The Spread of Christianity in Kashmir and Its Unholy Designs: A Detailed Survey. (Urdu) Book Review by Yoginder Sikand

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Two years ago a flood of reports suddenly appeared in the Indian press revealing an alarming number of conversions of Muslims to Christianity in Kashmir. Figures of the number of such converts in the past ten years varied greatly, with some putting t

This booklet consists of three articles written on the subject of Muslim conversions to Christianity, with an introduction by the Mirwaiz of Kashmir, Maulvi Muhammad Umar Faruq, head of the Muttahida Majlis-i ‘Ulama of Jammu and Kashmir (MMUJK), a recently-established association of Kashmiri ‘ulama that is involved in seeking to counter the threat of Christian evangelism in the region. The articles provide interesting glimpses into the social, economic and political factors behind the spate of conversions, the methods used by Christian missionaries to win converts as well as the responses of Kashmiri Muslim religious organisations.

In his brief introductory note, Mirwaiz Umar Faruq describes the work of the Christian missionary groups in Kashmir as a major threat, suggesting that the missionaries use material inducements to win converts, and hence claiming that their work can hardly be said to be sincere. He refers, in this regard, to the work of the MMUJK, and suggests that it undertake a range of activities and programmes to promote Islamic awareness among the Kashmiri public, protect Muslim identity and thereby counter the Christian evangelical challenge.

Two articles included in the booklet echo much the same views, and do not go beyond the level of generalities, thus providing little understanding of the exact process and factors for the conversions in Kashmir. In his article, the noted Pakistani Deobandi scholar Muhammad Taqi Usmani describes the Christian evangelical project as little less than a cheap gimmick, accusing the missionaries of using money, and promises of jobs and education to lure unsuspecting, and largely poor, Muslims into the Christian fold. In this the Maulana is probably correct, and this may well be true for some, or even most, Christian missionary groups. Yet, whatever their motives, this ought not to be used as an argument to altogether deny the important contributions that some Christian institutions and dedicated activists are making in helping the suffering and the needy. What, one must ask, are the Muslim counterparts of the Christian missionaries doing for the poor, and the victims of the unceasing violence in Kashmir and elsewhere? Pretty much nothing is the answer, except for loudly haranguing their enemies and lamenting their plight, and refusing to speak out against the barbarities perpetrated by self-styled Islamists in the name of Islam. Which, in turn, explains why Christian missionaries have moved in to do their own thing and so can hardly be blamed. The Maulana conveniently glosses over this rather inconvenient fact, and, instead, goes on to develop an elaborate and abstruse theological argument seeking to prove that Christianity as it exists today is a corruption of, and a major deviation from, the original teachings of Jesus. Roughly the same argument is made by another Deobandi ‘alim, Mufti Arshad Ahmad, whose article also appears in this book. Titled as ‘Kashmir Main Isaiyat Ke Badhtey Qadam’ (‘The Growing Influence of Christianity in Kashmir’), it hardly refers to Kashmir at all and consists simply of an angry, although not entirely unmerited, diatribe against the missionaries.

The third article, by the Kashmiri Deobandi scholar Maulvi Muhammad Mir Qasmi, is the book’s saving grace, being well-argued and informative. Titled ‘Kashmir Main Kitney Musalman Isai Bane?’ (‘How Many Muslims Have Become Christians in Kashmir?’), it provides a fairly detailed account of the working of various Christian missionary outfits in the Valley. Qasmi provides varying estimates of the number of Muslim converts to Christianity in Kashmir in the last ten years, from 12,000, as claimed by the Srinagar-based newspaper ‘Greater Kashmir’, to 20,000, a figure cited by the Kashmiri Urdu paper al-Safa. He then goes on to provide a broad historical overview of the Christian missionary presence in Kashmir, starting with the first European missionary, Robert Clarke, as early as in 1854. Clarke was followed by several other missionaries, Catholic as well as Protestant, some of whom set up educational institutions catering to the Kashmiri elite, in the hope of winning them to Christianity, and then, through them, hoping to reach out to the masses as well. Some of these schools still exist and are regarded as among the best institutions in the state. Yet, Qasmi notes, these missionary endeavours were not particularly successful, and the number of Kashmiri Muslim converts to Christianity remained meagre.

The situation has drastically changed in the last fifteen years in the state, Qasmi says. Taking advantage of the plight of the poor and the victims of the ongoing strife, he says, numerous Christian missionary groups have established their presence in the Valley. Most of them are generously financed by rightwing, fundamentalist Christian evangelical orgaisations based in America and western Europe. Qasmi provides a detailed account of various missionary organisations presently working all over Kashmir, suggesting a well-organised campaign to spread Christianity, often disguised in the garb of helping hapless Kashmiris. Some of them are engaged in some sort of social work, such as providing employment, medical assistance and education, details of which Qasmi provides, but these are clearly meant simply as an evangelical tool.

