UNDER DURESS

History of religious or sectarian conversions is quite long. However forced conversion that occurred after the seventh century generally took place during riots and massacres carried out by mobs and clergy without support of the rulers. In contrast, royal persecutions of Jews from the late eleventh century onward generally took the form of expulsions, with some exceptions, such as conversions of Jews in southern Italy of the 13th century, which were carried out by Dominican Inquisitors but instigated by King Charles II of Naples. The Rhineland massacres, also known as the persecutions of 1096, were a series of mass murders of Jews perpetrated by mobs of German Christians of the People’s Crusade in the year 1096. The massacre is seen as the first in a sequence of anti-Semitic events in Europe which culminated in the Holocaust.

After the end of Islamic control of Spain, Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. In Portugal, following an order for their expulsion in 1496, only a handful was allowed to leave and the rest were forced to convert. Muslims were expelled from Portugal in 1497, and they were gradually forced to convert in the constituent kingdoms of Spain. After the forced conversion, when all former Muslims and Jews had ostensibly become Catholic, the Spanish Inquisition targeted primarily forced converts from Judaism and Islam, who came under suspicion of either continuing to adhere to their old religion.

Although it’s not completely true, but lot of historians believe that forced conversion was rare in Islamic history, and most conversions to Islam were voluntary especially in the Indo-Pak subcontinent, where Sufis played a greater role. Muslim rulers were often more interested in conquest and imposing Jiziyah than conversion. A per capita yearly taxation, called Jiziyah historically levied in the form of financial charge on permanent non-Muslim subjects of a state governed by Islamic law. Studies in the 21st century suggest that, in terms of percentage and worldwide spread, Islam is the fastest-growing major religion in the world. A comprehensive religious forecast for 2050 by the Pew Research Centre concludes that global Muslim population is expected to grow at a faster rate than the Christian population due primarily to the young age and high fertility-rate of Muslims. According to Pew Research, religious conversion has no net impact on the Muslim population as the number of people who convert to Islam is roughly similar to those who leave Islam.

India is a nation that is home to a diversity of religious beliefs and practices.  The Indian subcontinent is the birthplace of four major world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Hinduism is one of the oldest living religions in the world. Laws restricting religious conversions were originally introduced by Hindu princely states during the British Colonial period, mainly during the latter half of the 1930s and 1940s. These states enacted the laws in an attempt to preserve Hindu religious identity in the face of British missionaries. But in recent years politicians and human rights groups including Muslims have protested against ‘forced’ conversions to Hinduism by nationalist groups. They accuse right-wing Hindus aligned with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of forcibly converting Christians and Muslims.

Islamic law prohibits forced conversion, following the Quranic principle that there is “no compulsion in religion” (2:256).

Pakistan is an Islamic country. However, Jinnah’s vision seems to have faded with the passage of time. Despite being the signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that the right to freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s religion and that no one shall be subject to coercion to change their religion, Pakistan has failed to comply with its international obligations. The current ruling Pakistan Tehreek Insaf government, vowed in their 2018 election manifesto that “PTI will protect the civil, social and religious rights of minorities; their places of worship, property and institutions as laid down in the Constitution.”

The Sindh government twice attempted to outlaw forced conversions and marriages, including laying guidelines for the court process in the Protection of Minorities Bill, placing an age limit of 18 years upon conversions.

In 2016, the bill was unanimously passed by the Sindh Assembly, but religious parties objected to an age limit for conversions, and threatened to besiege the assembly if the bill received approval of the governor, who then refused to sign the bill into law. Religious groups oppose a minimum age for conversion or marriage on the basis that this is not sanctioned by Islam. Former Sindh governor rejected the bill and said: “When Ali Ibn Abi Talib can convert to Islam at a young age 9 years, why can’t Hindu girls?”

In 2019, a revised version was introduced, but religious parties protested once again. A sit-in was organised by Pir Mian Abdul Khaliq Mian Mithu, a political and religious leader and a central character in many cases of forced conversions of underage Hindu girls in Sindh. However, Mian Mitthu turned down all the allegations and said, in the past 200 years, not a single Hindu has been converted to Islam forcibly, he claimed. “All those men, women, girls and boys, whether they belong to the Hindu community or any other community, come to us to change their religion out of their own choice. They are not forced to convert.”

Hindus are often the victims of bonded labour. It was outlawed in 1992, but the practice is still prevalent. The Global Slavery Index estimates that just over three million Pakistanis live in debt servitude. Landlords trap poor Hindus into such bondage by providing loans that they know can never be repaid. They and their families are then forced to work off the debt.  Islamic charities and clerics offer incentives of jobs or land to impoverished minorities on the condition that they convert. Muhammad Ali who was known by his Hindu name, Rajesh, before converting alongside 205 others. Ultimately, his entire family had decided to convert to Islam when one of the cleric, offered to free them from the bonded labour. Muhammad Ali is originally from one of the lowest in Hinduism.

According to a report, more than 100 Hindus in Sindh converted to Islam in June 2020 to escape discrimination and economic pressures. Some of these conversions are voluntary, some not. To convert someone is perceived as a pious deed that will bring rewards in the hereafter, no matter the method employed to execute the conversion.

Although every conversion is not forced, but a question irritates me when a young Hindu girl is kidnapped or eloped and after a few days she converts to Islam: Why it is only Hindu girls who are so eager to change their religion, why aren’t Hindu boys, who enjoy more social independence than the girls? Why wealthy and educated independent Hindu women are not attracted to Islam?

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