Bill against forced conversion binned (Opinion)

Pakistan has of late been cutting a sorry figure in the international community due to its inability to enforce laws to protect minorities.

One of its most recent failures in this regard has come in the shape of the rejection of the Anti-Forced Conversion Bill.

The bill faced vehement opposition from religious circles within the country from the get-go. Clerics in a meeting called by the Ministry of Religious Affairs – an all-Muslim gathering, without any representation from the non-Muslims community – unanimously opposed the bill in August, criticizing it for its clash with the domestic violence bill.

“When parents cannot even scold their children under the domestic violence bill, so can they stop their children from embracing Islam?” a participant of the meeting said according to sources privy to the discussion.

The bill suggested that religious conversion of minors – under the age of 18 – be declared illegal.

Maulana Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, the Special Representative to the Prime Minister on Religious Harmony and the Middle East, also rejected the bill terming it anti-Quran.

It is interesting to note that Ashrafi has also reportedly holds the view that forced conversion and marriages are un-Islamic, thereby agreeing with the spirit of the bill, but further insists that “we must not put the stamp of Islam on our own thinking, actions and tribal traditions”.

Ashrafi implied that forced conversions in Pakistan could be attributed to local tribal traditions, having nothing to do with Islam. He further claimed contacting the rights group that had reported the 1,000 forced conversions per annum in Pakistan figure, asking them to give him the names and addresses of 100 of them. The group, Ashrafi added, did not deliver him the same – a move judged by the representative as their failure to prove the report’s authenticity.

The final and most decisive blow to the bill against forced conversions came in October when a parliamentary panel rejected the proposal, citing an “unfavorable environment” as the reason behind its rejection.

The aforementioned chain of actions was set in motion after a report by Associated Press came up in December 2020, alleging that “each year, 1,000 Pakistani girls forcibly converted to Islam”.

“Human rights organizations assess that each year, around 1,000 religious minority (Christian and Hindu) women and girls are kidnapped and forced to convert and marry Muslim men in Pakistan. This estimate of the number of victims may be even higher as many cases remain unreported, often due to the limited financial means of the girls’ families,” notes analyst Dr Ewelina U. Ochab.

The clergy in Pakistan, on the other hand, continues to insist that forced conversions are not a grave issue in the country. “We are in contact with religious scholars to promote inter-faith harmony and protect everyone. [The forced conversion stats] are rubbish and baseless,” says Tahir Ashrafi.

It is important to note that the ulemas’ claim is backed by Pakistani think-tanks. Institute of Policy Studies, an Islamabad-based think-tank, published a report in October this year, judging the estimate on forced conversions in Pakistan to be ‘out of proportion’, without the support of sufficient ‘empirical evidence’.

The report, entitled, “Forced Conversions or Faith Conversations: Rhetoric and Reality” adds that the idea of forced conversions in Pakistan is backed by upper-caste Hindus in the country in a bid to protect their hegemony. The study quotes lower-caste or Dalit Hindu activists to support its claim. “The issue of forced conversion and marriage is much more complex than headlines in the media,” says Christian scholar Asif Aqeel.

With contrasting pictures being drawn by opposing camps, both citing research-based studies, analysts across the globe find themselves in the uncomfortable position of judging the right in what’s increasingly turning into a “my word against yours” situation.

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