Qasmi speaks about a carefully designed division of labour between various missionary organisations in order to make their work more effective. Thus, for instance, Frontiers works among the Gujjars of Dar, near Srinagar, Agape Mission is based among the Hanjis or house-boat owners in Srinagar, Gospel for Asia focuses on the villages along the border with Pakistan, The Goodway is active in the Patan-Magam-Tangmarg triangle, Campus Crusade for Christ works among students in Pulwama and Srinagar, Eternal Life Ministries among leprosy patients in Nagin, and Operation Agape among surrendered militants. Some missionary organisations have tried to develop culturally more acceptable forms of communication in order to make for more effective communication with prospective converts. This, for instance, is the case with the Noor-i Hayat Church, the al-Bashar Fellowship and the al-Masihi Jama‘at Fellowship, whose ‘Muslim’ names have probably been deliberately chosen in order to make them seem somewhat innocuous and culturally familiar to their Muslim target audience. Some of these groups have also prepared propaganda material in the Kashmiri language, using forms and styles that the local Muslims can easily identify with. Such, for instance, is the case of an organisation that distributes free audiotapes on Christianity at Batamaloo, located in the very heart of Srinagar.

Qasmi argues that for many Muslim converts, conversion is simply an economic choice. He writes that a sizeable number of the converts adopt Christianity simply in order to avail the educational, medical or economic assistance that missionary groups promise to provide them with. To buttress this claim he refers to a number of converts who, after joining one denomination and reaping material benefits of some sort, then choose to join another, rival Christian denomination if they are promised further material gain. For some Kashmiri converts as well as other Indian Christians employment in missionary organisations based in Kashmir also provides a good source of income, far beyond what they could otherwise expect. Such, for instance, is the case of a Manipuri missionary associated with the American-funded Operation Agape, who lives in a posh locality in Srinagar. Qasmi quotes this missionary as saying that for him his work is simply a job, and that he took it up because he could find no alternate employment in his home-state. A similar case that Qasmi cites is of a Kashmiri Muslim convert who works with the US-based German Town Baptist Church in Pulwama. An unemployed graduate, he now receives a regular salary and his missionary employers have promised to send him abroad for higher studies.

At the same time, Qasmi also admits that not all converts to Christianity choose to adopt the faith simply out of economic motives. He refers to some converts whose change of faith was motivated by genuine spiritual concern, or as a result of being impressed with the dedication and sincerity of the Christian workers that they came in touch with. Such, for instance, is the case of a certain Sarwan Khan, a resident of Poonch, whom Qasmi describes as the convenor of all Protestant groups active in Jammu and Kashmir. Qasmi writes that Khan chose to become a convert principally out of disgust at what he saw as the local Muslims’ neglect of the plight of their needy co-religionists. Qasmi refers to some other converts, mainly poor people as well as victims of the ongoing violence in Kashmir, who chose to accept Christianity because their fellow Muslims were indifferent to their misery, while the Christian workers whom they came into contact with willingly helped them. Qasmi refers to the case of an old widow, whose only son was killed, leaving her alone to fend for her three daughters. No Muslims offered to help her, and so she was forced to take the assistance of a Christian missionary. Impressed by the missionary’s generosity and dedication, she decided to convert to Christianity. She explains her conversion as a protest against Kashmiri Muslim leaders who, she claims, keep talking about piety and religion, but do nothing to help the poor.

Qasmi argues that in order to meet the missionary challenge, Muslim organisations need to get their act together and engage in constructive social work among the poor instead of simply fighting polemical battles. He outlines a broad programme for Muslim religious organisations and leaders to adopt, most importantly being promoting education, not simply Islamic but modern as well, among poor Muslims in the state who are the most vulnerable to the blandishments of the missionaries. Qasmi’s other suggestions include starting medical centres, employment generation projects, orphanages and vocational training centres to help the poor and the needy. He stresses that the Jammu and Kashmir Awqaf Board, which controls most Muslim endowments in the state, should play a leading role in this regard, given the vast resources at its command which have not been put to proper use all these years. Qasmi also recognises that in many cases the conversions reflect a growing disillusionment among many Kashmiris with the ongoing violence in the state, as well as a yearning for peace. Unfortunately, he chooses not to elaborate on this vital point. However, it is clear that for at least some converts the continued violence in Kashmir, in which certain radical Islamist groups are deeply implicated, must certainly have been a cause of disillusionment leading them to choose to convert to Christianity, a fact that Qasmi himself admits in passing.

As probably the only available book on the subject, this book provides useful insights into the dynamics of Christian missionary work in a politically very sensitive part of the world, although it lacks sufficient ethnographic depth. Given the fact that the American establishment now sees right-wing Christian missionary groups as a major ally in its military involvement in the Muslim world, as exemplified most clearly in Iraq today where missionaries are working in tandem with the American occupation forces, the book points to the urgent need for more in-depth and detailed studies of the political economy of Christian missionary groups, many of them American-funded, working among Muslims today, including in Kashmir.

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