Banned in India, Zakir Naik trying for  Malaysian Citizenship: Moderate Malay Muslims Confront His Retrogressive, Radical Religious Rhetoric 

By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, Editor, WordForPeace.com 

Moderate Muslims in Malaysia are countering the anti-pluralist and exclusivist theology of Zakir Naik and his ilk by stressing the Islamic tenets of Maqasid Shariah (well-being of the people) and Wasatiyyah (moderation). Wasatiyyah is basically an Islamic doctrine enshrined in the Qur’an. It exhorts Muslim preachers that they don’t transgress the limits determined by Allah. This essential Islamic tenet runs down all forms of extremism (Tatarruf), aggression (Tashaddud) and fanaticism (Tanattu) in matters of religion. An official website of the moderate Malay Muslims clearly avers that the Malaysian Muslims, in spirit with the Qur’anic principles, are “in pursuit of a peaceful, tolerant, moderate, multi-racial Malaysia, through compassion, mercy, justice, democracy”….

Has the radical Salafist televangelist, Zakir Naik any place in the moderate Muslim countries like Malaysia? Do the progressive, secular-minded and spiritually-inclined majority of the Malay Muslims have no ideological problem with Naik’s retrogressive religious rhetoric?

These questions exponentially arise now when the contentious Islamist preacher is reportedly seeking the citizenship in Malaysia where he has already been granted the permanent residency (PR).

Tellingly, Naik has applied the Malaysian citizenship after the National Investigation Agency (NIA) issued a Red Corner Notice (RCN), an international arrest warrant, against him on the charges of inspiring terror and money laundering. However, the Malaysian government has not yet taken any firm decision on Naik’s application for the citizenship, as several media outlets in Malaysia like Malay Mail Online has reported.

One wonders as to why the controversial Islamist preacher, who is also reported to have the Saudi citizenship along with the Permanent Residence status in Malaysia, is now seeking its citizenship. Is Naik planning to radicalize the Malaysian youths after he has reportedly inspired a misguided section of the South Asian Muslim youths including the Dhaka attackers?

The reason why Naik has now set his eyes on the Malaysian Muslims’ multi-cultural, syncretic and secular society of the democratic ethos is not difficult to see. The Salafist ideologues castigate the multi-culturalism, secularism and religious syncretism, in their books, as “inauthentic” and “contaminated”. In their puritanical narrative of Islam, the cultural homogenization of Muslims in a multi-faith and multicultural society is akin to shirk (polytheism). Inevitably, the Salafist preachers seek to purge the global Muslims’ culture and religion of the supposed ‘contaminations’ incorporated through assimilation with ‘others’.

This is exactly the rationale behind Zakir Naik’s clear negation of the syncretic cultural components of the moderate Muslim countries like Malaysia. In fact, he seeks to preach an arid and desiccated version of puritanical Islam in Malaysia much in the same way as he tried to do in India. Cherry-picking the Qur’anic verses and misquoting the Hadith texts, Naik tried to delegitimise the syncretic culture of Indian Muslims and non-Muslims, crashing down the age-old Rishi-Sufi tradition of religious pluralism in the country.

Through his multilingual TV channel massively funded by petrodollars, he sought to fuel the fire of religio-fascism and supremacism in the impressionable minds of the gullible Muslim youths who learn Islam on TV and internet, rather than from the well-established scholars. His rote learning and vivid memorisation of the selected verses from different scriptures won him a fan following among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But still he ultimately failed to install his retrogressive religious views in this land of Rishi-Sufi tradition, thanks to India’s mainstream Muslims imbued with the strong cultural ethos.

Both the Sunni-Sufi and Shia Muslims, in one unison, registered their peaceful protests against the bigoted preaching of Zakir Naik. They contended that Naik’s speeches have affronted the religious sentiments of both Shia and Sufi Islamic traditions as well as the universal values of other religions, something that they considered ‘harmful’ for the internal security, inter-religious harmony and national integration.

Now, the crucial concern for the moderate Malay Muslims is as to how they will tackle the onslaught of the extremist thoughts of the toxic preacher, in case he is granted the citizenship in their country.

It appears that the moderate Islamic groups in Malaysia are gearing up to resist Naik’s radicalisation. Recently, they have issued official statements against the “extremist sermons” delivered by Naik in different countries including Malaysia, as reported in several Malaysian news outlets including Malay Mail Online, Free Malaysia Today and The Malaysian Insight.

