Global Islamophobia discourses, minority rights and forced conversion in Pakistan (Part 3)

Dr. Ahmed Raza Memon and Dr. Sufi Ghulam Hussain

Sufi: I see Islam as the largest organized religion, they are assertive, dominant as well. Other religions do not have this in Pakistan, Christianity is secularized while Hinduism is not a religion per se – it is more of a caste system. It in fact juxtaposes itself from Islam on that very basis. Sunni Islam is dominant and as high Islam but that is also why islamophobia exists because of that. My question is, is it really a problem to be culturally hegemonic and then say islamophobia is an issue? So saying that Sunni hegemony exists or not is another issue and then saying if islamophobia exists is another question or aspect. Both these currents exist in Pakistan locally and internationally. I see Pakistan connected to the what happens in the world. We cannot say islamophobia exists only in UK or India and not in Pakistan. This doesn’t seem plausible to me. The human rights narrative i.e. the secular one in Pakistan, juxtaposes itself in connection to Pakistan as a place i.e. as an Islamic republic of particularly Sunni muslims.

The orientalization of Muslims was brought into the subcontinent by English and then was taken up by Sindhi nationalists. Different studies and research that indicate that there is a history to islamophobia in south Asia (Michel Bovins recent  book the Sufi Paradigm, or Daryl Maclean Arabs in Sindh, Yohannen Friedman’s work).   

There is also no denying the fact – as I have often said in my research – that religious politics in  the South North Indian and Pakistani (Sindhi and Punjabi) context is always actually ashrafia and savarna politics. It always glosses over actual structural inequalities in terms of caste system – particularly in Sindh, south Punjab, north India, south India.

Ahmed: I think that historical connections do exist and do flow through time however they are not always that clear. There are disruptions, discontinuities, connections as well. So for example, I think the construction of Muslims by different European polities were different in accordance to which Muslims they met. Even in the sub-continent this was true. For example the construction  of ‘good muslim’ was already present over here long before the cold war or post 9/11 and this was compounded by other Brahmin, upper caste scribes and communities. And historically, the Brahmin conception of Muslim others were based on a different hierarchization as part and parcel of their own caste system. Muslims were always viewed as the invader others through a Brahim gaze. So I am interested in how these overlapping constructions worked together, intersected each other in time and different places. How did the Ashraf elite Muslims respond to these constructions in the 19th to 20th Century.  I think these are all important differences we must pay attention to in order to see how structural inequalities, for example something like islamophobia, need to be understood in a more conceptually, materially and historically grounded way. I am currently working on these questions from a global perspective of the creation of a ‘Muslim international’ and I will be talking about caste. One interesting case study I use is the Sufi tariqas (order) in French occupied Senegal. Here we actually see the syncricity of religion making along with indigenous Senegalese traditions by marginalized caste communities to carve a space out in the intersections of caste/religion making to assert their position against dominant sufi orders. Then, another important question here is how did the French interacted with these divergent sufi orders and other majority sufi order for their own colonial governance.

I personally see the conceptual frame of islamophobia as a response to post 9/11 securitization by diasporic scholars and activists, rights groups in the west. The experience of diasporic Muslim of islamophobia is very different, materially, socially, in the everyday. I cannot then, personally say, that I experience islamophobia in Pakistan. I can say that while I do not belong to a scheduled caste community, I have experienced casteism. That does not mean I think that lobbies or networks do not exist which further embolden the discourses of islamophobia – they do. However, we need to recognize the differences in the conceptual frame we use to describe it specifically through the intersections of caste in order for us to lay bare the core social issues on religion and religion making. I would therefore reserve my opinion on this and not say there is islamophobia in Pakistan.

