Forced Conversions in British Sikh Diaspora & silence around it.

The concern over ‘forced’ conversions believed to be initiated by ‘predatory’ Muslim males, who ‘groom’ Sikh ‘girls’ into converting to Islam against their will, continues to resurface within the British public eye. This narrative first emerged in late 1980s and early 1990s and has been reproduced to establish the threat of the Muslim ‘Other’. Such a discourse remains fixed within the Sikh social fabric as the tale continues to circulate within the collective despite a lack of evidence to support such claims.

Introduction

In August 2007, the BBC Asian Network broadcast a live discussion about ‘so called’ ‘forced’ conversions of Sikh (and Hindu) ‘girls’ to Islam following an article claiming that the police denied this was happening with no evidence or record of a single case to date.

1 The debate involved various people telephoning, many of them recalling stories from a friend of a friend they knew who had been coerced into converting to Islam and one girl recalled her own experience of being ‘lured’ away from Sikhism by a Muslim boy who tried to ‘groom’, ‘manipulate’ and ‘entrap’ her within the folds of Islam. This story is all too familiar within the Sikh community; such a narrative has been persistently reproduced to warn ‘vulnerable’ Sikh ‘girls’ about the ‘dangers’ of ‘predatory’ Muslim men, a tale that has become deeply embedded within the Sikh imagination, a myth that continues to resurface within the public eye, readily consumed by the diaspora.

2 One must question, for what reasons does this particular story remain so integral within the Sikh community? Why are Muslims thought to pose such a threat to the Sikh identity? Moreover, why has this narrative remained so prominent and subscribed by so many Sikhs in the absence of police or other evidence to support such claims?

Sikh narratives on ‘forced’ conversions

The ‘forced’ conversions narrative is enunciated in a variety of sites, journalistic, popular and alas, even academic:
In recent years, the organization of religious and political extremism (inaccurately termed ‘fundamentalism’) has taken place both on and off educational premises. This presentation of political ideology under the guise of religious orthodoxy attempts to recruit and mobilize young men to become perpetrators of violence. For example, leaflets circulated in Bradford exhorting young Muslim men to rape Sikh women and murder homosexuals are traceable to extremist Islamic organizations operating across the UK, but funded from outside it. (Macey 857)

Reading this somewhat sensational account in which Muslim males are allegedly ‘urged’ to rape Sikh women, could either be interpreted as an effort to instil and encourage a fearless denouncement of ‘predatory’ Muslim males, or as a symptom of the banal way in which
Islamophobia circulates. Similar statements can be seen featured on many Sikh/Hindu websites and organizational literature, and right-wing media articles collectively these texts present the same narrative structure in which ‘vulnerable Sikh girl’ is ‘coerced, manipulated and groomed’ into the ‘folds’ of Islam by the ‘Muslim male sexual predator’. Such accounts are widely available and continue to resurface within the British Sikh diaspora.

The structure of the ‘forced’ conversions narrative is along the lines of a script with friends and enemies, heroes and villains. This is the story of the ‘brave and courageous’ Sikhs trying to save ‘their girls’ from the ‘Muslim oppressor’ whose only agenda is to ‘coercively’ convert through means of ‘trickery, lies, deceit and manipulation’. Interestingly, Sikh men converting were not seen as a problem as testified in the interviews, for example, the following was a common response:

I don’t know of even one Sikh boy who’s converted, its mainly girls because for Muslims we are kaffirs, we are their enemy, so the way to get to us is to take the girls because they know that it’s the biggest insult and dishonour if the girl runs away because girls are the respect of the family and that’s why they target them and not boys; they see Sikh girls as easy and they call them things like slags. (Interview 1, Sikh male, 40 years old, community leader)

According to the corpus, the basic stages of conversion are expressed as follows:
• Sikh girl is away from home and family as she goes to university or college, she gains her independence/freedom and starts to go out drinking and clubbing.
• Muslim man befriends her disguised as a Sikh. He uses a Sikh name or wears the Kara, and even drinks, to fool the girls into thinking that he is Indian/Sikh. According to this type of narrative the Muslim man is given an incentive; for every girl he converts there is a cash prize and a secured place in heaven (despite his drinking).
• They form a relationship where the girl is ‘groomed’; they fall in love and when emotionally attached he reveals his true Muslim identity. The cracks begin to show as she is being pressured to convert to Islam; family ties are cut, and she is trapped.
• She tries to escape but compromising photos have been taken of her to use as blackmail, or she is impregnated, thus cannot risk shaming the community. •She is beaten and then taken to Pakistan where they spend rest of their lives as slave

