HOW is it that Zakir Naik, a televangelist considered divisive and banned by a number of countries and frequently censured for preaching hate, instigating communal tensions and radicalising the Muslim community, can be embraced by national leaders here?
And be sponsored on his tour by the Terengganu state government and rewarded with islands in Tasek Kenyir for him to train “mini Zakir Naiks” to preach his divisive and supremacist version of Islam in a multi-religious country?
And he has even grander plans for Malaysia: to spread his “Peace TV” satellite channel to Malaysia, broadcasting in Bahasa Malaysia in a joint venture with a local TV station and a training programme already underway to produce six Malaysian protégés to be part of his evangelical network.
Why have these leaders embraced the kind of Islam that Zakir Naik is propagating? Even in his home country of India, the dominant and conservative Deobandi Darul Uloom has issued several fatwas against him over the years, accusing him of “spreading mischievous things and misguiding simple Muslims to the wrong path”, that he is “religiously deviated”, and a “ghair muqallidin”, someone who does not follow the teachings of the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah (the followers of the four accepted schools of Sunni Islam), a position upheld by Malaysia’s Islamic religious authorities.
Just as there is a multi-million dollar industry promoting the English-speaking and suit-wearing Zakir Naik as a global Muslim evangelist of peace and an expert on comparative religion, there is a dedicated online industry out to prove him as a charlatan. These challengers scrutinise his speeches and pronouncements and counter them with referenced facts and evidence to question his breathtaking and blithe misrepresentation of science, history, names, dates and data.
A Google search on “Zakir Naik, controversies” spew out a laundry list of his views that have caused him to be banned in some countries and generated concerted attempts to get his audience to think more critically about what he claims is truth and evidence.
There is a widely viewed YouTube video where one of his dogged challengers identified 25 false statements within five minutes Zakir Naik made in a strident discussion on evolution, misrepresenting scientific and historic facts, and quoting one unknown person after another who have no record of existence, to make his points.
There’s another video where he justified his support for polygamy by stating that if every woman got married to only one man, there would be over 30 million women in the United States, four million in Britain, five million in Germany and nine million in Russia who would not find a husband!
Any rational person will instantly conclude that these countries must be practising male infanticide to have such a disproportionate ratio of females to males. It was not difficult for his challengers to use the population data to show how wrong this man is. In fact in all the countries, there are slightly more men than women. And if indeed one man marries more than one woman, he is in fact depriving other men the ability to find wives!
And yet Zakir Naik speaks to thousands who applaud and cheer him on. How could someone who unashamedly disgorges such fictional data to make his points attract a following numbering millions on social media and attract tens of thousands to his public talks? I leave it to the psychologists to analyse the state of mind of preacher and followers.
But for me, more disturbing are his inflammatory statements on a whole range of issues that should be of real concern to the Malaysian authorities if they are serious about battling extremism here. The evidence is widespread and readily available, and yet one Deputy Minister proclaimed that Zakir Naik was a “voice of moderation” who could counter extremist voices and was capable of convincing non-Muslims that Islam was a “religion of moderation”! I wonder what his sources of information were. Certainly not from his allies within Barisan Nasional. Both MIC and MCA had protested Zakir Naik’s presence here to preach his divisive message.
A quick check of his speeches in Malaysia showed a YouTube video of a speech in Terengganu where he repeatedly forbade Malaysian Muslims from wishing Merry Christmas to Christians. Because to do so, he said, is to endorse the belief that Jesus is the son of God. Does anyone know of any Muslim who believes Jesus is the son of God and whose faith is undermined whenever he or she wishes Merry Christmas to Christian friends? To say this to Malaysia that celebrates all major holidays together? Heck, the Government even sells this message of “Malaysia, Truly Asia” to the rest of the world and earn billions from tourist dollars.
The question to be asked of the authorities and the Menteri Besar of Terengganu who sponsored Zakir Naik’s Malaysian visit is whether this is truly the “moderate” Islam that authorities believe in? I shudder at what deeper damage Zakir Naik’s ilk will cause with the opening up of his ideological factory in Tasek Kenyir.
Zakir Naik’s most infamous statement that probably led to his ban from entering Britain and Canada was his much-quoted position on Osama bin Laden and terrorism in a widely viewed YouTube video of 2007: “If he (Osama bin Laden) is fighting the enemies of Islam, I am for him … If he is terrorising America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist.”
Given the far-reaching consequences of that statement, he later, of course, claimed he was misquoted: “I have said Muslims should become terrorists in the sense that they should strike terror in the hearts of criminals and anti-socials.”
He believes 9/11 was “an inside job”, and that “every fool will know” it was orchestrated by George W. Bush. He supports the ban on the construction of houses of worship for those of other religions in Muslim countries. He lauds the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. He urges Muslims in India to support the hudud punishments for all Indians. Needless to say, he believes in the death penalty for homosexuals and for apostasy.
There is a reported list of suicide bombers and those arrested and charged with extremist violence who quoted him as their source of inspiration. One of them was found with several cassette tapes of Zakir Naik’s speeches.
Thousands flocked to his speeches in Terengganu, Malacca and Kuala Lumpur. Zakir Naik’s Salafi-Wahabi brand of Islam has seeped deep into the Malaysian Malay psyche after decades of propagation by Islamist groups, and sanctioned by the religious authorities.
But of concern to Malaysians who care about the future of this multi-religious and multi-ethnic country is the fact that such a deeply controversial and divisive figure is embraced and endorsed by the leadership. He was awarded the Tokoh Maal Hijrah award in 2013 (and the King Faisal International Prize for service to Islam in 2015) and met with the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, PAS President and a list of other VIPs on this visit.
He even ventured into Malaysian politics, making headlines in Utusan Malaysia by calling on Umno and PAS to work together to prevent the “enemies of Islam” (a favourite phrase of his) from gaining influence. “If Muslims don’t unite and gain support, we will lose in politics,” he said.
The next day were more headlines in the Utusan with rejoinders by other religious leaders, not least the Mufti of Perak, supporting Zakir Naik’s call.
Was this the reward that Umno had hoped to gain – endorsement by a charismatic evangelist to push a reluctant PAS worried about its grassroots sentiment into the arms of its once die-hard enemy?
Really? Desperate times call for desperate tactics.