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Forced faith or force of faith?

April 20, 2012


Three females from Hindu families appeared before Pakistan’s Supreme Court this week in a case involving their alleged abduction and forced conversion to Islam. When the young women were asked in private proceedings whether they had been abducted or forcibly converted, the women replied in the negative, requesting to return to their husbands, rather than their families who brought the case before the court.

The judgment by the Court to allow the women to leave with their husbands was based on the evidence presented before the judges, and was rightfully decided with the current law on the books. While there is a constitutional right to freedom of religion in Pakistan, there are several contradictory laws that target minorities and there is an absence of laws protecting them from discrimination. Therefore, while we may never know if the women in this case were forcibly converted, the controversy requires one to assess the lack of legal and social protections afforded to Pakistan’s religious minorities.

While many have critiqued the Supreme Court for seemingly allowing the victims in this case to be returned to their captors, the judges are limited, as there are few laws on the record protecting religious minorities. Unlike its regional neighbors, India and Sri Lanka, there are no laws in operation protecting minorities from forced religious conversion in Pakistan. However, there is a delicate balance that nations must strike between protecting minorities from forced conversion and respecting a citizen’s religious right to change faiths.

Marc Galatner writes that “state inquiries into the imponderables of personal identity” such as determining whether an individual has voluntarily converted faiths, is impossible to accomplish with “administrative and judicial procedures ill-suited to the task.”  While it is difficult to determine the voluntariness of conversion, one must understand the environment in which the decision is made.  As such, Indian provincial legislation deals with all sorts of “coercion” to conversion.

In 2003, the Tamil Nadu province passed the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance, which prohibited conversion through allurement, force, or fraudulent conduct.  There was a higher criminal penalty assigned for those attempting to convert minors, women, and members of the Scheduled classes, because those individuals have historically been most vulnerable to forced conversion. Further, all conversions must be reported to a magistrate judge in the province, who examines the evidence and can deem a conversion forced and illegal.

Many critics argue that this gives too much power to magistrate judges, who stand as an ultimate decider of an individual’s faith. This could potentially lead to violations of a voluntary convert’s right to religion and privacy. However, the Indian Supreme Court examined the laws of conversion through their Stanislaus case, where the Court distinguished between a right to “transmit” ones religion and the right to “convert” individuals. The Court explained, “if a person purposely undertakes the conversion of another person to his religion, as distinguished from his effort to transmit or spread the tenets of his religion, that would impinge on the ‘freedom of conscience’ guaranteed to all the citizens of the country alike.”

Therefore, the Court in India has allowed individuals to spread the tenants and lessons of their religion, but not to forcibly or fraudulently convert individuals. However, many critics question the validity of the Court’s decision, especially when the central tenant of some faiths is to spread their religion. Asma Jahangir authored a report on “the elimination of religious intolerance” for the United Nations, and wrote, “[m]issionary activity cannot be considered a violation of the freedom of religion and belief of others if all involved parties are adults able to reason on their own.”

This issue became significant for Sri Lanka in 2005, when the government passed a national bill prohibiting unethical conversions, in order to “ward off threats to Buddhism.” While 70 per cent of the population in Sri Lanka is Buddhist, there is a minority Christian population that has long been targeted by authorities for its missionary / conversion activities. For critics, this law was a legalised oppression of the Christian minority’s right to proselytise, which is essential to their faith, in order to serve a chauvinistic principle of “protecting the majority.”

This is why the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka rejected the legislation, ruling it an unconstitutional violation of the religious freedoms. This example is an extreme on the spectrum of religious conversion laws as the majority utilised the legislative process to discriminate against a minority. Pakistan has similar laws that discriminate against Ahmedis, for example, that have not been ruled unconstitutional by its Supreme Court. However, it is the lack of legislation protecting minorities which has created a social vacuum worthy of examination.

When the decision by the Pakistani Supreme Court was released, a commentator on twitter noted that Rinkle Kumari, one of the three females in the case, was showing signs of Stockholm Syndrome. Neither the commentator nor I have the credentials to administer a psychological diagnosis to Ms. Kumari, now known as Faryal Bibi. However, let us think of the hundreds of other cases that have existed throughout Pakistan’s history where Hindus, Sikhs, or Christians were converted against their will.

Stockholm Syndrome has been described as a condition where an individual is abducted or kidnapped, and begins to empathise with their captor to the point that they defend their actions. In evolutionary psychology, theories have been developed that explain the evolutionary benefit of the Syndrome. When humans lived in hunter gatherer societies, clans of men would continually fight one another, and women would be taken as “victory prizes.”  The women who protested their capture were regularly killed, while the ones who adjusted to life with their brutal captors survived.

Therefore, one should examine the case of religious minorities in Pakistan from this brutal, archaic, and outdated perspective. Potential converts are born into a society that subjects them to massive social and institutional discrimination, for public services and employment. Non-Muslims have been subject to murder, rape, or beatings merely for simply being born to a different religion in a nation where the right to spread Islam is more protected than the right of minorities to live in peace. In this environment, when a woman, child, or minority is converted to Islam, they could likely develop Stockholm Syndrome and embrace their new faith as an instinct to survive in a brutal society.

This raises a question that should be asked to the ‘gairatmand.’ Is the benefit of forcibly converting one individual to Islam worth jeopardising the validity of all the converts to their faith? Many say that the justice system is flawed if it mistakenly punishes one man, even when it rightfully punishes thousands. In that light, does the forced conversion of one soul not call into question the thousands of others that may have converted voluntarily?

There should be no societal benefit for belonging to the majority religion, just as there should be no detriment for being a minority. Therefore, one hopes that Parliament can address the societal discrimination at the heart of this issue by passing appropriate legislation. This legislation could thereafter be utilised and enforced through the Court. The Pakistani Constitution recognises the right to religion as fundamental, and despite contradictory laws that discriminate against minorities, a legislation is required to fairly deal with forcible conversions.

The writer holds a Juris Doctorate in the US and is a researcher on comparative law and international law issues.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group