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Shame of Forced Conversions

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Joel Saget—AFP

The government’s shameful act of withdrawing its own anti-forced conversions bill facilitates the majority’s mistreatment of minority populations

Earlier this month, a Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions rejected the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government’s anti-forced conversions bill, with the Ministry of Religious Affairs claiming it would “create further problems” for minorities rather than resolving them. A senior government minister went so far as to claim that the legislation was “dangerous” and implied it was “anti-Islam.” This is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident.

Writing in South Asia Journal on Oct. 17, shortly after the parliamentary committee’s decision, Aftab Alexander Mughal, a Christian editor of Minority Concern Pakistan and former national executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of Pakistan, noted: “Religious minorities in Pakistan have criticized Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government for rejecting the proposed Prohibition of Forced Conversion Bill. The bill provides protection to Hindu and Christian minor girls from kidnapping, forced conversion and forced marriages. The bill proposed the age of conversion to Islam should be 18 years. It also criminalized the act of forced conversion by awarding a punishment of 5 to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 1-2 lakh ($584-1,168).”

Pakistan’s move comes as neighboring Afghanistan, back under Taliban control after 20 years, is also feared to see violence against its Christian minority by warrior Muslims seeking to “enhance” their faith. In a speech to the American Center for Law and Justice, former U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo—who supported the deal between the Taliban and Washington that led to their return to power—warned: “The humanitarian crisis that is developing as the Taliban returns to power is likely to become a genocide against Christians if the Biden administration does not act … The possibility of there being a genocide against Christians in the wake of this withdrawal is extremely high. Already, the Taliban is compiling lists of known Christians and their communities. They are going door to door searching Afghan homes for Bibles, even searching smartphones for Bible apps.”

‘Sawab’ of conversion

The “pious” act of conversion is endemic among a certain segment of Muslims. They religiously deny that what they do to the poor abductees has anything to do with “force.” The parliamentary committee that rejected the anti-forced conversions bill, formed in November 2019, comprised members from the Senate and the National Assembly. It had also included minorities’ representatives and three ministers.

“The committee held 10 meetings to identify and define the problem and find a solution. It finally came up with a draft for the proposed law. The Prohibition of Forced Conversion Bill, 2019 included the prohibition of conversion of religion by force, coercion, intimidation, inducement for marital incentives and fraudulent misrepresentation. The law was to be extended to all of Pakistan and come into force at once.”

Rejection of anti-conversion law

Then something happened. The same committee, in its last meeting, suddenly experienced a flash of wisdom. On Oct. 13, it rejected the law, its many pious Muslims putting forward reasons for doing nothing about what was happening to Hindu girls in Sindh who are the primary victims of the practice. Noorul Haq Qadri, the religious affairs minister, said the “environment is unfavorable for promulgation of the Anti-Forced Conversions law.” He warned that an approval of the draft could threaten peace and make minorities more vulnerable. He urged Prime Minister Imran Khan “to take other steps” to stop the conversions.

A member of the committee belonging to a religious party even denied that there was any problem of forced conversions in Pakistan. “This bill is anti-Islam,” he claimed. Another cleric lawmaker also claimed the bill was anti-Islam and a violation of the shariah. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ali Muhammad Khan, who habitually repeats the kalmia before beginning to speak, said: “Law Minister Farogh Nasim called me to his office and cautioned that moving such legislation might be dangerous. Ministries and portfolios carry little value, they come and go; we should not go against Islam.”

Leading Sindh and Punjab

As this pious denial was being organized by the state—against its own legislation—one recalled a 2020 report of The Movement for Social Justice and People’s Commission for Minority Rights that analyzed 162 cases of forced conversion. “The girls [that] had belonged to Christian and Hindu communities were forcibly converted in Sindh and the Punjab, also in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).” According to the report, “52 percent of the people subjected to forced conversions belonged to the Punjab, whereas 44 percent to Sindh, and 1.3 percent to Islamabad and KP. Eighty percent of the victims of forced marriage, abduction and rape were under 18 years of age.” In 2021, there were 36 conversions.

