Data of NGOs alleging forced conversions are unreliable and lack evidence: study

October 27, 2020

A recent report released by an Islamabad-based think-tank has refuted claims of several international and local organisations that the minority communities in the country was being forced to convert...

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A recent report released by an Islamabad-based think-tank has refuted claims of several international and local organisations that the minority communities in the country was being forced to convert to Islam.

The study titled ‘Forced Conversations or Faith Conversations: Rhetoric and Reality’, prepared by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) has concluded that ‘faith conversions’ in Pakistan have deliberately been portrayed to always mean ‘forced conversions’, even at the cost of concealing and fudging the facts.

“The issue of conversion is more complicated than it is made out to be in everyday politics,” observed the study conducted by Ghulam Hussain, a scholar on caste politics in Pakistan and a teacher at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

The report has been launched at a time when a parliamentary committee to protect minorities from forced conversions has been inquiring about the subjects and has recently returned after meeting with stakeholders, including minority leaders, parliamentarians, government officials and police officers, in various parts of the Sindh province.

The IPS study has described the NGO reports as “out of proportion”, and lacking “empirical evidence”. “The reports and simultaneous projection of the statements through social media and the internet seem more political rather than objective and impartial accounts based on scientific authenticity.”

The study claims to have reviewed reports prepared by various non-governmental organisations, including the South Asia Partnership-Pakistan (SAPPK), Aurat Foundation, Shirkat Gah, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan(HRCP), Catholic Commission for Justice & Peace (CCJP), and the Movement for Solidarity and Peace (MSP).

“The content analysis of the reports shows that these reports that are often presented by rights activists as the primary evidence based on substantive first-hand data, and understood as such by civil and political society, lack a primary evidence, and mainly rely on clichés cited from other similar reports,” the IPS report said.

“These reports rely on anecdotal evidence taken from newspaper reports and statements primarily collected from activists and politicians rather than the supposed victims and so-called perpetrators.”

The study also recommended a thorough exploratory study be conducted to verify the cases of alleged forced conversions so that the analysis presented here could be further validated, and rhetoric could be separated from reality and vice-versa.

Making an assessment of the ‘force’ used by religious clerics in marriages involving conversion of a non-Muslim, the normative factors, such as conversion as a form of cultural ritual, should not be ignored, the report says.

The study particularly focuses on the claims that “around 1,000 women and girls are forcibly converted to Islam every year in Pakistan”, and says that the claimed figures have been manufactured by these NGOs without seemingly bothering to verify them.

Citing a recent report authored by a Christian scholar, Asif Aqeel, the think-tank maintains that “the data shows that the issue of forced conversion and marriage is much more complex than headlines in the media”, which has claimed that nearly 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls are being kidnapped, forcibly converted and married annually in Pakistan.

“No known organisation has ever verified that 1,000 non-Muslim girls are forced to convert every year,” said Aqeel. The study suggests that the problem of mass conversion of scheduled caste Hindus in Sindh has more to do with the socio-economic marginality of the converts than with religion.

Quoting some Dalit or lower caste Hindu activists, it says the narrative of “forced” conversion is projected by the privileged upper-caste Hindus to maintain their hegemony over the emerging political class of Dalits.

“There is no denying the fact that isolated incidents of forced conversions are reported involving criminal and exploiting elements,” Surendar Valasai, a veteran Dalit activist and a member of the Sindh Assembly, told the report author. “But since every conversion is treated by interest groups as forced, the real victim that is girls are also denied the required sympathy and justice in the media as well as by the society and government.”

Regional context

The study says the conversion of Hindu and Christian girls to Islam in Pakistan cannot be merely construed as social domination of Muslims or economic opportunities available to the majority population.

“Had it been so, there would have been several examples of Muslim conversions in India to Hinduism and their subsequent marriages with Hindus. On the contrary, the evident trend of individual and mass religious conversion in colonial and post-independence India is majorly towards Islam and Christianity,” it said.

Given this tendency and the fear of mass conversion of ‘lower caste’ Hindus, the Hindu rights activists have got anti-conversion laws passed in India, says the study. “Asma Jahangir, United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief from 2004 to 2010, visited India in 2008 and reported that the laws were targeted at Christians and Muslims. She wrote in her report that the laws failed to clearly define what makes a conversion improper, and bestows on the authorities’ unfettered discretion to accept or reject the legitimacy of religious conversions.”

The demand for the passage of laws against ‘forced conversions’ in Pakistan should be seen in the generic context of Islamophobia at the global level, particularly in relation to the anti-conversion laws as passed by the Indian government, and further push for it in certain Indian states, it says.

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