Zakir Naik polarises opinions like none other. On one hand, we have legions of his fans, unsurprisingly almost exclusively Muslim, from all walks of life. On the other, the government of India considers Naik to be guilty of indulging in unlawful activities, imparting hate speeches and indulging in money laundering. He is accused of being the ideological mentor to a motley group of Islamic radicals and fundamentalists spanning from the Middle East to Bangladesh and beyond.
Naik was in the news again when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad granted him asylum, turning down the government of India’s request for extradition, despite the two countries having an extradition treaty. Soon thereafter, Naik issued a statement accusing the media of “resorting to doctored video clips, out-of-context quotations and a host of dishonest schemes to accuse me of terrorism.”
Supporters of Naik contend that he is being persecuted on false charges and victimised because he is an outspoken and influential Muslim. The truth can be ascertained by an analysis of Naik’s lectures and speeches, which I attempt in this piece.
A Bombay-born medical practitioner by profession, Naik was heavily influenced by the late Ahmed Deedat, the South African Islamist proselytiser who was of Indian origin (a Surat-born Gujarati). His speeches piqued Naik’s interest in “comparative religion”. Deedat was a self-taught Muslim cleric who achieved popularity in the pan-Islamic world for his debates with leading religious figures of various faiths and attempting to demonstrate the superiority of Islam.
Deedat also famously challenged the Pope for a debate on Islam and Christianity, but the Pope didn’t play ball. Naik, a la Deedat, claims to have read and memorised major texts of all religions. Going by his ability to rattle off names of books, chapters and verses of major religious texts of the world, it is difficult to doubt his claim.
Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) runs Peace TV, a channel which broadcasts his public lectures, along with other preachers of similar persuasion like Bilal Phillips. The channel is now banned in India, but its videos are available on YouTube. A typical Naik show has him standing centre-stage, in an ill-fitting suit and a skull-cap, answering various questions on religion and theology.
A short question from the audience will invariably be followed by a long monologue, masquerading as an answer, by the loquacious preacher. He will begin by rattling off the name of a holy book from Islamic theology (Quran or the Hadith), followed by a chapter and a verse in that book, which he will interpret to convey the answer. Mired in these question-answer sessions are matters of after-life, fear of the unknown and fate after death: thoughts and questions that have occupied the minds of men for thousands of years. Naik expertly exploits this emotion and creates a fear psychosis amongst his viewers.
For example, in response to a question on whether is it impermissible (‘haraam’) to wish a Hindu on her festivals or eat prasad, Naik will pull out a verse and interpret it to mean that it is impermissible.
Under the garb of these so-called religious lectures, all that Zakir Naik has done is to promote an extremist and supremacist version of radical Islam. His reliance on Quranic verses, the Hadith and the Sunnah to explain his point of view creates mental panic in the minds of the listener. The listener feels that they have not been true to the faith, shuddering at the consequences that will inevitably follow for not following the righteous path as laid down in Islamic theology. Naik’s lectures effectively brainwash the audience and act as a diaphanous fig-leaf, veiling his agenda. This is religious scare-mongering at its worst.
A religious preacher will always extoll the virtues of his own religion and what is the harm in Naik doing that, one may ask. There are three crucial differences between Naik and your standard religious preacher.
Ultra orthodox interpretation of Islam
Firstly, the sole aim of his lectures is to prove, by convoluted interpretations of Quranic verses and texts, that Islam is superior to all religions. He says only Muslims will go to heaven and everyone else to hell, therefore one must “revert” (according to him, every person is born a Muslim) to Islam to save oneself. For good measure, there will invariably be a non-Muslim in the audience who will “revert” to Islam instantaneously under the spellbinding effect of Naik’s oratory. So when a Muslim hears his lectures, there is a good chance of them becoming radicalised and intolerant. Invariably, all questions are answered by an interpretation that is ultra-orthodox, conservative, supremacist and incompatible with a modern world or a society.
Criticism of other faiths is a recipe for conflict
Secondly, he incessantly denigrates other faiths and religions by quoting their religious texts and comparing it with Islamic texts to show that all religions are indubitably worse off than Islam. This is a sure-shot recipe for promoting inter-communal disharmony and intra-societal discord and not “peace” that Naik purportedly claims to preach.
It travels beyond the acceptable limits of legitimate criticism. In one event, he said that if a Hindu offers prasadon Ganesh chaturthi, a Muslim should get out of the situation by asking his Hindu friend to prove Ganesha is a god. He counsels Muslims against abusing the gods of others lest they abuse Islam but says that to make a statement like “the Bible is wrong” is not the same as insulting Christianity.
No religion or god is safe from Naik’s rhetoric, all backed by interpretation of verses from Islamic theology. Thus, it is highly likely a Muslim will come out of his lectures harbouring a pejorative view of other faiths and religions. This is highly toxic for a multi-cultural, multi-religious society like India. How his constant denigration of all religions in his “sermons” will establish “peace” in India and the rest of the world, is an enduring mystery to me.
Naik misses the point that religion is a matter of personal faith. It’s not an inter-collegiate debate competition that needs to be argued, as Naik does. One would expect a person who spent so many years memorising various religious texts to have realised that all religions are essentially the same. God is one. No religion is better or worse than the other. The root cause of societal and communal conflict is this belief that “my religion is superior to yours, my book better than your book, my god more powerful than yours”.