One incident is worth quoting: “Christian girl Arzoo had simply disappeared until her family was handed over a marriage certificate by the police, which stated that she was married. It was after much social media campaigning that the police rescued the 13-year-old allegedly married to a 44-year-old Muslim man.”

The ‘right’ of maltreatment

Pakistan’s women will continue to suffer if men in key decision-making positions continue seeing them as easy fodder, bringing sexual pleasure and “sawab” for pious Muslims. Hiding behind outdated reasoning based on fake reinterpretation, the majority forages the minorities, especially women, which can’t be allowed under law. Yet, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), an Islamabad-based think tank, claims: “There is no evidence to suggest that non-Muslims, including underage girls, have been forcibly converted to Islam in Sindh.”

When Senator Farhatullah Babar stated that the issue of forced conversions was quite serious, Ruet-e-Hilal (moon-sighting) Committee Chairman Maulana Abdul Khabeer Azad asserted, “I spend a lot of time with people of other religions in our country. The forced conversions complaints are mere propaganda to malign Pakistan.” Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (JUIF) and Jamaat-e-Islami have also rejected the bill.

The case of Shazia and the ‘kasai’

One reported case of forcible conversion in the report outlines how such incidents occur: “In 2016, a 14-year-old Christian girl, Shazia, was abducted in Sialkot by a boy from a kasai (butcher) community. Her parents lodged a complaint with the police. The girl was finally produced before a magistrate after three days. According to her recorded statement she had married him of her own free will. The nikah certificate stated that she was 18 years old. Her mother, Sakina, produced copies of her birth and baptism certificates, which clearly showed that she was not 18 at the time of her marriage. However, after the girl’s statement in the court, the family decided to stop trying to get her back.” Add to that the case of 13-year-old Arzoo abducted from Karachi, converted and married to a 40-year-old Muslim man.

Newsweek Pakistan, on Dec 27, 2016, commented on the issue as a deeply embedded “ideological” problem of Pakistan. “Pakistan needs to overhaul laws to ban forced conversions, which are leading to rape or other abuse against hundreds of non-Muslim girls each year … The Movement for Solidarity and Peace, which campaigns against religious violence in Pakistan, said that forced conversions generally involve the abductions of girls or young women who are then converted to Islam and married. The girls are often raped or beaten and, when the family complains to police, the abductor responds that the girl has willingly converted, the group said in a report.”

In India, the ‘punya’ of conversion

Across South Asia, the rise of religion’s role in state affairs has seen forcible conversions in the name of piety. Anand Teltumbde, writing in Economic and Political Weekly on Jan. 3, stated: “On Dec. 8, 57 families (nearly 350 persons) in Ved Nagar in Agra were converted to Hinduism by Dharma Jagran Samanvaya Vibhag and Bajrang Dal activists, both RSS outfits. The event made big news when it was disclosed that these pavement dwellers/rag-pickers and other destitute persons were promised that if they participated in the religious function they would be given ration cards and below the poverty line (BPL) cards.”

Amarnath Motumal, vice chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), reported in 2015: “About 1,000 non-Muslim girls are converted to Islam each year in Pakistan. Every month, an estimated 20 or more Hindu girls are abducted and converted, although exact figures are impossible to gather.”

The question of conversions often causes bilateral tensions between Pakistan and India. Pakistani journalist Mehmal Sarfraz, wrote in The Hindu on April 14, 2019: “The recent conversion of two girls from Hinduism to Islam in Sindh has once again compelled the country to explore the possibilities of enacting a law to prevent forced conversions. For the Hindus of Sindh in Pakistan the day of Holi was celebrated amid a riot of colors. But for the Hindu Meghwars, it marked the beginning of a nightmare when two sisters, Reena Meghwar and Raveena Meghwar, suddenly disappeared from their home in Daharki, a city in Ghotki district of Sindh. Their disappearance not only brought back the spotlight on a persisting problem in the country, but also led to an online spat between Pakistan and India, which only recently saw simmering tensions reach a dangerous peak.”

Pakistan, rightly, issues vociferous condemnations of minority abuse under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government of Narendra Modi. Its “principled” stance, however, rings hollow when it fails its own minorities at home. It’s time to walk the talk and penalize the practice of forced conversions; anything less is mere lip service.

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