Why Zakir Naik’s publicity mechanisms deserve to be banned

Rupak Bhattacharjee
Published : 30 July 2016, 09:37 AM
Updated : 30 July 2016, 09:37 AM

The deadly Dhaka terror attack, among other things, has unmasked the popular yet controversial Islamic scholar Dr. Zakir Naik's dubious role in the radicalisation of youth especially in Bangladesh. The 50 year-old Mumbai-based doctor-turned-tele-evangelist attracted wide media attention both in Bangladesh and India in the aftermath of the barbaric killing of 20 foreign hostages on the night of July 1. There was uproar in Bangladesh following the discovery that two of the Gulshan attackers were inspired by Naik's speeches and sermons.

Acknowledging the implications of Naik's contentious speeches across the border, the Indian government immediately expressed its willingness to ban Naik's Peace TV if Bangladesh makes a formal request. Preliminary investigation into the Gulshan attack revealed that two of the killers – Nibras Islam and Rohan Imtiaz, were encouraged by Naik's lectures to participate in jihad. In fact, Imtiaz quoted Naik in a Facebook post in January this year where he urged all "Muslims to be terrorists".

The narrow premise of Naik's religious discourse has been slammed by many, including Islamic scholars. It is widely known that Naik owes allegiance to extremist Wahabi ideology extolling the supremacy of the Sunnis. His critics pointed out that he had often made disparaging remarks on Muslim minority sects like the Shia and Ahmadia. A major allegation against Naik is that he exhorts all Muslims to be terrorists. Naik can not be accused of directly instigating violence or encouraging inter-religious animosity but his preaching contains offensive substances that could facilitate radicalisation.

In the opinion of several security experts, Naik has been propagating Wahabi ideology and his narrative is similar to that of the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda. Wahabism is regarded as a radical school of thought and breeding ground for terrorism. Naik's interpretation of Islam encourages impressionable minds to embrace jihad and join international terror groups like IS and Al-Qaeda though the tele-evangelist insists that he talks of peace.

Naik argues that his statement "urging all Muslims to become terrorists" had been misinterpreted by the Indian media to malign his image, and he is totally opposed to terrorism and killing of innocent people. Naik also rejected Dhaka's allegation saying in a video message that though one of the terrorists may have been his follower, he has thousands of such followers in Bangladesh.

However, in the wake of global condemnation of the grisly murder of foreigners in the Gulshan eatery and the growing public opinion in Bangladesh and India against hatemongers and practitioners of regressive ideas, Naik's rationale will find few takers. Earlier, his refusal to describe Osama bin Laden as a terrorist had evoked sharp reactions from many quarters. Naik reportedly said, "If Osama bin Laden is terrorising the US, I am with him".

The Islamic preacher has been under the surveillance of India's security agencies over the last few years for issuing unsavoury statements. The Mumbai police are investigating a hate speech made by Naik in 2013. Naik had also been drawn into political controversies after senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh praised him as a "man of peace" in an event to promote communal harmony in 2012. Congress' political rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strongly reacted to Singh's observation and a war of words ensued between the two major parties.

In the present context of India's domestic politics, Naik has ceased to be an asset for most of the parties in electoral terms, due to his alleged links to jihadi organisations and use of foreign funds for propagating extremist ideas. A recent Indian intelligence report said the content of Naik's speeches is "not conducive" to the security environment in the country and poses "security hazard". His Islamic Research Foundation (IRF), which runs Peace TV, is listed as a religious learning centre on the website of Jamaat-ud-Daawa – the front organisation of Pakistan-based terrorist group Laskar-e-Tayaba. The union home ministry is closely monitoring the activities of IRF, which has reportedly been transferring funds received from Saudi Arabia for political activities and encouraging people towards jihad.

The Bangladesh government too promptly clamped down on Naik's publicity mechanisms in the country after it became apparent that his lectures on Peace TV had inspired two Gulshan attackers. While banning Naik's Peace TV Bangla, Information and Broadcasting Minister Hasanul Huq Inu categorically said, "Peace TV is inconsistent with Muslim society, the Quran, Sunnah, Hadith, Bangladesh's Constitution, our culture, customs and rituals". The minister's statement reflected Bangladesh's disapproval of the divisive and provocative speeches of the Islamic tele-evangelist. This decision of the Bangladesh government was hailed in India.

The government is investigating Naik's financial transactions in the country. Educational institutions named Peace Schools in the capital city Dhaka and other parts of the country are also under police surveillance. Reports say there are at least 28 schools in Bangladesh with "Peace" in their names. These schools follow the Islamic preacher's ideals. Moreover, Bangladesh authorities have banned Naik's Peace Mobile phone in their efforts to stop all kinds of publicity Naik enjoys in the country. One of the leading industrial groups Beximco imports Naik's Peace Mobile phones marketed as "Islamic mobile handsets". These are loaded with options to access Peace TV sermons in English, Urdu and Hindi. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory commission (BRTC) says Beximco imported about 500 mobile sets in 2014.

Naik has also been facing several inquires in India over his controversial speeches. A number of Indian security agencies began probe on the functioning of Peace TV and IRF. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is set to take multiple steps, including registration of a First Inquiry Report (FIR) by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), banning Peace TV and a review of permission to his foundation to receive foreign aid. Home Minister Rajnath Singh stated that the government had taken cognizance of Naik's speeches and given instruction for a probe. The minister reportedly discussed the issue with NIA Director General Sharad Kumar.

The Indian agencies are examining the speeches, sermons and activities of Naik. The country's domestic intelligence organisation Intelligence Bureau and premier investigation agency NIA had been asked to scrutinise the CDs of Naik's speeches. Besides, the home ministry is reviewing permission to Naik's IRF to collect donations from abroad under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. Amidst all these, the security forces in Navi Mumbai recently arrested Arshid Qureshi, a suspected IS recruiter associated with Naik's IRF. Qureshi, who has been working as Public Relations Officer at IRF since 2004, allegedly brainwashed youths in Kerala and motivated them to join the IS. This development clearly suggests that IRF's resources had been diverted to promote the jihadi agenda of the IS.

Meanwhile efforts are on to ban Naik's Peace TV. According to reports, the Information and Broadcasting (IB) ministry in an advisory to all state governments has asked them to ensure that cable operators do not broadcast Peace TV, which is not licensed in India and is uplinked from Dubai. The IB ministry is likely to take more steps in this direction and Peace TV will not be allowed to operate in India. Newly-appointed IB Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu has reportedly called Naik's speeches highly objectionable.

Naik is currently in Saudi Arabia and scheduled to return within the next few weeks. But the security forces suspect that the controversial preacher is unlikely to come back, even though Naik recently told the media that he is ready to face "any action" in India if he is found to have broken any rule. Naik's Peace TV is estimated to have a viewership of nearly 100 million. His popularity soared after Saudi Arabia's king conferred on him the King Faisal International Prize for promoting Islam in March 2015.

The security agencies probing Naik's cases are treading cautiously due to his popularity among a section of Muslims, especially in Mumbai. Nevertheless, the contentious preacher should realise that the critical situation in which he has found himself today is his own creation. Naik is already banned from entering United Kingdom and Canada for espousing radical ideology and hate speech directed against other religions. Malaysia also banned his lectures apprehending that they could instigate interracial tensions. Now it is India's turn to take the controversial tele-evangelist to task on his home turf.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher