious discomfort.

While Iqbol mourns the loss of the governor, his unannounced visitors feel anything but sorrow. Trader association vice president Mohammad Ilyas says the slain governor maligned Islam when he said Pakistan's strict laws on blasphemy had become a tool to oppress religious minorities.

Mr. MOHAMMAD ILYAS (Vice President, Traders Association): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: He said it was totally wrong on the part of the governor to say that the blasphemy laws of Pakistan should be changed. He said, here, the governor not only criticized the law of the land, but he went out of his way to protect a woman, Asia Bibi, a Christian, who has been convicted of blaspheming.

Did he deserve to die?

Mr. ILYAS: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Mohammad Ilyas says the governor definitely deserved to die because he interfered with the religion of this country. If he hadn't interfered, he would not have been killed.

(Soundbite of chanting in foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Banners drape in the streets of the Punjab capital, Lahore, calling the governor's confessed killer, Mumtaz Qadri, a hero. Demonstrators at this small rally, cry...

CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Quadri, you're followers are endless. Evidence that fundamentalism is becoming mainstream was found in the young lawyers who showered the assassin with rose petals as he entered court in Islamabad one day after the shooting.

Supreme Court Bar Association President, Asma Jahangir, says each time democracy begins to take hold in Pakistan, the extreme right wages an offensive that is more lethal than the one before.

Ms. ASMA JAHANGIR (Supreme Court Bar Association): Much more lethal. And there is a reason behind it. They do not want a democratic dispensation here. It doesn't suit them. They don't figure in there. They get marginalized there. So the murder of the governor was a part of that larger plan as well.

MCCARTHY: Parliamentarian Sherry Rehman also is facing death threats for proposing amendments to the blasphemy law, amendments that Islamists condemn. Rehman says sane voices have been silenced.

Ms. SHERRY REHMAN (Parliamentarian): None of them are seeking to offend sensibilities of any religion, let alone Muslims themselves.

MCCARTHY: Rehman's PPP Party, the party of President Asif Ali Zardari, has disowned any reform of the blasphemy laws. Historian Mubarak Ali says all of the mainstream parties have emboldened the religious right by kowtowing to the radical clerics who are roiling the streets.

Mr. MUBARAK ALI (Historian): Instead of fighting, instead of challenging, they just surrendered. And now these clerics, they are so powerful, they are so bold, that now they are threatening everybody.

MCCARTHY: Farid Piracha is the deputy secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's largest religious party.

Mr. FARID PIRACHA (Deputy Secretary General, Jamaat-e-Islami): If there is justice throughout the country, then you cannot see the scene like these scenes.

MCCARTHY: Jamaat-e-Islami's Islamic revivalist message has pushed Pakistan toward conservatism while preaching the dangers of a perceived U.S. war on Islam.

The radical right in Pakistan conflates religious dogma with policies of the United States. For Jamaat-e-Islami's Farid Piracha, they cannot be separated.

Mr. PIRACHA: And there is damage of more than 30,000 innocent people during this so-called war against terrorism. So, one cannot believe that America is not against Islam. America's total military actions are against the Muslim states.

MCCARTHY: U.S. drone attacks and the war in Afghanistan have produced a popular outcry, which radical Islamists exploit. Historian Mubarak Ali says extremists have expanded their constituency by emerging as the only alternative voice in a country where millions feel under threat by everything from the faltering economy to the lack of security.

Mr. ALI: They say that dictatorships didn't give them anything. Democracy didn't give them anything. So, they are exhorted that Islam is going to solve their problems, give them dignity in the society and rule of law. Because there is no other alternative, they believed it.

MCCARTHY: The extremists also benefit from the legacy of Zia al Haq, the 1980s dictator who undertook the Islamization of the schools that indoctrinated a generation in strict Islam.

Mr. ALI: As a result of this education, they have very closed minds.

MCCARTHY: As religious passions stifle liberal voices, one group won't be repressed.

(Soundbite of blasphemy production)

The Ajoka Theater staged a disturbing production about blasphemy this past week and dedicated it to the late governor. It's a study in brutality, with white-robed clerics in league with black-clad followers haranguing their victims as they hang them.

Physicist and social commentator Pervez Hoodbhoy was on hand for the performance.

Mr. PERVEZ HOODBHOY (Physicist, Social Commentator): That this play was shown in Islamabad is an act of courage. This is a country that stands at the very verge of religious fascism.

MCCARTHY: Hoodbhoy says he fears for the theater company.

I don't know when they might be targeted, he says.

The director says Ajoka Theater will continue performing and take the risk.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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