Narrative is strengthened by accounts like “Since I’ve come to university I’ve heard from my mates in Birmingham and Leicester about Muslim guys trying to convert Sikh girls, they’ve told me Muslim guys will go out wear the Kara and even wear a turban and have a fake Sikh name and then obviously when they go out
they’ll chat to Sikh girls and stuff and then Sikh girls will obviously think they’re Sikh guys
and slowly they’ll get manipulated. (Interview 5, Sikh male, 20 years old, student)

The sexualisation element underlying the narrative combined with notions of manipulation are features which are particularly stressed by the respondents:

It is bad if how Muslims convert Sikhs is done how I’ve been told, which is by manipulating them pretending to be Sikh; I’ve seen on the Internet a Muslim guy saying how much he hates Sikhs, he’s got a list with pictures of all the girls he’s tried to convert with their names, there’s about 25 of them, saying what he’s done to them sexually and what he plans to do to them again sexually, it’s been taken down obviously. (Interview 2, Sikh male, 19 years old, student)

The notion of disguise, the phases of entrapment and the ‘grooming’ process combine to construct the specific agenda thought to be in practice by Muslims in their ‘mission’ to convert Sikh ‘girls’:

In Bradford you see like so many Muslim guys who will come to Sikh parties with Karas on so they look basically like they’re Sikh, like if you’ve got cut hair you can’t tell, so if you’ve got a Kara on you could be a Sikh, and then if a girl falls for it and gets emotionally attached to the Muslim there’s only so much you can do, like a distant Sikh relative of mine, the same thing happened to her; a Muslim guy took her and she’s now left her family and they miss her so much but can’t do anything ’cos she’s like living in London with him and no one knows really where she is ’cos they’ve cut all ties from the family, he met her in a party, this is what they do they’ll go out dance with them, take their number and carry on playing this game that they’re a Sikh and then when the girl gets emotionally attached he’ll say actually I’m not a Sikh but then it’s too late, you hear so many stories that the girls even get shipped off to Pakistan and they get forgotten about and they get treated badly. (Interview 7, Sikh male, 22 years old, student)

The respondents clearly identify the stages of the ‘forced’ conversion narrative. What emerges from this story is an emphasis on the sexual ‘predatory’ nature of the Muslim men who are described as preying on ‘young vulnerable Sikh girls’. The construction, then, of Sikh females within this discourse is key. When asked about portrayals of Sikh women in British society the following was a fairly typical response:

I think Sikh girls are represented as being quite independent and educated ’cos the majority of us will go to university and work hard, I think sometimes though we are also seen as people who drink a lot and go out a lot which is not so good, especially when you see some of the girls and the stuff they wear like short skirts, that doesn’t make us look good, but generally I think we are represented well because we integrate and adapt well in Britain. (Interview 14, Sikh female, 27 years old, young professional)

The respondents appear to express the danger of over-exposure to Anglo-British society, which is thought to lead to excessive drink and promiscuity amongst Sikh girls:

I think generally Sikh girls are largely seen as hard-working, clever, independent and modern, but then some Sikh girls have been masked from social society [sic] by their parents with an over-protective upbringing; this has resulted in their increasing anger and annoyance and once given the opportunity of freedom have grasped it in a rebellious way and gone to extreme lengths of doing all things frowned upon within Sikh culture and do such things rather than moderation like drinking and going out. (Interview 10, Sikh male, 25 years old,
young professional)

‘Forced’ conversions, the ‘war on terror’ and Islamophobia

As the story goes, we have the idea of Muslim puppet-masters secretly financing young Muslim men to seduce Sikh women. We have ideas of secret messages from the Qur’an, which all Muslims are programmed to obey. We have the idea that mainstream non-Muslim societies are subverted or threatened by Muslim powers to comply with ‘predatory’ practices of Muslim men. The figure, then, of the Sikh female body and the ‘predatory’ Muslim male helps to account for the homogeneity of the Sikh community, which it lacks due to migratory displacements. This antagonistic discourse subscribed to by sections of the Sikh diaspora represents or purports to explain a potential loss and by using the available narratives of Mughal persecution and partition turmoil, they can continue to re-describe their situation to identify themselves as Sikhs in Britain. In other words, these Sikh narratives represent both the possibility of a Sikh identity and the failure of that possibility to be fully realized. The failure of Sikhism fully to constitute Sikh subjects in the conditions of the diaspora is represented through the presence of a Muslim antagonist.

