There was silence in the ancient city of Lahore on January 5 as Salman Taseer, a pugnacious son of the soil who made his name by speaking out, was lowered into an early grave.

Soldiers in fantail turbans snapped to attention; a cluster of stone-faced relatives looked on. A helicopter had carried Taseer's body from the governor's residence, a short distance away: authorities feared another fanatic, like the one who gunned down the Punjab governor 24 hours earlier, would show up.

At the graveside, Taseer's three sons, men with black shirts and soft red eyes, flung clumps of rose petals into the grave. One was supported by a friend. A bugle sounded.

As graveyard workers shovelled sticky winter clay on to the coffin, many Pakistanis wondered what was disappearing into the grave with the outspoken politician.

Liberals have long been a minority force in Pakistan, reviled for importing “western” ideas and culture; now they are virtually an endangered species. As Taseer was buried, petals also flew through the sky in Islamabad where a cheering throng congratulated his assassin, a 26-year-old policeman named Mumtaz Qadri, as he was bundled into court. “Death is acceptable for Muhammad's slave,” they chanted.

In his assassin's eyes

Taseer's crime, in Qadri's eyes, was to advocate reform of Pakistan's blasphemy law. Few other Pakistani politicians dared to speak against the law, which prescribes the death penalty for offenders yet is widely misused. Those who did now live in fear.

Sherry Rehman, a female parliamentarian from Karachi who tabled a parliamentary bill advocating reform of the blasphemy law, has disappeared from public view. Supporters have urged her to flee the country; sources close to her say she is determined to stay. Rehman has not yet requested extra police protection. A source said she “wasn't even sure what it means any more”.

Religious parties refused to condemn Taseer's death, implying that he got what he deserved; some described him as a “liberal extremist”. But intolerance from the religious right is nothing new in Pakistan; more striking is the lack of leadership from the country's secular forces.

The opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N party was conspicuously absent from the Lahore funeral, perhaps mindful of a decree by Barelvi mullahs that those condoling with Taseer also risked death. But capitulation to the religious right has also infected the ruling Pakistan People's Party, of which Taseer was a staunch member.

Since Taseer's death, party supporters have burned tyres and chanted the old slogans: “Jiye Bhutto!” and “If you kill one Bhutto another will rise!” Party leaders painted Taseer's death as part of a “conspiracy”. “We need to find out if this is an attempt to destabilise Pakistan,” said Law Minister Babar Awan, announcing the inevitable judicial enquiry.

But the tired rhetoric masked a less palatable truth: that Taseer had been abandoned by his own leadership. After Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, was sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws on November 8, Taseer visited her in jail with his wife and daughter to show his support.

Shortly after, an Islamic mob rioted outside the governor's house in Lahore, burning his effigy and calling for his death. On television, prominent media commentators joined the chorus of criticism.

Senior figures in his own party turned tail. Awan, the Law Minister, said there was no question of reforming the blasphemy law. “As long as I am law minister no one should think of finishing this law,” he said on November 26. Another minister confirmed that position one week ago.

The U-turn was the product of a huge miscalculation. At the start of the Aasia Bibi affair on November 8, President Asif Ali Zardari suggested he might pardon the Christian woman if she was convicted. But he stalled, apparently hoping to extract political mileage from the affair.

Then on November 29 the Lahore High Court, which had a history of antagonism with Zardari, issued an order forbidding him from issuing a pardon. The issue became a political football, a struggle between the government, the courts and the mullahs. Zardari was powerless to act.

And the Punjab governor was left swinging in a lonely wind.

Last TV interview

In his last television interview, on January 1, Taseer said it had been his “personal decision” to support Aasia Bibi. “I went to see her with my wife and daughter. Some have supported me; other are against me [...] but if I do not stand by my conscience, then who will?” The answer, he knew, was simple: not many. Taseer's liberal politics were controversial in Pakistan's media, which is increasingly dominated by rightwing commentators. He ridiculed his enemies with messages on Twitter, a medium that he relished for its ability to deliver brisk, barbed jabs.

