The fiery preacher seems like a divisive figure to the country as a whole – but could he be a unifying force among Muslims in a time when Umno and PAS are considering banding together?
You either love or hate Zakir Naik.
I asked four Malaysians why the India-born Muslim preacher is such a controversial figure in our country.
Anas Zubedy, founder of the Malaysian Movement for Moderates, gave a brief historical setting placing Malaysia and India in context.
"With due respect to Indian history, Islam and Hinduism have a chequered past. A lot of violence happened when Islam went there and the Hindus fought back. There is a wide schism between the Hindus and the Muslims in Indian history, " Anas said.
"The framework for someone from India like Zakir Naik is about fighting. Zakir Naik has that mentality, he needs to challenge and poke at the other person's religion. That is part and parcel of his cultural framework. Whereas for us Malaysians, our framework is more collaborative."
In Malaysia, Anas said, we believe in social cohesion: "We believe living in peace, we believe in respecting other religions, we may not agree with other faiths but we give them space."
Anas also said, in Malaysia, non-Muslims are not allowed to counter Zakir's points when he gives his views about their faith, let alone start a debate about Islam. This is because it is illegal to preach to Muslims, he said.
S. Gobi Krishnan, Parti Negara protem vice president, said that it is a one-way street when it comes to religion in Malaysia. According to the Federal Constitution, you cannot preach to a Muslim but a Muslim can preach to non-Muslims, he said.
"That means when somebody punches me, I can't punch back. That is why comparisons between religions in Malaysia doesn't work. So there are many non-Muslims and some sympathisers from the Muslim community who feel that you can never make a good comparison of religion because it is not a level playing field, " he said.
He added that if you do make a comparison, you must be an expert in all religions, and while Zakir might be an expert in his faith, he is not an expert in other religions.
Echoing Anas, Gobi Krishnan said Zakir's style of preaching is not suitable for a multiracial country like Malaysia. The preacher is accustomed to his style of preaching in India where the majority are from one race.
Mohd Khairul Azam Abdul Aziz, Zakir's former lawyer, said the preacher preaches Islam using an academic method, such as comparing religions.
"His opinion can convince people and some of them convert to Islam during his programmes. So maybe that is the main reason non-Muslims feel threated, " he said.
Mohd Khairul Azam said many Muslims love Zakir because he is well-versed in many religions: "He can cite any topic and he can make comparisons among religions, and that makes him popular among Muslims."
Regarding criticisms that Zakir should not use his firebrand style of preaching in Malaysia, the lawyer said Zakir's way is more suitable for Malaysia than India or other countries as Malaysia practices religious tolerance and allows for the freedom of religion.
"One of the meanings of 'freedom of religion' in the Federal Constitution is that you can compare your religion with another religion and choose your religion at the age of 21, except for the Muslims, " he said.
I put it to him that some of the people I interviewed said religion is a one-way street in Malaysia.
"You must realise the restriction enshrined in our Federal Constitution because of the position of Islam as the religion of the Federation of Malaysia, " Mohd Khairul Azam said.
But isn't it unfair that non-Muslims cannot defend their religion as they cannot talk about Islam?
"I beg to differ. In Malaysia, we also believe in freedom of speech. But in the Constitution, there are limitations saying that non-Muslims cannot propagate their religion to Muslims. That is one of the constraints we have in the Constitution. But the constraint is not baseless, it is based on the fact that Malaysia is a Muslim country and Islam is the religion of the Federation, " he said.
He added that Taliban-style Islam is not practised in Malaysia, as we are a moderate Muslim country.
"We let other religions be practised in harmony. So I don't think people of other religions should have any fear. If they believe that there is something wrong with the teaching of Islam, I believe they can always come forward and support their argument in an academic manner. We can debate differences peacefully, " he said.
Political analyst Dr Abdul Latiff Mohd Ibrahim said opinion about Zakir is generally divided between Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia. He added, though, that one must not forget that while acknowledging Zakir's broad knowledge of the subject matter, there are Muslims who also don't totally accept the manner in which he delivers his material.
"From the viewpoint of Islam, how the message is delivered is important which includes the important aspect of cultural environment as well. This issue of delivery is a pricky point that creates the problem. Even Muslims in authority have presented their reservations over his lectures saying that his approach could be alright elsewhere but in Malaysia, it is a little problematic given the diverse nature of our society with various beliefs and religions, " he said.
Is the Zakir controversy a religious or political issue?
Abdul Latiff said it started as a religious issue but has metamorphosed into a political issue. This happened because certain quarters demanded that Malaysia extradite him to India despite the government's stand of not doing so due to concerns about the preacher's safety, among other reasons.
"The religious part of this issue lies in the fact that ZN has been successful in converting some non-Muslims to Islam, and that could have a snowball effect if left to run its course. As for the political side, those 'affected' by his proselytisation may want to raise a furore so as to be seen as 'champions of the faith', " he said.
The political analyst said there is a ironical similarity across religions when people who wield influence in their communities raise their voices in "defence of the faith": "Either by claiming that their religion is under threat (as with a section of the Muslims) or claiming that someone outside had ridiculed their faith (as with some non-Muslims in Malaysia)."
Anas said in the Zakir controversy, you can't separate politics and religion. No political party – whether Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Harapan – is willing to ask him to leave because he has many supporters on the ground, he said.
In other words, no politician in his/her right mind wants to say outright that Zakir should leave Malaysia because he is not good for the country, Anas said. He noted that the only person who said it in an almost direct way was Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who said to keep him is a problem, to let him go is also a problem.
"It is a Malay thing when you say that – Malays are not direct – you are causing me trouble, do me a favour and leave without me asking you to leave. I think that is the message from the Prime Minister, " he said.
Anas said the Prime Minister could not be direct as the political repercussions would be too big.
Mohd Khairul Azam said Dr Mahathir did not want to create any more turbulence among Muslims in Malaysia, as the preacher is an international figure and has a strong influence in this country.
Gobi Krishnan said we cannot discount the possibility that Dr Mahathir has to take political considerations into account when deciding whether to kick Zakir out of Malaysia.
"Umno and PAS are trying to do a one-up on Pakatan on the sentiments of the Muslims and the Malays over Zakir. So that is why he's not falling into that trap, " he said.
PAS and Umno, said the politician, were uniting the Muslims and they needed a figure like Zakir to further their political agenda.
Mohd Khairul Azam said that Zakir is a figure who can make Muslims in Malaysia unite.
"Now there is a political movement to unite PAS and Umno. And one of the factors that can make them unite is Zakir Naik. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the opposing political parties are not happy with Zakir, " said the lawyer.
Love him or hate him, it looks like Zakir is here to stay.
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