Understanding the Zakir Naik controversy

Understanding the Zakir Naik controversy

Zakir Naik

-Aditi Goel


“When a robber sees a policeman, he’s terrified. So for a robber, a policeman is a terrorist. So in this context, every Muslim should be a terrorist to the robber.”

These are words by Dr. Zakir Abdul Karim Naik, an Indian Islamic preacher, and founder and president of the NGO Islamic Research Foundation (IRF), who has been controversy’s child for a host of comments. He is also the founder of the “comparative religion” Peace TV channel through which he claims to reach a reported 100 million viewers.

Naik, a follower of the late South African religious preacher Ahmed Deedat, followed his footsteps, wore a suit and tie and used technology to reach out to his followers. Naik’s lectures, unlike many Islamic preachers, are colloquial, given in English, not regional languages like Urdu or Arabic. He was born in Mumbai and attended K.C. College, after which he studied medicine at Topiwala National Medical College & BYL Nair Charitable Hospital and later the University of Mumbai, from where he obtained a degree in Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBBS). Before becoming a public speaker, he trained as a physician. He has published booklet versions of lectures on Islam and comparative religion. Similar to Christian televangelists in America, he is a radical Islamic televangelist propagating Wahhabism. Naik’s wife, Farhat Naik, works for the women’s section of the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF).

The said aim of Naik’s channel is to promote truth, justice, morality, harmony, and wisdom for the whole of humankind. India banned Naik’s channel and barred him from holding conferences because he stirred controversy, and satellite providers refused to broadcast Peace TV. During a press conference in 2016, Naik claimed to be an NRI, the next year he was granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia. In 2017, on receiving a recommendation from the National Investigation Agency, Naik’s passport was revoked by India. On 28 July 2017, he was declared a proclaimed offender and the process to attach his assets was initiated. Naik currently resides in Malaysia, where he has Permanent Resident status.

The link between Naik and terrorism has for long now been the topic of research. He is considered to be a part of the ideological infrastructure created to feed “Tempered Jihad”, which is defined as Jihad calibrated to advance Islamist political objectives. Some of Naik’s teachings are said to be similar to those of organizations advocating violence and terrorism, although he himself emphatically rejects it. He says that if anyone kills an innocent human being, it is as though he has killed the whole humanity. It is popular belief that Naik’s IRF has proved to be a “magnet” for figures linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, while his messages mesmerize violent Islamists, and his works help make sense of the motivations of Indian recruits to the jihad. It thus comes to an understanding that Naik is not directly involved in terrorism, but has inspired many to take to terrorism through his preaching. Reportedly, people drawn to Naik’s message include Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-American who was arrested for planning suicide attacks on the New York subway; Rahil Sheikh, accused of involvement in a series of train bombings in Mumbai in 2006 that killed nearly 200 people, who was also a volunteer for IRF but Naik claimed not to know him personally and said that he was removed from the organisation; and Kafeel Ahmed, the Bangalore man fatally injured in a failed suicide attack on Glasgow airport in 2007.

Probes of the Dhaka Terror Attack in July 2016 showed that a terrorist involved in the brutal killings followed Naik’s page on Facebook and was majorly influenced by Naik’s speeches. The largest percentage of his Facebook followers are from Bangladesh. The terrorist had posted sermons of Naik on social media where he urged all Muslims to be terrorists. He was then termed a controversial as well as a popular figure in the media. Two days after investigation, the Maharashtra State Intelligence Department (SID) cleared off Zakir Naik and said that he would not and cannot be arrested on his return to India as the probe ordered by the Maharashtra government did not find any other strong evidence to link him to terror-related activities. An apology was given to Naik stating that he was never blamed for the attack and it was only reported how youth were misinterpreting his speeches. Soon after, the Bangladesh Government banned the broadcast of Naik’s Peace TV channel as Hasanul Haq Inu, the Information Minister, and well known leftist politician reasoned that Peace TV is not consistent with Muslim society, the Quran, Sunnah, Hadith, Bangladesh’s Constitution, their culture, customs, and rituals.

When the NIA arrested Mohammad Ibrahim Yazdani, the head of Islamic State’s Hyderabad module in India, it was revealed that the operatives were influenced by Naik’s sermons and wanted to establish Shariah law as in Islamic state. There have been media reports of Intelligence Agencies probing the alleged links between terror group Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), and Naik’s IRF. The JuD website is said to be referring to Zakir Naik’s sermons and preachings. Apart from this, he also said that the 9/11 attacks in the USA, were an inside job and were orchestrated by George Bush himself and not Osama bin Laden, who he later went on to call the ‘soldier of Islam’.

