IN LAHORE, PAKISTAN Following the assassination of a liberal politician who criticized federal blasphemy laws, loud support for the confessed killer is coming from an unlikely quarter: a violence-eschewing, anti-Taliban school of Islam steeped in Sufism.
While many factions have lauded the slaying, the peace-promoting Barelvi sect has spearheaded mass rallies to demand the release of the assassin, a policeman. Because most Pakistanis are Barelvis, their stance is challenging the belief long held among liberals here - and hoped for by nervous U.S. officials - that the Muslim majority in this nuclear-armed nation is more moderate than militant.
The notion of a moderate but silent Pakistani majority has also been undermined by the stance taken by the nation's young black-suited lawyers, who three years ago led massive pro-democracy strikes but this month showered rose petals on Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Civilian and military officials have responded with little more than tepid disapproval to the killing.
"We represent the voice of the people," said Sfarish Ali, 26, a teacher here at the vast Jamia Naeemia seminary, a Barelvi institution whose leader was killed when extremists bombed the school in 2009. "Our rulers are the slaves to Western countries . . . so they are under pressure when it comes to religion. But we are not."
While it is unclear whether the public reaction to Taseer's slaying signals widespread militant sympathies, there is little doubt here that religious conservatism has deepened since 1980s dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq began deploying Islamic fighters to battle Soviets in Afghanistan, with U.S. support.
The education system has since been seeded with pro-jihad ideas. Meanwhile, an expanding urban middle class - frustrated with a dynastic political system and violence widely blamed on Pakistan's alliance with the United States - has sought power through religion, analysts say. Authorities have done little to restrain clerics who encourage bloodshed; Qadri told a court he was inspired by Barelvi clerics.
Liberal Pakistanis have long extolled the Barelvis, most commonly called Sufis - some of whom practice mystical saint worship and all-night dance sessions - as reason for hope in a nation that sometimes seems to be surging toward violent fundamentalism. In an interview before his assassination, Taseer called them "very peaceful people," an opinion some U.S. officials have echoed privately.
The support Barelvis have expressed for Taseer's assassination has prompted some alarm that more Pakistanis are opting to adopt, rather than oppose, hard-line tactics. A U.S. official, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, expressed concern that more-militant Islamic groups might exploit the issue to win the Barelvis to their cause, on the basis that killing in the name of religion is morally, legally and politically justified. "For all we know, Qadri may have been a lunatic,'' the U.S. official said. "But once he did this, he essentially put a whole different set of things in motion."
The Sufis' prominence in the praise for the governor's assassin illustrates one reason it has proved difficult for Washington to gauge the depth of religious radicalism in Pakistan. Competing strands of Islam infuse all corners of politics, defying easy labels such as pacifist, moderate, extremist or violent.
Some Sufi leaders acknowledge that they regard the blasphemy furor as an opportunity to take political wind from the Deobandi sect, whose teachings inspired the Taliban and dominate Pakistani religious politics. Barelvis consider themselves the truest lovers of Islam's prophet Mohammad, and defending Qadri offers the followers a chance to prove their religious mettle and anti-Western credentials, analysts say.
According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted this past spring, most Pakistanis think there is a national struggle between Islamic modernizers and fundamentalists - and most of the respondents sided with the modernizers, though their numbers are dropping. But the poll found widespread support for strict Islamic mores and punishments, including stoning for adulterers and the death penalty for Muslims who abandon Islam.
"This symbolizes what I call latent radicalism," said Ayesha Siddiqa, a scholar and commentator, referring to public support for Qadri. "It may result in violence, it may not. But in their minds, there is this inability to see the other perspective."
Barelvis, who are dominant in Punjab, did not support the holy war against Soviet rule in Afghanistan. As terrorist attacks have surged in Pakistan, several prominent Barelvis have issued decrees condemning suicide bombing and other violence. Islamist insurgents have responded with major bombings at Sufi shrines and mosques.
Over the past two years, the sect has formed an alliance that, leaders say, intends to field candidates for political office to promote peaceful Islam and the authority of the state. The group, the Sunni Ittehad Council, is staunchly anti-American, but also fervently anti-Taliban, on grounds that killing innocents cannot be justified under Islam.
"This is a very basic concept. If you kill an innocent person, it means you are killing all humanity," said Mohammed Ziaul Haq, a council spokesman and author whose new book is titled "WikiLeaks: America's Horrendous Face." "Islam is a religion of peace and love, and it asks its followers to restrain themselves."
But killing in response to blasphemy is another matter, he said, making it "totally different from terrorism.'' The government had done nothing to silence Taseer's criticism of the blasphemy ban, he said, or his support for a Christian woman sentenced to death for the law, which he said had made Taseer an "indirect" blasphemer himself. "Ninety percent of people in Pakistan think Mumtaz Qadri is a hero," Ziaul Haq said. "If it's a democracy, the government should think about that."
Yet Barelvi leaders who were interviewed struggled to explain how championing Qadri's deed was compatible with support for government authority. At Jamia Naeemia, an enormous pink structure where cheerful teachers eagerly give tours, one teacher praised the killing but then admitted he was horrified when he first heard about it. He did not want to be quoted saying that, however.
Ragab Naeemi, the principal and leader of a demonstration in support of the killer, said the assassination was clearly sanctioned by the Koran. The government needed to be sent a clear message that it must ensure the legal system preserves the sanctity of Islam, he said. He added that Taseer, a brash businessman whose secular lifestyle made him something of a playboy by Pakistani standards, made it easy to pick sides. "Being Muslim, our leaders should be neat and clean," Naeemi said. "So people think eradication of Salman Taseer is 100 percent right."