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

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.




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