Pakistan's Conversion Circus: Missing the woods for the tree

Sunil on his way to Abdullah

Pakistani society has one more reason to get agitated. A Hindu boy has converted to Islam in front of a live television audience. Sunil became Muhammad Abdullah.

I’d like to take up the editorial in Dawn to show just how this limited concern works.

"In yet another example of how the industry's commercial goals trump ethics, open-mindedness and common sense, on Tuesday a television show broadcast an imam leading a Hindu boy through a live conversion to Islam carried out in the studio as part of the show, complete with the audience joining in to suggest Muslim names for the new convert.

"There is no reason to think the boy was not converting of his own free will, but the whole event had the distinct air of being carried out to give viewers something new and different to watch, even if that meant dragging an intensely personal and spiritual experience into public view.”

This is like suggesting that it is quite nice to carve your meat at a fine dining table, but don’t let us see the butcher’s shop. There is as much ethics in what the paper says as the bleeding rites of passage. I have always maintained my anti-conversion stand, and in this case I might be interested to know a couple of things if ethics is an issue:

  1. This is reality TV. Participants on such shows are paid. Was the boy paid to appear on the show or to convert?
  2. If he was doing it of his own free will, then the question is not about conversion but about the involvement of imams, who object to entertainment programmes. 
  3. Is it not the job of the media to investigate about the motives of the boy – where is he from, what are his reasons, instead of replaying clips?

Sitting on a high horse has become part of the media culture. Editorials are passing judgments and trying to ‘convert’ people into thinking in ways they deem fit all the time, taking political sides, writing treacly pieces on leaders.

Maya Khan in an earlier stint

The host of the ARY show is Maya Khan, who is seen as an Islamist. It is interesting that actress Veena Malik was supposed to host a Ramzan programme and it was vetoed by the mullahs in Pakistan. Did anyone among the liberals question the ethics of someone like the controversial lady hosting such a show? Was it not to grab eyeballs? Would it not be as bad as mullahs looking beady-eyed over a conversion? What are the ethics about having such shows at all in a country that is constantly discussing religious resurgence and its ill-effects?

Who is to decide what form of religion should be portrayed? If you want a Veena Malik type show, then someone else might find a Maya Khan entertaining. Did not Ms. Malik become the hero of a section of the nation when she took on some mullahs on a channel a couple of years ago for her right to expose her body and perform live canoodle scenes? She suddenly became the ambassador of the nation, of liberal Islam, of a fight for modernity.

These are all circus acts, and one does not expect better from reality television and that includes news channels. Part of the hot air is possibly because this is a competitive game, where ethics are the flakes of pistachio on the phirni, not an ingredient. This is borne out by the fact that the editorial is worried about how just to spice things up “religion is now fair game too”.

Talat Hussain, who hosts a political show on private television channel Dawn News, said:

“Think about how Muslims would feel if Buddhists in Burma show a Muslim being converted on a live TV show.”

If this is not spicy and sensational, then what is?

Religion always has been fair game. Why get pedantic about it in a country that relays every religious detail, and “spiritualism” is sold at shrines, as CDs? And just for the information of those who do not know, conversion is not a private matter. The decision to convert might be, but the individual has to perform certain rituals to show that s/he belongs. The whole reason behind it is often social acceptability or pressure.

Question that. But it would not get as much attention, does not give those expressing anger a primetime slot.

It is surprising to read this:

"more disturbingly, what the channel obviously didn't stop to consider is the message this broadcast would send to the country's minorities…The joy with which the conversion was greeted, and the congratulations that followed, sent a clear signal that other religions don't enjoy the same status in Pakistan as Islam does. In a country where minorities are already treated as second-class citizens in many ways, this served to marginalise them even further”

Who has made a noise about this? Where are the minority groups? It is not about the message a television show sends out. Pakistanis do not live in and off studios. The country’s laws discriminate against minorities.

Can anyone file a petition against the channel? Will it change anything? How many Pakistanis have the courage to flaunt their agnosticism/atheism, if that is their proclivity?

In a moment of perfect coordination, it would appear – and that showcases the hypocrisy – President Asif Ali Zardari has formally invited PM Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan:

Zardari suggested that if Singh’s visit coincided with Guru Nanak's birth anniversary in November, it would be well received by the Pakistani people and reinforce the desire of both countries to promote inter-religious harmony.

Is this not misuse of religion? Do India and Pakistan need to promote inter-religious harmony? At least, India does not need Pakistan for that. And this is being hailed by the same media that has been frothing at the mouth over a conversion. Weren’t Sikhs beheaded in that country not too long ago?

India has enough of its own problems with different religions and sects and castes. But I dread to think what would happen if we had an Ahmadi Prime Minister. Would President Zardari extend an invitation to celebrate anything and promote inter-religious harmony, when the community is ostracised socially and politically?

Perhaps one of the ‘ethical’ people of Pakistan might like to convert to the Ahmadiya faith on public television and send out a strong message?

If you cannot do that, then a coat of varnish is not going to change the shakiness of the walls.

(c) Farzana Versey


  1. FV,

    You are evading the real issue. An Islamic state is the death knell for other religions. There is nothing "moderate" about an Islamic state which is inherently fascist and intrinsically hostile to other religions. Non-Muslims will never be permitted to propagate their religion. Conversions out of Islam will remain punishable by death.

    This madness called Quranic state must be fought tooth and nail. Unfortunately, non-Muslims will have to take up this onerous task by themselves. Muslims seem to be either in agreement with this stuff or too terrified of being condemned as qafirs. As for the sekulaar liberals, one never had any hope in them to start with.

  2. F&F:

    You are choosing what suits your mindset. It does not mean I am evading anything. Let me deal with things my way. When I need the assistance of some 'bhai', will let you know...

  3. from where does this brand of Islam came

    this was never the case when this region had sufi saints enlightening everyone regardless of religion

    when a mosque was decorated on the night of Diwali and I ate all the sewai of my friends tiffin he bright on eid

    ain't these people afraid that those whom they are hating, the hatred they spread is simply going to haunt them back

    worst of all they are making life difficult for future generations because when the changing world working atmosphere it is becoming more and more important to be as accepting as possible to others.
    imagine working in a multinational company, you'll have to take orders from a boss who could be of any religion.....are you going to change your job just because boss is a jew or Hindu, or shia or black

  4. Religion today is about hatred. You need an enemy to feel good about your faith.

    As regards the boss's religion, money is the great leveller. Is that not why a certain CM of an Indian state has managed to hoodwink the public?

  5. "where ethics are the flakes of pistachio ... not an ingredient"

    Nicely said. That would make a great quote. :)

    "other religions don't enjoy the same status in Pak"

    Goes without saying. Don't forget how this country came to being. It's a separate nest exclusively for the Muslims. It's an Islamic Republic and yet a 'secular' one!@*!


  6. 30 degree off topic comment:

    I just read your article named "Subjugating The Muslim Woman" in countercurrents.org .

    It raises many serious questions and challenges the Allahabad court ruling. To what extent will the dispensation of Justice be perverted, in fear of the red-eyed clergy? Where is the secularism hiding now? This apparent Koshish of Hindu-Muslim harmony will turn out to be a Trojan horse of disharmony later.


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