In December even Meher Bokhari — a leading female journalist who had once been ridiculed as a “CIA agent” after attending a U.S. embassy party — asked Taseer if he wasn't following a “pro-western agenda” by supporting the Christian woman. Taseer retorted that he didn't know what she was talking about.

For many, the debacle shows how the heroes of yesteryear have fallen in Pakistan. In 2007, brave journalists, judges and lawyers came together to help oust the military leader President Pervez Musharraf from power. Today the judiciary has become enmeshed in controversy, the media offers an unfiltered platform to extremists, and the lawyers movement has been badly divided.

Challenges

Ayaz Amir, a progressive commentator, noted on January 5: “The religious parties will always do what they do. You can't blame them. It is up the other sections of Pakistani society to stop the rot and reverse the tide. But it's the political parties and the army should have done it. And they did nothing.” Pakistan's military and civilian leaders face many grave challenges, not least the still-burning Taliban insurgency in the north-west. But for embattled liberals, the death of Taseer exposed something ugly in their wider society, much as the shoulder-shrugging reaction to the massacre of minority Ahmadis in a Lahore mosque last May did.

Lahore is the capital of Punjab, the large and wealthy province that is the boiling cauldron of Pakistan's ideological battle. Punjab is the breeding ground of extremists nurtured by the pro-Islamist policies of Pakistan's army, which has used militants to fight Indian soldiers in Kashmir. According to U.S. assessments in the recent WikiLeaks cables, it still does.

Two years ago extremists attacked the police training centre outside Lahore that is home to the Punjab Elite force, the province's best-trained police commandos. This week a member of that same force — Qadri — was responsible for killing Taseer.

What it signifies

Taseer's death has focused that ideological fight around blasphemy. The law originated under British colonial rule in the 19th century but only acquired notoriety in the 1980s when the dictator Zia-ul-Haq decreed that blasphemy was punishable by death (a provision that Islamic scholars say has little theological foundation). The law is also of questionable civil law value: it contradicts fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution.

It is a crime where no proof is required. The religious slander allegedly uttered by Aasia Bibi, for instance, has never been repeated by her accusers — to do so would be to blaspheme again. As a result, she has been convicted on the say-so of her neighbours, with whom she was having an argument in a field.

If Bibi's conviction is upheld she will be hanged, the first woman in Pakistan's history to be executed for blasphemy. If freed, she will have to flee Pakistan immediately.

Senior supporters say that Canada has made a tentative offer of asylum. But in the present climate in Pakistan it seems unlikely that Bibi will be set free. Senior human rights campaigners told the Guardian they feared she could be killed by zealots in jail or on the steps of the court, as has happened in other blasphemy cases.

The question now is who will speak up for her. For liberals, Taseer's death is a sign that their political space, already highly constrained, is becoming impossibly small. “If Pakistan and Pakistanis do not try to excise the cancer within, the future of this country is very bleak,” read an editorial in Dawn on January 5.

The face of Mumtaz Qadri, smiling beatifically as he was led away by police after killing Taseer, perhaps dreaming of his rewards in heaven, has become the image of Pakistan's national agony. Qadri claims to act in the name of Islam, the reason that Pakistan was founded.

On January 5 on Twitter, the medium beloved of Salman Taseer, liberal Pakistanis bemoaned the disappearance of “Jinnah's Pakistan” — the tolerant, pluralistic country envisioned by its founder, the lawyer Muhammad ali Jinnah, in 1947. Others tried to remember if it had ever existed.

And in the streets outside, Pakistan's silent majority — the ordinary, moderate people who do not favour extremism or violence, and only want their society to thrive — were saying nothing. But in Pakistan, that is no longer good enough. Silence kills.— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

As graveyard workers shovelled sticky winter clay on to the coffin of the slain governor of Punjab, many Pakistanis wondered what was disappearing into the grave with the outspoken politician.