The Mughals saw us (Sikhs) as a threat ’cos it was something different and saw these fresh and modern ideas people started picking up on so they thought look they’re attracting so much attention so they’re gonna take people away from that community and create their own, so they saw it as a threat and they wanted to subvert that threat before it developed; I think that’s why there was that conflict at those times and it’s sad that they haven’t changed even today.(Interview 26, Sikh male, 35 years old, community leader)

The ‘forced’ conversion narrative has been articulated as a phenomenon rooted in the past; such a construction works to establish a clear dichotomy of the ‘friend’ and the ‘foe’:

Aurangzeb was spreading the word of hatred and death so that Sikhism would be wiped out. Having failed to do so, Aurangzeb then moved on to getting his followers to rape and kill Sikh women whose families failed to convert to Islam. So they were basically opposed to Sikhs because Sikhs stood for everything they didn’t, they opposed our teachings, our faith and ultimately our message of equality which went against their beliefs. (Interview 3, Sikh female 28 years old, young professional)

Similarly the Partition narratives echo the same notion of the Muslim ‘enemy’ as ‘oppressing, abusing and forcefully converting’ the Sikh collective:

Women during partition were sacrificed in name of Sikhism to prevent the religion dying out and being taken over; these women and the families should be respected because they didn’t allow Muslims to rape and convert them, instead they sacrificed their lives. (Interview 8, Sikh female, 33 years old, young professional)

The Sikh community is distinct, and popular images of Sikhs in the West have often portrayed them as a gallant and courageous ‘martial race’,as victims of racial discrimination, as activists dedicated to their faith, and as talented and educated businessmen (Singh and Tatla 9). This contrasts to those experiences of ‘BrAsian’ Muslims for example, studies have suggested that Muslims in Britain are more likely to suffer from poorer housing conditions, possess poorer health and are more likely to be unemployed within the labour market compared to their Sikh (and Hindu) counterparts (Abbas 10). Moreover, education studies have also shown that ‘the Muslim percentage of those with higher educational qualifications was just below the England and Wales average (13.5% versus 14.3%). For Sikhs however it was 17%’ (Abbas 30)

There’s no problems or conflict with the British community; Sikhs integrate a lot better, a lot more Sikhs have well spoken English and get along with British culture, whereas Muslims you get a lot of them that don’t even speak English and they keep themselves to themselves in their own small little communities, they just wanna stick to that. (Interview 29, Sikh male, 23 years old, student)
Sikhs are willing to get on with everyone, they work hard and do well in Britain, but Muslims don’t want to adapt or change, they will say that they’re Pakistani or Muslim first before they say they’re British; a lot of Sikhs will say they’re British first. (Interview 10, Sikh male, 25 years old, young professional)

The focus of the ‘forced’ conversion narratives on the ‘predatory’ Muslim males allows these stories to be inserted as a Sikh chapter in the development of the current wave of Islamophobia. This of course does not mean that these ‘forced’ conversion narratives and the antipathy towards the figure of the Muslim are simply the consequences of the ‘war on terror’ or the Mughal atrocities nor should they be seen as lying dormant waiting for the events of 9/11 or 7/7 to ignite them. Forced conversions and grooming of Sikh girls therefore should be kept separate from the current narrative of islamophobia or the mix up of Sikh history, both no doubt have a role to play but if mixed in one bag give huge opportunities to some people to bring down the victims of forced conversions and delay the justice giving the perpetrators a free hand to carry on with their agenda.

NB- The article has been reproduced with permission from A Case study by University of Leeds under Katy P Lian in magazine ‘South Asian Popular Culture’

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