The Martyrdom of Pakistan's Advocate of Tolerance

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Faisal Mahmood / Reuters

Salmaan Taseer, governor of Pakistan's Punjab province and a senior member of the ruling party, was killed by a gunman in Islamabad on Jan. 4, 2011

Three years after former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in a gun-and-bomb attack, one of her most prominent supporters has been slain in equally brutal circumstances. Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was killed in the heart of Islamabad on Tuesday by one of his own armed guards. The assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a member of the police's elite force, fired 26 rounds into Taseer before surrendering himself. "This is the punishment for a blasphemer," the assassin said during interrogation, according to the authorities. From the back of a police wagon, Qadri smiled sinisterly, just as the Bali bomber did when his sentence was announced in an Indonesian court.

It was painfully reminiscent of yet another political assassination in the subcontinent: the 1984 murder of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards to avenge her ordering of the 1982 assault and occupation of the holiest site of their religion, the Golden Temple of Amritsar. On Tuesday, Taseer's supporters were incredulous that his security could be so compromised. "How is it that when the killer shot Salmaan at point-blank range, none of the other guards around Salmaan shot the killer?" asks Farahnaz Ispahani, a lawmaker, like Taseer, belonging to the Pakistan People's Party. "That is not how VIP security is supposed to work."

Taseer was a vocal liberal politician, who was the first to speak out against the treatment of Aasia Noreen, a Christian farmhand who had been sentenced to death under Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws. "These laws are used to victimize Christians and other groups," Taseer told TIME back in November. "They are a foul leftover from the military regime of General [Mohammed] Zia ul-Haq [which lasted from 1977 till his death in a plane crash in 1988]." The blasphemy laws have been condemned by human-rights groups for being so vaguely worded that they can be used as instruments of social and political coercion. The law says that anyone guilty of blaspheming against Islam and its Prophet will be handed a death sentence. Close examination of the many cases reveals the laws often being invoked to settle personal vendettas, or used by Islamist extremists as cover to persecute religious minorities. There was no evidence that Noreen, who is also referred to as Aasia Bibi, had committed blasphemy, according to lawyers familiar with the situation.

While the case attracted global attention, with Pope Benedict XVI appealing for her life, Taseer was among a mere handful of politicians willing to defend Noreen. Days later, Taseer was threatened with fatwas demanding his death and fundamentalist parties mounted demonstrations against him. Taseer insisted that he was unfazed. "It doesn't bother me," he told TIME. "Who the hell are these illiterate maulvis [Islamic scholars] to decide whether I'm a Muslim or not?" It was more important, he would say adamantly, that he speak up for those who had long been suffering in silence.

The assassination has plunged Pakistan into deeper instability, coming amid a growing political crisis in which the ruling coalition has lost its majority after junior partners left the cabinet and joined the opposition. While underscoring the parlous state of Pakistan, where even the powerful are vulnerable, Taseer's death also highlights how religious extremism has pervaded deep into the ranks of the very men who are supposed to be fighting it. And it represents a severe blow to those Pakistanis who have been defying the rise of Islamist militants who have ravaged their country.

Revealing the dangerous divisions that have opened up in Pakistan as conservative sections of its society have drifted into the embrace of religious hard-liners, there was disturbing support voiced, in the streets, on television and on the Web, for Qadri's act. Haji Hanif Tayyab, the head of the Nizam-e-Mustafa party, claimed that Taseer had given the killer a motive by condemning the blasphemy laws. "Whoever loves the Prophet shouldn't be saddened by Taseer's death," said another religious hard-liner on television. The student wing of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami dispatched celebratory text messages.

In Washington, however, Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Taseer "a proud champion of democracy and respect for the rights of women and minorities." He fearlessly stood up to the threats of extremists and lost his life in defense of moderation and tolerance, values shared by most Pakistani citizens, Kerry said in a statement. "The best way to honor his legacy is to continue resisting violent extremism and supporting core principles on which Pakistan was founded." In Pakistan, the assassination has plunged the country into deep despair, with many again forced to ask themselves whether it is safe to stay. A sense of panic has now seized Pakistan's main cities.

Taseer, 66, attracted both a wealth of admirers and adversaries. His loud, bruising political style appalled opponents as much as it cheered supporters. During General Zia's military rule, he was cast into solitary confinement in the notorious Lahore Fort, where he was tortured. "I recommend the experience to everyone," he jokingly told me at our last meeting. "It's quite the character-building exercise!" Abandoning politics for several years, he concentrated on building a business, with interests in banking, chartered accountancy and the media. In a country where prospects for mobility remain slim, he was a rare example of someone who had risen from a modest background to become one of its most successful businessmen, and later, one of its most notable politicians.

But he will likely be remembered most for his support of Pakistan's long-suffering minorities and opposition to the militants that threaten them. In August 2009, he was among the first politicians to visit a small Christian colony, where attackers had gone house to house, torching the buildings even as they opened fire on the occupants. Surveying the charred remains of a one-room church, he reflected on the state's failure to protect its most vulnerable citizens. "If the kind of police that is here to protect me now was there at time to protect them," he said, gesturing to the heavily armed guards that surrounded him, "then this tragedy wouldn't have happened." As it turned out, tragically, armed guards, as the Indian subcontinent's people have brutally learned, can be just as dangerous.