Justification of Islamic terrorism
Thirdly, Naik is not only an expert in propagating radical Islam, he is also quite craftily ambivalent on the use of violence and terror by Islamist terror organisations. He considers the US to be the world’s biggest terrorist threat and says the 9/11 attacks were the handiwork of the then president George W. Bush and the CIA, rather than Osama Bin Laden (whom he praises) and the Al Qaeda. He says that if fighting against the US and the West is an act of terror, then “every Muslim should be a terrorist”. Now, one may always harbour some pet conspiracy theories in private, but making such outrageous claims in public only serves to play into the hands of terror organisations. (For the record, Zakir Naik says this quote was taken out of context).
This is exactly the narrative Islamic terrorist organisations peddle – that the US/West are the biggest terrorists, they have put Islam in danger, therefore it is a religious duty to wage jihad.
Only after it surfaced that several terrorist acts in India, Bangladesh and the Middle East were inspired by Naik’s speeches did India wake up to his pernicious influence. Why are terrorists, radicals and fundamentalists attracted to him? What is he saying that make him an ideological mentor to people committing such dastardly acts and spreading falsehoods about Islam? Merely issuing disclaimers that he doesn’t personally know any of the terrorists who are his admirers doesn’t help. He cannot absolve himself of blame.
Please note, Naik is not your friendly neighbourhood uncle with whom you can a share a convivial discussion. He is a demagogue who relies extensively on religious texts to drive home his point and convince people. Therefore, the impact Naik has on young impressionable minds is huge and this influence was unregulated for several years.
Misogyny and views on LGBTQ community
Similarly, his views on the rights of Muslim women with regards to education, employment, attire and socio-economic status are regressive. He believes girls must not be sent to co-educational schools and colleges as there is a chance they will “pick up illicit sex techniques” or be raped or sexually harassed. Naik supports wife-beating as per Islamic texts, but mercifully says that the beating must be “gentle”.
He opposes building of churches and temples in Islamic nations as he believes all religions except Islam are untrue and Islamic countries shouldn’t be supporting such apostates. He considers the LGBTQ community as diseased and suffering from a mental problem which originates from watching pornographic content.
He has a quote from a book/chapter/verse for every logical question you ask, so you cannot argue with him beyond a point. I shudder to think of the impact such toxic views backed by interpretations of Islamic verses, would have on the minds of the audience, particularly the young and the impressionable.
He also considers the Quran a very “scientific text” and its verses can undergo a remarkable process of deductive reasoning and interpretation to support his hypothesis. Which makes me wonder, why are men of religious persuasion so keen to prove that their religion is “scientific”? Why search for justification of your faith in science? Can’t religion and science exist in two separate, mutually exclusive spheres? Why can’t one say, “I don’t care if my religion is scientific or not, it is a matter of my personal belief. My faith is not predicated or dependent on any scientific theory.”
‘Muslim victim’ card
What is disturbing is Naik’s attempt to project the charges against him as an attack on the Indian Muslim community. This is a naked attempt to fan communal hatred, to polarise and communalise. Playing on the latent fears of minorities, seeking to create and propagate a false sense of “siege mentality” by spreading such canards and stereotypes. Rather than taking the Centre head-on, he peddles “attack-on-me-is-attack-on-Islam” rhetoric.
By the time India realised that Naik means “trouble”, it was already late. I pray that Malaysia doesn’t meet the same fate. After all, Naik is persona non grata in the US, UK, Canada and even Bangladesh for a reason. Unfortunately, Malaysia seemingly is guided by narrow sectarian considerations in refusing to extradite Naik. Malaysia has already granted permanent residency status to Naik. Mahathir’s credentials among the elements in his country who idolise Naik would crumble if he were to deport the “rock star of Wahhabism” to India.
Malalysia has successfully withstood pressure from China to extradite 11 Uyghur Muslims who made a daring escape from a Thai prison last year and sought asylum in Malaysia. Malaysia grievously errs in bracketing Naik with Uyghur Muslims. China’s treatment of its ethnic Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang province is despicable. They have absolutely no religious or political rights (of course, China’s all-weather friend Pakistan loses no opportunity to shed crocodile tears at the plight of Kashmiri Muslims, but are stone deaf towards Uyghurs).
There is simply no comparison. One small fact would suffice to prick the bubble of Muslim discrimination that Naik has sought to raise: three Muslims have served as presidents of India since its independence. Let’s take a bet on when we see an ethnic Uyghur Muslim as the head of the standing committee of the politburo of the Chinese Communist party.
Naik isn’t a political prisoner or a prisoner of conscience. He has escaped legitimate prosecution under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and Money Laundering Act. His trial will be conducted under full media glare – national and international – by a fiercely independent judiciary. None of these exist in China.
Naik may be singing a different tune in Malaysia to evade extradition, but his presence will spell disaster for the country and encourage radicalism and Wahhabism. In today’s times, even Saudi Arabia – where Wahhabism originated – is attempting to move away from it under the leadership of Mohammad Bin Salman.
People like Naik are anathema to any modern secular democratic society. However, it is unfortunate that criticism of Naik has mainly emanated from the right-wing Hindutva brigade. Sadly, the secular, progressive liberal class of India – who I believe constitute the majority – is deafeningly silent on Naik. The Muslim intelligentsia must take the lead in being vocal critics of Naik and presenting a counter-narrative to Naik from within their own community.
We must speak up, equally, on all forms and colour of communalism and religious radicalism in India. That, in my view, is the true version of secularism that India needs so desperately.
Sunil Fernandes is an advocate on record in the Supreme Court
Note: This article was edited after initial publication and hyperlinks added to some of Zakir Naik’s speeches. A reference to Naik saying girls should not be sent to school or college has been corrected to “girls must not be sent to co-educational schools and colleges as there is a chance they will “pick up illicit sex techniques” or be raped or sexually harassed.”