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Indian cleric under spotlight following Dhaka cafe attack

Zakir Naik, a widely popular preacher in India, denies accusations that he advocates extremism.
Zakir Naik speaks at the Dubai Airport Expo Centre on August 27, 2009.  Jeff Topping / The National
Zakir Naik speaks at the Dubai Airport Expo Centre on August 27, 2009. Jeff Topping / The National

NEW DELHI // India is investigating a controversial Islamic television preacher, Zakir Naik, following the discovery that one of the terrorists in the July 1 in the Bangladesh cafe attack followed him on Facebook.

Mr Naik, a conservative commonly described as a Salafi, has previously lambasted terror attacks in the name of jihad, saying: “The killing of any innocent person, either Muslim or non-Muslim, is prohibited by Islam.”

However, some Indian Muslim clerics say he misinterprets Islam, while others charge that he is leading young Muslims into extremism.

In the past, Mr Naik has called music a sin. He once expressed support for Osama bin Laden, although he subsequently said that his statements were misunderstood and taken out of context. He is also accused of saying that men could beat their wives “lightly” and advocating the death penalty for apostates.

A week after the Dhaka siege, in which 24 people died, India’s information and broadcasting minister, Venkaiah Naidu, noted the Facebook connection between the Dhaka attackers and Mr Naik and said the preacher’s speeches were “highly objectionable”.

Mr Naidu said the home ministry would investigate the sources of funds behind the Mumbai-based Islamic Research Foundation set up by Mr Naik in 1991. “I have asked the Mumbai police commissioner to conduct a probe and submit a report,” he said.

Mr Naik is also the founder of Peace TV, a decade-old non-profit television channel that broadcasts from Dubai and claims to reach more than 200 countries. The channel broadcasts religious sermons for adults as well as educational programmes for children.

Peace TV has never been licensed to air in India although Mr Naik, 50, is from Mumbai. It was being broadcast illegally by private cable operators until the government ordered it blocked on July 10, the same day Bangladesh banned the channel.

A former medical doctor, Mr Naik dresses mostly in a suit and speaks fluent English. He conveys modernity to his audience of educated Muslims, said Thomas Blom Hansen, a Stanford anthropologist who studies religious and political violence in India.

“They like that,” Mr Hansen said. “He is keen on discussing science, ethics, truth, creation, the Big Bang Theory, medicine – you name it.”

In 2010, Britain banned Mr Naik from entering the country, citing “unacceptable behaviour”, although it never spelt out what this behaviour was.

But Mr Naik has also won praise in the Islamic world. In 2013, the Dubai International Holy Quran Award named Mr Naik the Islamic Personality of the Year. Last year, he won the King Faisal International Prize for service to Islam, awarded by the King Faisal Foundation in Saudi Arabia.

On July 15, Mr Naik spoke to Indian journalists via Skype from Medina while on one of his frequent and well-publicised trips overseas. Calling himself “a messenger of peace”, he denied that he ever encouraged terrorism.

He said that no government agency had approached him as part of any investigation, and that his statements quoted in the media had been taken out of context or edited misleadingly.

“I condemn all terror activities and killing of innocents anywhere in the world, be they in Paris, Dhaka or Mumbai,” he said. “I have been branded Wahhabi-Salafist, but I am a Muslim first and Muslim last.”

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, a scholar of comparative religion and Islamic sciences at the New Delhi-based Jamia Millia Islamia University, said that mainstream Indian Muslims could not be represented by Mr Naik.

He said several Islamic scholars and clerics had urged their followers to pay no heed to Mr Naik’s teachings.

The Darul Uloom Deoband, a seminary at the heart of the Deoband school of Sunni Islam, has also issued criticisms of Mr Naik over the years. But on July 12, a Darul Uloom spokesperson said only that the seminary had “bad differences of opinion with Zakir Naik … We don’t believe that he could be connected with terrorism.”

Mr Hansen, the Stanford anthropologist, has dismissed the accusation that Mr Naik could be recruiting followers for ISIL or for Kashmiri militant groups.

“The calls to shut him down in India comes from a very unsophisticated general understanding of the links between modern Islamic thought, identity and militancy,” he said.

Mr Hansen also drew a connection to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party that heads the Indian government.

It is the BJP’s simplistic view “that all articulate and modern Muslims are bad, [and] the only good Muslim is meek, old-fashioned Sufi oriented and somewhat melancholic”, he said.

“The BJP criticises Muslims for not being modern enough, but when they and other mainstream Indians encounter a self-avowedly modern, highly articulate, if deeply conservative Muslim like Naik, they cry foul and ban.”


Updated: July 23, 2016 04:00 AM



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