Global Islamophobia discourses, Minority rights and Forced conversion in Pakistan (Part 1) – A Conversation

Dr. Ahmed Raza Memon and Dr. Sufi Ghulam Hussain

*The underlying context of this discussion relates to Hussain’s baseline study, under the auspices of Institute of Policy Studies which complicates the issue through  on-the-ground conversation with Dalit rights activist in Sindh, a study of reportage and NGO publications forced conversion issue. The baseline study title ‘Forced Conversions or Faith Conversions: Rhetoric or Reality’ can be found here*

Ahmed: *shared a news report on forced conversion in Pakistan*, I found this recent report that you might find interesting on your current research on forced conversion and the current conversation in Pakistan on forced conversion? This is by Peter Jacobs who I believe is at the Centre for Social Justice.

Sufi:   Thank you for sending this along. Peter Jacobs( the author of this piece) is one of the main people – as per my research – who has created the narrative on forced conversion to be endemic and dangerously present within Sindh. As per my research he is funded by catholic missionaries at both international and local level. There are two/three NGO’s that he is involved in heavily where, through anecdotal evidence, they publish reports on forced conversion. They make very broad and absolute claims but once you actually double check it at the ground – you do not find the evidence to support their claims. They mainly rely on newspaper reporting to draft their reports. This is all in my report for IPS on forced conversions. From a secular conversion framework, then, all conversions are presented as ‘forced’. Secular conception of religious conversions here specifically refers to conversions to Islam. From a perspective of islamophobia, these narratives find purchase and support strongly from media outlets and other major civil society groups. The popularity of these reports can also be surmised from how Pakistani government is not that hard on minority rights activist as they want to present a soft image of Pakistan on an international plane. While there are important issues which these NGO’s speak on and with each other, in my opinion and according to my research, on this particular issue they are heading in the wrong direction.

Ahmed: I read your initial report. It was very interesting and you identified some NGO’s that create, and push narratives through particular discourses. My own thesis for example identifies how knowledge is created through social actors and networks through international legal history. This is true even within civil society networks which are built on pushing certain discourses and frames without any grounded relation to the issues and the people they are written about in detail. For instance, I also remember reading this interesting piece by two academics Ayesha Khan and Nida Kimrani on where they contest how mainstream feminist activism within Pakistan is tied to getting funding from organizations which frame the issues of women’s rights within a particular secular and political discourse. The problematic aspect of this is that when you take these issues in a sensitive, critical manner you may be able to reach people in a more convincing way but you are shunned by these activist groups and NGO’s. My only point of contention is that when we do criticize these mainstream accounts of women’s rights within Pakistan, or minority rights within Pakistan – especially how they perpetuate, utilize and grow through Islamophobic narratives peddled by transnational NGO’s, development bodies etc – we somehow overemphasize the ways in which islamophobia operates or rather, does not operate in Pakistan. For example, do these NGO’s create Islamophobic structures within the country? In my view, they rely on Islamophobic discourse and the global islamophobia machinery but do not create, per se, Islamophobic structures. These discourses also run through these particular circles – dominant caste, upper class, secular rights based movements. A part of my chapter of my thesis for example also looks at how a construction of religion as part of liberal international legal order, organised the language of minority/majority and rights through a Muslim/Hindu divide then obfuscated the underlying social categorisation at the heart of the subcontinent i.e. caste. I show how the brahmin/Ashraf upper caste in collusion with British administrative cadre through its census created the vocabulary of minority/majority for their own interests. This contribution to caste history and international law also speaks to the minority movement in the form of pasmanda and dalit activism in the 20th Century. I do not deny how dalit politics emerged through utilizing this very creation – but I contend that while it provided some movement through B.R.Ambedkar’s activism – it also has its limitations. Of course we also see Ambedkarian perspective at later time move onto theo-political transformation and route as well through Buddhism. Whereas his earlier movement was based in constitutionalism, language of rights and minority movement – which I claim, while serving an important purpose – also has its limitations. In present day, we can see this in the case of Pakistan the language of minority rights hides the underlying violence of caste within ‘minority communities’ but also the so called ‘majority’.

I find it difficult then to imagine the actual problem of how forced conversion narrative is being constructed to be about global islamophobia in a structural sense, as there are a lot of Muslims in Pakistan who are dominant caste – if not ashraf. How can islamophobia effect them where they rule the political/economic/social landscape of the country? There certainly is a discursive utilization of Islamophobic narratives that NGO’s use and which can be further perpetuated. Of course these discourses are toxic and problematic to understanding what the actual issues are in the country – for example in India the conversation on Love Jihad can also be thought about in parallel to conversations of forced conversion narrative in order to understand how many convert to escape caste violence. But both these narratives are essentially about caste oppression.

End of Part 1

Dr. Sufi Ghulam Hussain is an academic activist who researches on issues of postcolonial studies, caste, activism and social formations of Sindhi history, politics and literature. He also works closely with Dalit Sujaag Tehreek (a Dalit-led activist group based in Sindh, Pakistan). His major publications can be found on his OCRID account: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9538-1840. Dr. Hussain is currently working on a book titled ‘Nationalism and the Erasure of Caste in Pakistan’.

Dr. Ahmed Raza Memon ( co-editor of Decolonial Dialogue) is a postdoctoral scholar teaching at the University of Kent with interests in decolonial theory, religion, race, and caste from a global perspective within the subject of the history and development of international law and global governance.

References:

Hussain, Ghulam, Syed Nadeem Farhat, and Nasr Chambers. “FORCED CONVERSIONS OR FAITH CONVERSIONS.” (2020). (https://www.ips.org.pk/forced-conversions-or-faith-conversions-rhetoric-and-reality/) accessed 18/02/2021.

Rao, Anupama. The caste question: Dalits and the politics of modern India. Univ of California Press, 2009.

Kumar, Vivek. (2019). Dalit Assertion and Different Shades of Dalit Movements: From accorded nomenclature to an asserted one in Sachdeva, Vivek, Queeny Pradhan, and Anu Venugopalan, eds. Identities in South Asia: Conflicts and Assertions. Taylor & Francis, 2019.

Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji. The Buddha and his dhamma: a critical edition. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Khan, A. and Kirmani, N. (2018) Moving Beyond the Binary: Gender-based Activism in Pakistan. Feminist Dissent, (3), 151-191

Memon, Ahmed Raza. “Networks, international law and violence: a history of a ‘dialogical interplay’.” PhD diss., University of Kent, 2020.

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