Nestled among the valleys of Pakistan’s mountainous northwest, a tiny religious community that claims descent from Alexander the Great’s army is under increasing pressure from radicals bent on converting them to Islam. The Kalash, who number just about 3,500 in Pakistan’s population of 180 million, are spread over three valleys along the border with Afghanistan. For centuries they practiced polytheism and animal sacrifice without interference from members of Pakistan’s Muslim majority.
But now they are under increasing danger from proselytising Muslim militants just across the border, and a hardline interpretation of Islam creeping through mainstream society — as Pook Shireen discovered. After falling unconscious during a car accident, the mid-20s member of the paramilitary Chitral Scouts woke to find that people with him had converted him to Islam.
“Some of the Muslim people here try to influence the Kalash or encourage them by reading certain verses to them from the Koran,” said his mother, Shingerai Bibi. “The men that were with him read verses of the Koran and then when he woke up they said to him, ‘You are a convert now to Islam’. So he converted.”
The conversion was a shock for his family. But they were lucky compared with other religious minorities under threat from growing religious conservatism that is destabilising Pakistan, a nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
In May 2010, more than 80 Ahmadis, a minority who consider themselves Muslims but are regarded by Pakistan as non-Muslim, were killed in attacks on two mosques in Lahore. Then in March this year, the Christian minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, whose job it was to protect groups like the Kalash, was assassinated outside his home in the capital, Islamabad, in an attack claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.