The Kerala Story: Muslims must give up their medieval ideal of conversion and conquest – Ibn Khaldun Bharati

The Kerala Story

Avatar of Ibn Khaldun BharatiIn a pluralist society like India’s, the Muslims would do better to recognise that all religions are equally true. If they can’t bring themselves to it, they should, at least, recognise that to the people of other faiths, their religion is as true as Islam is to a Muslim. And so, trying to convert others is as unacceptable as changing someone’s gender or skin colour. – Ibn Khaldun Bharati

The central issue of the movie, The Kerala Story, is religious conversion of Hindus and Christians to Islam—a subject few wanted to talk about. Though the Islamic preachers and narrative makers never hid their intention, their liberal-secular patrons would neither talk about it nor let others do the talking. They have a vested interest in Muslim communalism, and are happy with the electoral gains accruing from Islamic radicalism. Thus, devoid of the integrity to acknowledge the disturbing reality, they also lack the tools to analyse the phenomenon.

Expectedly, the movie has stirred a hornet’s nest. Exposé of an open secret always does that.

The main objection raised against The Kerala Story has been the now-retracted figure of 32,000 conversions of girls in the state to supply soldiers for ISIS. The film producers now mention three girls who converted and went to fight for ISIS. However, beyond this quibbling over numbers, there have been no serious imputation of falsehood. The core content of the movie has a kernel of truth and is not being disputed. There is no accusation of peddling falsehood. Instead, some are questioning the motives behind telling this truth. It’s a politically inconvenient movie that brings to light the topic of religious conversion and its consequences.

There is no denying the fact that conversions happened in Kerala—of girls too! And, neo-converts, even girls, were sent abroad on jihadi missions to fight for ISIS. Women were not recruited in these missions for combat roles. Jihadi men needed comfort girls, and these women were jihad-prostitutes. We learnt about the story when some of them, incarcerated in Taliban’s jails in Afghanistan, begged the Indian government to bring them home.

The point to ponder is, when this news broke, what was the reaction of the Muslim community and the liberal-secular intelligentsia? Were they shocked with disbelief or just embarrassed about the revelation? Did they dismiss it as a freak incident or knowing it to be the tip of iceberg tried to retrieve the situation from increasing radicalisation.

Is it a secret that converting a non-Muslim to Islam is considered the greatest of virtues? Could people, even girls, be converted and despatched on jihadi missions without a general acceptance of conversion and jihad in the Muslim society? Did the people react then the way they are doing now at the movie about it? No, they didn’t, and therefore, there is a need to introspect, and understand what is going on.

Why convert? 

The underlying concept behind converting people is that one’s own religion is the only truth, all else is falsehood. Thus, it becomes one’s duty to persuade others to convert to the “true” religion. If persuasion fails, and circumstances allow, the unheeding could be converted by deceit, temptation, or force. Throughout history, most conversions—a supremacist idea—have occurred through force or conquest. With the exception of Southeast Asia, Islam has mainly spread in areas that were conquered by Muslims. While Sufi mystics played a major role in cultivating converts, they could not have succeeded without the protection of the Islamic sword, as they had to reconcile people to the Muslim rule and the ruler’s religion. This was Islam’s version of the “Cross following the Flag.”

The community of converts

Today, the descendants of converts—some 80-90% of Indian Muslims—may regard the conversion of their ancestors as a divine blessing that saved successive generations from hellfire and ensured eternal paradise. However, the process through which this blessing was obtained is also a fact of history. If the story were to be told, it could severely undermine the basis of identity politics. Communal consciousness is shaped by suppressing memory and obfuscating history.

History of conversion

In India, the issue of conversion will remain contentious because, historically, it has been a corollary of conquest. Whether through persuasion, temptation, or compulsion, both the conqueror and the conquered viewed it as an insult added to injury. The consequences of these conversions are still present in the form of ever-increasing religious radicalisation and separatist politics, even 75 years after the Partition.

Politics of conversion

Now that the age of Islamic conquest is over, and wholesale conversion is no longer feasible, there has been a shift in strategy—to dawah, i.e., preaching and proselytising. Earlier, groups converted, now individuals do. Sometimes, girls in love convert too. Such conversion is seen as poaching by the community that loses a member. No one remains in doubt about its political meaning. A religious conversion in India is not only about changes in one’s conception of the divine, vocabulary of prayer and ritual of worship. More than anything else, it is a change of community; switching of loyalty from one to another. For the Muslim, a conversion is a validation of his religion’s truth and is celebrated as a communal conquest. Correspondingly, every such conversion makes the Hindu seethe at the unending series of defeat and humiliation. Such contrast in emotions on two sides is inevitable in a situation where communities are seen as historical antagonists, competing with each other for the supremacy of their respective religions.

Conversion from Islam

Islamic jurisprudence is the best guide to understand the political import of religious conversion. According to it, a Muslim’s conversion to another religion is an act of apostasy, which renders him liable to death. The reasoning behind it is that a change of religion is not merely a change of one’s personal faith. It is tantamount to treason to the Islamic state, and is as grave a matter as a soldier’s desertion to the enemy camp. In this worldview, religions are political ideologies, and faith communities are warring armies. Therefore, the campaign to convert is prosecution of war by another means. A new convert to Islam is a victory for the religion that the community celebrates. But the rare conversion of a Muslim to another religion is high treason that Muslims can’t take in their stride, and for which the prescribed punishment is execution.

In an ideological framework where a new convert is actually a newly recruited soldier, the progression from conversion to military jihad is natural.

Ethics of pluralism 

A pluralist and secular society cannot allow one community to have such designs on the other. A minority community, particularly, can’t afford such continued incursions into the majority, as it may incite a reaction leading to reverse conversion.

After the Prophet, the Muslims didn’t remain a faith group. They became a religion-based ethnicity. Therefore, seeking to convert non-Muslims to Islam is as ridiculous as converting Indians into Arabs. It creates confusion of identity, which leads to extreme fanaticism.

In a pluralist society like India’s, the Muslims would do better to recognise that all religions are equally true. If they can’t bring themselves to it, they should, at least, recognise that to the people of other faiths, their religion is as true as Islam is to a Muslim. And so, trying to convert others is as unacceptable as changing someone’s gender or skin colour.

It’s time that, in their own interest, Muslims renounced the medieval ideal of conquest and conversion. If they didn’t, this fantasy could turn into a nightmare.

“Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you” is a maxim everyone should remember. – The Print, 9 May 2023

› Ibn Khaldun Bharati is a student of Islam, and looks at Islamic history from an Indian perspective.

Indian army signpost in the Himalayas.