Sufi: Well, I think of course you cannot say that there is that physical violence of islamophobia in the same way. Muslims are the dominant polity in Pakistan. However, on a discursive level we do see islamophobia where specifically the narrative of forced conversions is rooted within anti-Islam discourse or global islamophobia. Of course in the UK you can experience everyday otherisation, violence and in Germany I experienced this as a Pakistani. Pakistan itself denotes the other or the barbaric, Talibanized etc place. You are not going to experience this in Pakistan, of course. However, I do see a lot of islamophobia at a discursive level as the subject of my studies i.e. among the progressive lobbies in Pakistan. My subjects are not conservatives, they are Sindhi nationalists, progressives, and the Marxists. I was pinning my hope on them so that they can engage with good conscience on these issues. But I see them going in a wrong direction for different political reasons and playing second fiddle to certain narratives which are in their own way extremist. Secularism itself becomes extremist as  Nathaniel Roberts, Katy Sian amongst other scholar like Talal Asad, Lord Bikhu Parekh point out. There is a different kind of islamophobia that exists but you cannot say it is similar the way it occurs in the UK. Contexts and histories are different, diverging and converging at various points. Another reason for using the term islamophobia for me is because we do not have a conceptual category and so we then turn to the term global islamophobia to explain this particularistic response of progressive circles.

Ahmed: I completely agree with this in relation to the difficulty of using ‘global islamophobia’. But if I were to ever say global islamophobia in relation to Pakistan I would caveat it by saying if we should be using the word islamophobia to bring up the particular attitude of progressives, and narratives popular within certain circles in Pakistan. I am wary of personally using single conceptual category based on social constructions across time and place as I do not want to universalize experiences in this way. Which I know is another ongoing debate. I also see this as a problem of lack of supportive structure, awareness and an audience that can engage with these conversations in Pakistan in a serious way. I also then wonder how useful it is to have these discussion, particularly on islamophobia, with secular, progressive and Marxist circles in Pakistan.

Sufi: Thank you so much for this wonderful discussion. I am currently working on this issue of forced conversion as an ethnographic research project and I am hoping to make a video documentary on this as well. I hope to articulate this further through my future work on this and as you said at the moment there doesn’t seem to be an audience for thinking about decoloniality in a proper way in progressive, left, Marxist circles within Pakistan. The recent book by Michel Bovin is a monumental contribution which has not at all been talked about in Pakistan as well as Manan Ahmed Asif’s ‘The Book of Conquest’, both pertaining to the  history and historiography of British colonial rule in Sindh and Punjab. So it is important for us to have these discussions and create further connections, where conversations on decoloniality can be brought to broader audiences in Pakistan.

*End of Conversation*

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.


Boivin, Michel. The Sufi Paradigm and the Makings of a Vernacular Knowledge in Colonial India. Springer International Publishing, 2020.

Maclean, Derryl N. Religion and society in Arab Sind. Vol. 25. Brill, 1989.

Friedmann, Yohanan, Raphael Israeli, and Anthony Hearle Johns, eds. Islam in Asia. Vol. 1. Magnes Press, Jerusalem University, 1984.

Ochonu, Moses. “Colonialism within colonialism: the Hausa-Caliphate imaginary and the British colonial administration of the Nigerian Middle Belt.” African Studies Quarterly 10, no. 2-3 (2008): 95-127.

Dilley, Roy M. “Between mosque and termite mound: Islamic and caste knowledge practices among Haalpulaaren, Senegal.” (2004).

Asad, Talal. Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity. Stanford University Press, 2003.

Parekh, Bhikhu C. Colonialism, Tradition, and Reform: An Analysis of Gandhi’s Political Discourse. Sage, 1999.

Roberts, Nathaniel. “Is conversion a ‘colonization of consciousness’?.” Anthropological Theory 12, no. 3 (2012): 271-294.

Sian, Katy P. (2013)Unsettling Sikh and Muslim Conflict: Mistaken Identities, Forced Conversions, and Postcolonial Formations, by, New York, Lexington Books.

Asif, Manan Ahmed. A Book of Conquest. Harvard University Press, 2016.

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