The small ethno-religious Kalasha minority is often used as a glaring example of the noticeable diversity found in Pakistani society. It is the only pagan tribe in the country, practicing its unique kind of polytheism. However, the said community now faces the growing threat of Islamization.
Their land, composed of 3 adjacent valleys – Birir, Rumbur and Bamboret – which are collectively also called “Kafiristan”, is situated in the northernmost district of Chitral in the northwestern Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa province of Pakistan. Kafiristan borders Afghanistan from where the Kalash face an imminent threat of forced conversions.
Ever since the time of an earliest Muslim invader Mahmud of Ghazni, successive Muslim rulers have wished to convert the Kalash to Islam. Amir Abdur Rahman of Afghanistan actually converted them by the sword while they lived in the northern region of Afghanistan. He also renamed their land from Kafiristan to Nuristan, meaning the land of light. Today, they once again find themselves facing the formidable challenge of resurgent Islamization in Pakistan, including in their own valleys. It is a threat to survival of their cultural, religious and social life.
Since the 11th century AD to this day, there has been much fascination of this race, perhaps more than with any other in Central and South Asia. Foreign scholars have visited them, lived among them and written about them. A number of British colonial rulers have been under the romantic spell of Kalash Valley. Others have even reportedly considering the Kalash community to be their European brethren (believed to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s troops), and have been worried about the threat of their extinction at the hands of Muslims.
The Kalash are under a persistent influence of Islamization. Their valleys now have 4000 Muslim inhabitants along with ten mosques. They face increasing social and psychological pressures to convert to Islam in an intolerant society which looks down upon those that do not conform to mainstream beliefs.
As a result, many have found themselves converting with or without their free will, to have better prospects in personal and professional life, as well as to escape the stigma of being Kafir (infidel) in a predominantly Muslim society.
There was a time when they ruled over vast areas of land in their region, and were socio-politically influential. Now they are a lonely, tiny, powerless minority group numbering in thousands whose culture is at the verge of extinction, and who live in an area which is hard to access, further strengthening their isolation from the rest of Pakistan.
The Kalashs’ peculiar religion, customs and social life deviate drastically from what is prevalent elsewhere in Pakistan. Their aggressive Muslim neighbors find their practices so anathematic that the Kalash have tended to leave some of them with the passage of time. Examples are their wine festivals, and the bodalak institution which is completely dead as it involved promiscuity. Even their names, dresses, speech and customs are also going through change in order to conform to those of the Muslims. This situation has forced them to feel self-contemptuous in spite of their great racial pride.
Continuously, proselytizing efforts have been going on in the Kalash valleys. But, every action has a reaction. Therefore, in the face of these endeavors by local Muslims, coupled with recent media attention and sympathy from foreigners, Kalash elders have mobilized their people to resist conversion to Islam and revive pride in their own culture. Such counter-efforts have seen some success.
The Kalash suffer from a poor quality of life. Basic necessities such as hygiene, education, balanced diet, medical facilities and electricity are almost or completely missing from their valleys. Hardly any government pays attention towards doing something for these unfortunate citizens of Pakistan. Only the Zulfiqar Bhutto’s government built a jeepable road into Kafiristan to improve their accessibility to the rest of the country; and afterwards, the Zia-ul-Haq regime set up a Kalash Foundation to assist them. But these measures are too insufficient to fulfill the needs of the community.
Eminent Pakistani anthropologist and former civil servant Akbar S. Ahmed proposes an amicable solution to the problems faced by the Kalash. In his book titled ‘Pakistan Society: Islam, Ethnicity and Leadership in South Asia’, he argues that for a thousand years, they have been encountering the so-called aggressive face of Islam in the form of firebrand mullahs hurling threats, or conquerors using brute force of the sword to convert them. But as a matter of fact, this ferocious aggression is not the real face of Islam. Its real face is that which the gentle Sufi sages showed us. They applied the two greatest names of Allah in their lives: the Beneficent, and the Merciful. This, according to Ahmed, is exactly what the Muslims of today need to do: follow the path of the Sufi masters and believe in ‘peace with all’, including the Kalash!
The government too, needs to do its utmost to protect this lonely group which, along with Ismaili Muslims, recently received a threat from Taliban to convert or face death. Instead of just publicizing pictures of the Kalash celebrations for promoting national tourism, while practically allowing Islamist groups to intrude their valleys and smash their idols, the government should consider the community part and parcel of the nation and address its needs, so as to promote real sense of nationhood.