Malaysia Can’t Decide if Zakir Naik Is a Preacher or a Terrorist

The fiery Muslim teacher is wanted back home in India, but Malaysia won’t give him up.

Islamic Research Foundation President Zakir Naik delivers a speech at a conference in Istanbul on March 23, 2017. (Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Islamic Research Foundation President Zakir Naik delivers a speech at a conference in Istanbul on March 23, 2017. (Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

GEORGE TOWN, Malaysia—It was a swelteringly hot afternoon in George Town, the capital city in the northern Malaysian state of Penang, but that didn’t dissuade the hundreds of Muslim protesters gathered outside the Masjid Jamek Shaik Eusoff mosque after Friday prayers on July 20.

The protesters, all men and mostly members of Islamic groups like Institut al-Qayyim and Perkasa, were demonstrating in support of Zakir Naik, a hugely popular Islamic preacher. According to his fans, he’s a respected Muslim scholar who belongs in Malaysia. The Indian government, however, says he’s been spreading hate speech, laundering money, and funding terrorism. Penang Deputy Chief Minister Ramasamy Palanisamy wants him deported back to his native India to face trial.

Naik’s supporters say he’s done nothing wrong. They want his right to preach Islam, Malaysia’s official religion, to be safeguarded, and demand Ramasamy be arrested for challenging the religion. This isn’t the first time Ramasamy’s been caught on the wrong side of Naik’s supporters. He’s been calling for Naik’s expulsion for years, and one of his offices was even firebombed in 2016 after he posted unflattering comments about Naik on Facebook.

The cleric’s stay in Malaysia has always been a contentious one, but it became a renewed flashpoint after news that the authorities had failed to act on an extradition request filed by India in January. But now, Malaysia has a new government. The Alliance of Hope (PH) came into power three months ago in a shocking election win heralded as a “victory for Asian democracy.” Ramasamy and others want the new ruling coalition to honor the country’s extradition treaty with India.

Although a wanted man in India and even barred from the United Kingdom, the physician-turned-televangelist still commands the admiration of millions of Muslims around the world, including in Malaysia. That presents the government with a tricky dilemma. It’s trying to move away from the Malay ethno-nationalist and religious politics pushed by fallen Prime Minister Najib Razak, now facing corruption charges. But in a country that’s more than 60 percent Muslim, and where fundamentalist views like Naik’s have made disturbing inroads, handling the rogue preacher is a challenge.

Naik first came to Malaysia in 2012, settling down for good in 2016 when India began its investigations. He lives in a lakeside condominium in the country’s administrative capital, Putrajaya. From early on, he developed a close relationship with former federal and state officials, as well as religious leaders. This led to him being granted permanent residence in 2012 and an award for his contribution to the development of Islam in 2013.

He was even offered three islands by the chief minister of Terengganu, a conservative state in eastern peninsular Malaysia. Meanwhile, up north, besides the Penang protesters, his defenders include Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, the respected mufti, or religious advisor, of the state of Perlis. It’s no surprise, then, that Naik is revered by a large number of local Muslims, with audiences of tens of thousands of people for his live talks.

Born Zakir Abdul Karim Naik in Mumbai in 1965, Zakir qualified as a physician but traded in surgical gloves for Islamic preaching in 1991. He founded the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) that year and a nonprofit English-language satellite television network, Peace TV, in 2006. Peace TV has claimed to reach over 200 million viewers, but there is little independent data to back this up.

Zakir has given thousands of talks around the world, most of them in English. Appearing in his signature business suit, and known for his rapid speech and thick Indian accent, the cleric has earned praise and ire in equally large numbers for quoting science, as well as scriptures from other religions—including Hindu Vedas and the Bible—in his lectures on Islam.

His critics accuse him of misinterpreting the religious texts he spouts, and say some of his preaching borders on hate speech. Others say he defends terrorism, pointing to infamous quotes such as his defense of Osama bin Laden: “If he is terrorizing America, the biggest terrorist, I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist. The thing is that if he is terrorizing a terrorist, he is following Islam,” Naik said in a video.

Suspicions of propagating terrorism grew after the 2016 Islamist terrorist attack in Dhaka, when a Bangladesh newspaper reported that one of the attackers had once posted a Zakir quote on Facebook. India’s counterterrorism agency soon began investigating Zakir for funding terrorist activities via the IRF; the foundation was banned for five years and formal charges were filed late last October.