As popularly said, religion is never the problem; it’s the people who use it to gain power. Nepal was next to be radicalized by Naik, following the ban on his initiatives in India under the anti-terror law Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Intelligence agencies revealed Naik’s links with Pakistan. His cadres visited Kathmandu and other districts in the Terai region. Street Daawah for recruitment was organized and misinterpreted Islamic literature given. Street Daawah originates from a similar movement in Australia, in which its cadres joined the Islamic State. Recruits are selected at random, their contact numbers, residential and email addresses are collected and they are radicalized through concocted Islamic literature and brainwashing. Nepal-based Al Bayyan Islamic Centre and Islamic Peace Research Foundation that has an affiliation with International Islamic Centre, Sargodha in Pakistan were also funded by Naik. All these campaigns are run on social networking platforms and are headed by Farhat Hashmi’s Islamic International Centre, who also runs Al-Huda International in Canada, which converts Christians to Islam.

Under Prime Minister Najib Razak, support for a more politicised Islam has grown in recent years in Malaysia, especially after he lost the popular vote in the 2013 general election, the ruling coalition’s worst-ever electoral performance. Since then, his ruling party has been trying to appease a very conservative ethnic Malay-Muslim base and religion has become a battleground ahead of elections. Controversy is brought about by Naik’s puritan brand of Islam, recommending the death penalty for homosexuals and all those who abandon Islam as their faith. The Malaysian government accommodates Naik because he is popular amongst Malays, who gloss over all his controversial aspects.

If the government were to kick him out of the country, it causes them to lose religious credibility in the eyes of the public. Though Naik was given no sort of preferential treatment, over his time spent in the country, he did not break any laws or regulations. As such, there is no reason from a legal standpoint for them to detain or arrest him. Few Malaysian activists filed suit in the high court for deportation of Naik, observing him to be a threat to public security and peace in the multi-racial society, in which about 40% of the population is non-Muslim. They claimed to be unaware that Naik had been going to the Putrajaya mosque on Fridays or where he might be in Malaysia. Malaysia’s opposition Islamic Party (PAS), urged the Malaysian government to disregard any Indian extradition request, as they defended Naik and thought that the aim is to block his influence and efforts to spread religious awareness among the international community. The controversy was stoked by Islamic groups for trying to impose their ethos in a multicultural country. Islam is the official religion in Malaysia. The laws, however, are secular, though the country does have sharia courts for civil cases for Muslims.

The official guardians of Islam in Malaysia, the 9 Sultans, who take turns as the mostly ceremonial monarch called for unity and religious harmony after what they described as “excessive actions” in the name of Islam. One of them also harshly condemned a Muslim-only launderette. Suddenly, there is a gravitation towards fundamentalism and a conservative idea of Islam is provoked because the current government doesn’t want to be seen as secular anymore.

Naik has been banned in U.K. and Canada for his hate speech against other religions and is also being opposed by activists in Lebanon. Being one among several banned Islamic scholars granted permanent residence in Malaysia, he uses it as a base, and travels, very frequently to Saudi Arabia.

Naik is accused of funding terrorism, and India’s NIA recently filed charges against him for heading an unlawful association and inciting youth to commit acts of terror and join global outfits like the Islamic State. Now nearing final stages of its legal process for the extradition of Naik, India will soon submit an official request to the Malaysian government to get him back. The request for extradition if not processed yet, Malaysia would go ahead with deportation if requested via the Mutual Legal Assistance programme between the two countries. The radical Muslim preacher, who is now a permanent resident in Malaysia, is wanted in India on charges of inciting terror and violence and delivering hate speeches, his passport being revoked by the Indian government. The extradition request is yet to be finalized and the Indian Home ministry will comment once the procedure is in order.

The Islamic Research Foundation was banned by the Indian government in 2016 as the organization was said to have increased enmity and hatred between different religious sects, insult different religions and Islamic sects that did not follow Wahhabism. India has not contacted Saudi authorities, that have given citizenship to Naik, is significant, since India and Saudi Arabia maintain a very strong partnership on terrorism. They have signed an extradition treaty in 2010 and upgraded their agreement on fighting of terrorism, financing, and intelligence sharing when PM Modi had met Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud in Riyadh.

We will see that the greatest problem confronting civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. -Sam Harris

It can be clearly stated that even if Zakir Naik is not having machetes in his hand, his followers are having the machetes in their hands. He promotes 7th-century Quranic texts on sex slaves, polygamy and wife beating in the 21st century.

Unless Indians find the ability to criticise such a radical and fugitive Islamic preacher as robustly and seriously as they would a Hindu equivalent, the idea of Indian secularism would remain deeply flawed. Naik is also accused by mullahs of driving Muslims away from the correct religious authorities. The Islamophobia has filtered down to a stage where all conservative Muslims are seen as possible terrorists; the distinction between conservatism and extremism has got blurred.

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