Global Islamophobia discourses, minority rights and forced conversion in Pakistan (Part 2)

Dr. Ahmed Raza Memon and Dr. Sufi Ghulam Hussain

Sufi: I look at Pakistan through a global scope. It is through this global perspective that we can understand islamophobia within Pakistan better. This is also true historically for example, the narrative of forced conversion was present in Sindh all the way back to when Islam came to Sindh ( i.e. Muhummad Bin Qasim conquered Sindh), and then later on by British Orientalists, in conjunction with Brahmin/upper caste Hindu polity. This islamophobia, to me is not only on a discursive level, but also in the creation, operation and goals of NGO’s, rights based groups have perpetuated and carry on creating Islamophobic narratives. These also include networks of Hindutva supporters ( internationally and locally) but also Sindhi Nationalists. Sindhi Nationalists have made forced conversion a central part of their movement. Since no one has spoken about this it is difficult to start a conversation with so many layers not focused on by other people. In Sindh, Sufism is conceived as an alternate religion to Islam. From that perspective there is islamophobia which is different from the islamophobia in the west – and perhaps for different reasons.

As an example of a Sindhi Nationalist Figure, lets take G.M. Syed ( Sindhi writer and Sindhi Nationalist Leader) who rejected Sharia i.e. Sunni Islam. The right Islam, according to Syed, is the mixture of sufism( as he understands it), shiaism, sayedism ( the lineage based system of spiritual/worldly superiority), vedantism/Brahminism. He presented this as an alternative  narrative to mainstream ‘high Islam’ i.e. sunni Islam. This is how this distinction was created between G.M.Syed’s Sufism and Sunni Islam. This is how we should understand this particular islamophobia that Sindhi nationalists create.

This forced conversion narrative is actually a savarna (Dominant Caste) issue, for savarna population. Marginalized caste people i.e. Dalits in Sindh, which I have spoken to, worked with on the ground, do not necessarily see this as a problem. Majority of them have been sufficiently ‘islamized’. On one hand there is a move towards  a hinduization (in India, but also in Southern Sindh) and on the other hand there is islamization (in Pakistan). Communities are being polarised on religious grounds more so than ever before. There are missionaries working here but they are not forcing conversions, they may be inducing conversions based on already occurring islamized practices amongst Dalits. So conversions are in fact happening, but they have already been actualized through practices. The ‘formal conversion’ usually happens at a certain point as a rite of passage through interactions with missionaries, for example, through reading of a kalama (formal requirement of converting to Islam). However, they are already islamized sufficiently, the reading of the Kalama is only a minor/formal eventuality. So, that is to say, they are not converted suddenly, but gradually.

As an example, there is a village in Sindh Golarchi where Bhil community (indigenous Sindhi Dalit population) lives. A Bhil trained as a pandit and returned back to his village to open a mandir where previously there was none. But in a few years time people from the community slowly islamized.They were already at the juncture of formal conversion and needed a motivation of sorts. When finally one of them converted officially, others followed him and eventually the whole village converted to Islam formally. They then started to wonder what they should do with a mandir. So they took the statutes of gods and put them in the river and made a mosque. Sindhi nationalists turned this incident into a narrative of segregation, islamist radicalisation and desecration of the mandir when the reality was quite different. The point being that dalit communities which are termed ‘hindu’ without thought actually have a very syncretic approach to ‘religion’. It has nothing to do with ‘being Muslim’ or being ‘Hindu’. But there are waves of ‘islamization’ and ‘hinduization’, a tug of pull and push between the both especially in relation to the dalit community in lower sindh.

Several dalit communities already were carrying out Islamic practices like nikkah (marriage), death rites through imams, celebrating eid and fasting. Most things we recognize as Muslims doing, believing in saints and praying.

Ahmed: I think my understanding of islamophobia is informed by my experience in the west. I understand it structurally as otherizing Muslim population as the other in the everyday. Over here(in the UK for instance), Sufism is looked at a sect, which is very different from how you explain this construction of Sufism as a religion. I have only become aware of it through your work and my own personal anecdotal understandings raised in Sindh. My classical understanding of Sufism beyond the sub-continent( from Ghazali, Attar, for example) is very different from this. From what I understand from your research and your explanation of Sufism in Sindh, this seems to me very different form how islamophobia is understood in the context of the western hemisphere. So I am not entirely convinced what you are referring to as islamophobia as we understand here. It reminds me of something PhD scholar from India currently based in Cambridge who said to me that what is happening – for instance in India- is something more than just islamophobia. I found his provocation very interesting as I am thinking if we can call it islamophobia at all and instead if we can think about it as a specific form or sub-formation of casteism. Since the role and place of Islam in subcontinent is tied heavily to caste formations and how upper caste Muslim also get ‘castified’ by the Brahmin. There is also the conversation of how sayedism is linked to Mughals or other lineages and myths of lineages of syedism. I agree that globally and through the sub-continent there are connections about the conversation on islamophobia, but we should also be wary of the differences and also the connections for example, Sindh, to Punjab, to pre-partition social formation, social formation at the rapture of, leading to, preceding from partition. So my question still remains how do we imagine islamophobia within Pakistan and if instead we should be focusing on the marrying of Islamophobic discourses – in complicated ways- with caste in the sub-continent. Perhaps then the way to understand the social problems is to point at and start with caste and its intersections with religion making to explain the issues we identify pertaining to Muslims and Islam in Pakistan and India. Pakistan’s case would be different due to hegemony of ashraf or bania(Merchant caste) majority, and in India – the Brahmin hegemony. I also think that the ‘classical’ sunni, whether Deobandi or other sects – do have some power over the state mechanisms hence thinking about structural islamophobia in the case of Pakistan is a slightly slippery slope to walk.

Regarding evidence of forced conversions historically, I absolutely agree with what you say and this discourse on Muslims could be seen in gendered forms by the British orientalist and Brahmin caste where Muslim men were described as perverted men who have harems while Muslim women were exoticized and sexualised. We can see these discourses and constructions of Muslims all the way back to Crusades and European interaction with African Muslims who were enslaved.

I also find it interesting how you describe the religious experience, when it comes to syncretic lived ways of religion making in Sindh especially. These experiences do not match up to legal categories like majority, minority religions to identify one as Hindu/Muslim. The problems that occur because of this dissonance is what I think we need to unpack.    

End of Part 2 (Read Part 1 here)


Gautier, Laurence, and Julien Levesque. “Introduction: Historicizing Sayyid-ness: Social Status and Muslim Identity in South Asia.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 30, no. 3 (2020): 383-393.

Hussain, Ghulam. “Understanding hegemony of caste in political Islam and Sufism in Sindh, Pakistan.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 54, no. 5 (2019): 716-745.

Srinivas, Mysore Narasimhachar. “A note on Sanskritization and Westernization.” The Far Eastern Quarterly 15, no. 4 (1956): 481-496.

Levesque, Julien, Deepra Dandekar, and Torsten Tschacher. ““Sindhis are Sufi by Nature”: Sufism as a Marker of Identity in Sindh.” (2016): 212-227.

Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. NYU Press, 2013.

Arjana, Sophia Rose. Muslims in the Western imagination. Oxford University Press, USA, 2015.

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