Zakir, meanwhile, consistently denies the charges against him. He has condemned acts of terrorism and says his preaching have often been taken out of context. Zakir’s Malaysian lawyer, Shaharudin Ali, meanwhile, says his client will not speak with reporters. Indeed, Naik, now 52, communicates only through Facebook updates and press statements sent through his lawyer. In a recent such statement, he said accusations that he incited terrorism were meant to “demonize Islam and Muslims.”

It’s a viewpoint many of his supporters here agree with. In Malaysia, ethnic Malays form over half the population and are legally mandated to follow Islam under the country’s complex system of national and religious balance. The previous government, led by the once-powerful United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), had for decades wielded Islam and the promise of Malay superiority as a blunt yet effective political tool to keep other races in check and to stay in power. It doesn’t take much for criticism against anything linked to Islam to be deemed un-Islamic and therefore, a threat to the Malay population.

That leaves new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad walking a tightrope. The 93-year-old Mahathir once headed UMNO for 22 years, part of the National Front coalition he toppled in May. He, himself, admits to having played the religion card in the past, demonizing rivals (including his current allies) as “anti-Malay” for political gain. But the new government he leads has promised to shed the race and religion-based politics that was the hallmark of Malaysian governance for more than six decades.

Mahathir gave the powerful Finance Ministry portfolio to an ethnic Chinese leader of one of PH’s component parties, the Democratic Action Party, to which Ramasamy is also a member. This is just one of many high-profile appointments for non-Malays, almost all of which have been questioned by Islamist politicians. Deporting Naik could be one moderate step too far.

“This is a litmus test for the new government,” said Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at John Cabot University and an expert on Malaysian politics. “The new government has come into power in a different Malaysia and they are now facing a difficult task navigating this minefield, given the high level of politicization. I think the new government does not wish to set off that bomb too early.” Send the cleric back to India, Welsh said, and PH risks being seen as giving up, making it an easy target for attacks by far-right conservatives seeking to gain political leverage.

So, for the time being, Mahathir has repeatedly refused to extradite Naik, saying last month that Naik is protected by his permanent residence status unless he breaks any local laws. Yet as well as public sensibilities, Mahathir also must deal with divisions within his own administration. This includes ethnic Indian politicians who supported Naik’s expulsion in the past but now have to toe the federal government line, leaving Ramasamy seemingly the lone voice for this cause.

One of the most prominent critics is Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy, a Hindu-rights activist who is now the minister of national unity and social well-being. Waytha Moorthy was one of 19 plaintiffs in a 2017 case that sought to have Naik declared a national threat and expelled. But Waytha Moorthy’s spokesman now says he can’t speak about Naik due to the court case, which was thrown out in February. Others leaders include Gobind Singh Deo, M. Kulasegaran, and Xavier Jayakumar, all of whom are now senior members of Mahathir’s new cabinet.

Yet some believe the government is being too cautious. Saravanan Murugan, a Hindu member of parliament who was a deputy minister in the Najib government, questions the silence of these ministers who once criticized his own Malaysian Indian Congress party, part of the ousted National Front coalition, for doing nothing on Naik. He is certain Malaysia will survive life after Naik and said that most Muslim Malays here will understand the decision to extradite. After all, he said, Malaysians are very tolerant and respectful of the different faiths and cultures—a trait he said Naik does not share.

Critics like Saravanan say failing to act endorses Naik’s incendiary preaching and sends mixed signals on new Malaysia’s commitment to upholding rule of law. Mustafa Izzuddin, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, points to the possibility of this being used as a “diplomatic precedent” by other countries to refuse Malaysia’s extradition requests in future.

Even so, Abdul Wahed Jalal Nori, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, said the government will achieve more by doing less, and needs to treat Naik as a relatively minor issue. After all, expectations are high for it to solve much bigger problems, such as stabilizing its resources and fighting corruption.

“Zakir has a big number of followers locally and abroad. What do you think will happen if Malaysia decides to send him back to India? The opposition will pick that up and invest in this. Muslim communities in other countries will begin to question what is happening in Malaysia—so it will become a bigger issue which could lead to greater instability,” he said.

“In the end, what is actually solved?”

Darshini Kandasamy is an award-winning journalist based in Malaysia. She is currently an assistant editor at Malaysiakini, an online news site. Twitter: @darshkanda