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June 21, 2016



Stories of conversion

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar.


Three Kalash girls converted to Islam in the Chitral district in the last one month, but 15-year-old Reena’s conversion on June 16 made media headlines, generating controversy and leading to tensions among the peace-loving Kalash and Muslim communities in the Bamburet valley.

Before Reena, two other girls Shaira and Karishma had embraced Islam as well, but the news remained confined to the three Kalash valleys of Bamburet, Rumbur and Birir where the Kalash, or Kalasha, peacefully coexist with their Muslim neighbours.

Reena’s conversion too would have remained unknown outside her native Aneesh village if there had been no protests (including stone-throwing) by Muslims at the house of a Kalash family that was allegedly helping her to revert to her religion. This case attracted attention all over Pakistan and abroad and almost every Pakistani politician and party gave statements condemning her ‘forced’ conversion. No attempt was made to get the details of Reena’s story and find out the truth. Reena too complained that nobody asked her about the reasons for her change of religion and instead a law and order situation was created in Bamburet out of ignorance or by those with vested interests.

Reena had approached Qari Maqbool, the peshimam of the mosque and administrator of the adjoining madressah in her village to formalise her conversion to Islam. The prayer leader did the needful. Imams, as we all know, are eager to oversee conversions as they see this as a means to seek Allah’s blessings and a vindication of the truthfulness of their religion.

It isn’t clear yet what really motivated Reena to abandon her animist set of Kalash religious rituals and become a Muslims at such a young age. Her uncle Sher Jehan and her aunt, who had embraced Islam earlier, are believed to have influenced her decision. Her father Ghulam Mohammad was visibly unhappy over Reena’s conversion when they travelled to Chitral town along with their relatives and Kalash and Muslim elders, under arrangements made by the local administration, to appear in a court and later address a news conference. However, he refrained from criticising her publicly. Instead, he pleaded that they be allowed to live peacefully as they had done all these years with their Muslim neighbours.

The issue was seen as resolved when Reena recorded her statement before Judicial Magistrate Fazal Wadood Jan under section 164 that she had embraced Islam of her own choice and not under any pressure. At the press conference, she declared that Islam was a religion of peace and love and condemned the propaganda that the local Muslim community had forced her to convert. This was a mature statement from a seemingly immature girl from a remote corner of northwestern Pakistan.

Reena was sent to her uncle’s house, the same place where the couple had reportedly influenced her to abandon her Kalash roots and become a Muslim. For now the situation has calmed down, but Reena’s conversion will continue to haunt the Kalash community, which is dwindling in numbers and influence, and will also likely mark its relations with the Muslims living in the three valleys that were originally Kalash.

It is unusual for the pagan Kalash minority or the Muslim community in Bamburet, Rumbur or Birir to confront each other the way they did in the aftermath of Reena’s conversion to Islam. Muslims gathered outside the house of Zareen, a Kalash whose wife has converted to Christianity and had reportedly tried to persuade Reena to abandon Islam and revert to her Kalash way of life. The mob of angry Muslims pelted the house with stones and demanded action against the family for misleading Reena. They could have burnt down the house, but the police reached the spot and managed to disperse the protesters through teargas and negotiations. Mercifully, there were no human or material losses.

On the persuasion of Osama Warraich, the deputy commissioner of Chitral, the Kalash and Muslim elders agreed to let Reena speak her mind before a court of law and accept her choice. As promised, the elders from the two communities have accepted Reena’s choice that she is now a Muslim.

The incident has renewed the debate about conversion of non-Muslims, including Hindu girls in Sindh, to Islam and raised questions whether these girls are converting willingly or under coercion. The fact that three Kalash girls converted to Islam in one month has been alarming news for the Kalash community. It is not only girls who are converting; many Kalash men, including an elderly 70-year old, have also converted to Islam.

In fact, some of the Kalash are also converting to Christianity. A prominent Kalash elder often quoted in the media has also become Christian. So both tableeghis, the Muslim preachers and the Christian missionaries, are at work as they try to attract the mostly poor Kalash community members to Islam and Christianity.

According to local officials, marriage with Muslim boys from the down districts, and money were the two major attractions for the Kalash to convert to Islam. In the case of the Kalash girls, marriage to Muslim boys was stated to be the reason for 90 percent of the conversions to Islam. They expressed doubt that the teenager Reena had studied enough of Islam to become a Muslim. However, in her case no definite reason is known yet that prompted her to convert. Probably, her uncle and aunt who had converted to Islam earlier played a key role in changing her mind and religion.

With around 4,000 Kalash left in Chitral following the growing conversions, the government needs to take a few steps to protect the community. As certain local officials pointed out, the costly religious and cultural festivals of the Kalash people have become unbearable for them and some of them convert to escape these unaffordable customs. The Kalash celebrate death and the three-day celebrations that follow may cost up to Rs800,000 as the mourners have to be fed and feted. The Chilumjusht spring festival in May is another costly affair because the Kalash wear new clothes, drink local wine, and contribute to preparing food for every member of the community.

There is no real government assistance to the Kalash to keep alive their religious and cultural traditions. The Kalash religious elders are paid a measly Rs1800 annually by the government as an upkeep allowance. Government and the non-governmental organisations have executed some development projects in the Kalash valleys, but the impact isn’t deep and sustained.

Another problem is the growing presence of non-locals running hotels and other businesses in the Kalash valleys. As a step towards empowerment of the Kalash and also the local Muslims, only locals should be allowed to establish businesses in the area. The Kalash have no special job quotas and this smallest minority in Pakistan is lumped together with other non-Muslims to unfairly compete for government jobs. They deserve to have special job quotas and educational stipends and their unique way of life and architecturally delightful houses should be preserved.

The road from Chitral town via Ayun to the Kalash valleys ought to be repaired and metalled and guided tours could be arranged for tourists to observe the Kalash culture in an orderly manner. Someone suggested a chairlift could be installed from Ayun to Bamburet on the five kilo9metres distance to enjoy the sights and sounds of these enchanting valleys and generate employment and business opportunities for the Kalash as well as for the Muslims living in the area.

Email: [email protected]