The prominent group of moderate Muslims in Malaysia popularly known as “G25” has severely criticised the Malaysian Home Ministry’s decision to grant a visa to Zakir Naik. On May 8, Malay Mail Online published the full statement of the moderate Islamic organisation which denounced Naik’s proselytising the country’s youths. Here are the bottom lines of the statement:

“G25 notes with increasing concern the tolerance shown by Malaysian authorities on the extreme statements made by Dr Zakir Naik in his preachings….He has often created anger among Muslims and non-Muslims alike by his frequent mocking of other religious doctrines and practices…He is also inextricably linked to extremist views and intolerance towards freedom of religion and as a result been banned from preaching in the United Kingdom, Canada, Singapore, India and Pakistan….We are also concerned that Zakir Naik’s negative remarks on other religions are emboldening our Malaysian clerics to follow his intolerant style”.

This was precisely why Zakir Naik was prevented from conducting a talk at Univeriti Teknikal, a Malaysian university, in April 2016. He was barred from his proposed lecture on a comparative study of Islam and Hinduism at the Malaysian university after police stated that ‘Naik threatened Malaysia’s multi-religious society’. The popular daily newspaper in Malaysia, The Star reported: “Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar said the talk would not be allowed in the interest of public order and protecting the sensitivities of the multi-religious society”.

However, it was not the first time that Naik faced the ire of the liberal Malaysian society. The similar complaints had been lodged against him in 2012 too. More interestingly, a number of progressive Islamic thinkers in Malaysia confronted Naik calling him for a debate on his contentious and inflammatory statements against other religions, from a Qur’anic viewpoint. But Naik has not yet accepted this baffling challenge. The above-mentioned statement of “G25” also pointed it out: “Zakir Naik loves to debate but only with those that he and his private foundation approve….He evades serious debates with internationally known religious scholars by laying down his own conditions. By insisting to debate in a setting of his own choice, Zakir Naik shows his true colours of a preacher who wants a big crowd to cheer him loudly so as to drown out his opponents”.

Most notably, moderate Muslims in Malaysia are countering the anti-pluralist and exclusivist theology of Zakir Naik and his likes by stressing the Islamic tenets of Maqasid Shariah (wellbeing of the people) and Wasatiyyah (moderation). Wasatiyyah is basically an Islamic doctrine enshrined in the Qur’an. It exhorts Muslim preachers that they don’t transgress the limits determined by Allah. This essential Islamic tenet runs down all forms of extremism (Tatarruf), aggression (Tashaddud) and fanaticism (Tanattu) in matters of religion. An official website of the moderate Malay Muslims clearly avers that the Malaysian Muslims, in spirit with the Qur’anic principles, are “in pursuit of a peaceful, tolerant, moderate, multi-racial Malaysia, through compassion, mercy, justice, democracy”.

Thus, this collective statement unravels that Naik’s skewed religiosity has no place in the progressive Muslim societies in a multi-cultural and democratic country like Malaysia, much like India.

Nevertheless, it is widely believed that Naik, by trying for his citizenship in Malaysia, has polarised the country’s Muslim and non-Muslim communities peacefully co-existing for centuries. This situation has put the Malaysian government of the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (the National Front) in a bind.

It cannot be denied that Naik has a huge fan club in the clerical Islamic circles including in Malaysia. It is self-evident from the fact that, on the behest of some Islamic clergy, the right wing group in the country, Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa [Malay for Mighty Native Organisation] honoured Zakir Naik with the “Warrior Award” for his contributions towards the ‘struggle for Islam’.

It should be interestingly noted that after Naik was awarded in Malaysia, the Health Minister of the country averred that “Naik’s activities are outside the Malaysian context”. He stated: “I don’t think Malaysia needs Zakir Naik,” he added. What contribution is he doing for the advancement of Islam in the country?” In response, some political Islamist parties in the country such as the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party staunchly defended Zakir Naik as an ‘Islamic preacher of peace and harmony’.

But now the ruling coalition in Malaysia has itself questioned the PR granted to Zakir Naik, pointing to communal disharmony that might result in the multi-religious and multiracial society. Inevitably, Naik’s Salafist supporters in Malaysia face a tough time defending him. A senior Malaysian journalist writes in his article entitled “Is Zakir Naik worth the trouble?” in Free Malaysia Today:

“While his [Naik’s] defenders may argue that the preacher calls for harmony, there is a distinct waft of cultural and religious imperialism in his recorded comments, among which is the infamous statement to the effect that an Islamic country should not allow churches to be built because Christianity is a religion that is ‘wrong’….His continued presence appears to be a disruption to the Malaysian way of life.”

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