How does one deal with an idea that has already traveled far and wide and acquired immortality on the internet?
If you know the answer to this conundrum, the idea called Zakir Naik can be countered. If you don’t, Naik’s philosophy will live on.
On the internet, Naik is everywhere, his ideas, thoughts and debates are ubiquitous. His legacy is deep-rooted, his words have become indelible.
Try searching for Zakir Naik on Youtube. You will get nearly a million hits. Google him, you will need a lifetime just to sift through the results.
Now that he is easily accessible, can Naik be shut down just by banning his Peace TV channel?
All across the world, it is becoming increasingly clear from the experience the US has had with Anwar al-Awlaki—a preacher whose killing made him more popular among radicals—that in the fight against terrorism, ‘hard power’ is helpful only in the battlefield, against an armed enemy that needs to be immediately destroyed. To deal with radicalisation, you need an alternate strategy that can defeat the ideas that inspire seemingly benign people to turn into terrorists.
In July 2015, while talking about the US war against Islamic State, US president Barack Obama reiterated a point he had made several times in the past. “…ultimately, in order for us to defeat terrorist groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda, it's going to also require us to discredit their ideology—the twisted thinking that draws vulnerable people into their ranks. As I’ve said before—and I know our military leaders agree—this broader challenge of countering violent extremism is not simply a military effort. Ideologies are not defeated with guns; they’re defeated by better ideas—a more attractive and more compelling vision.”
It is apparent that though he has been accused of inspiring terrorists, Naik has never been charged with complicity in any hate-crime or act of terror. His slate is clean, even if his words are a source of problem. Though there will be huge pressure on the Indian government—be prepared for hysterical demands for an arrest or a ban—to take punitive action against Naik, it is irrational to believe he can be just locked away on the basis of charges that will thrown out by courts.
Also, any illegal action will turn Naik into a martyr, a victim of the Indian state. Since radicalization thrives on symbols of martyrdom and exaggerated feelings of victimization, the Narendra Modi government can’t afford to be seen exceeding legal boundaries in dealing with a Muslim cleric.
So, how does one deal with Naik?
In 2007, the late Khushwant Singh noticed Naik’s popularity and was compelled to counter his propaganda. “I have heard Zakir Naik hold forth on these (polygamy, burqa, drinking, eating pig meat, afterlife, and kafirs) and other subjects several times on television before large receptive audiences, who hear him spellbound. I disagree with almost everything he has to say about misconceptions about Islam. I find Naik’s pronouncements somewhat juvenile. They seldom rise above the level of undergraduate college debates, where contestants vie with each other to score brownie points.”
As Singh argued, calling Naik out as an ill-informed preacher with limited understanding of religious texts would deprive the preacher of his heft and legitimacy, turning him into an inferior product in the market of competitive religion he preaches.
Naik, who apparently rattles off verses and chapters from scriptures, has often been accused of peddling lies and half-truths. In one of the programs on Peace TV, Dr Zakir Naik said in Urdu that Jesus Christ never claimed to be a Christian— of course, he was not; he was a Jew. According to Zakir, however, Jesus was also a Muslim. Apparently Dr. Zakir wanted to convince the audience that, since ancient times, there is no divine religion except Islam in this world.
Prominent voices from within Islam have already rejected Naik as an overenthusiastic debater who preaches a flawed version of Islam. As pointed out by Firstpost, some years ago, Darul Uloom Deoband issued a fatwa against him, arguing that Naik was misleading Muslims and spreading mischievous things. Deobandi scholars called his lectures a fitna (rebellion) and labeled him an agent of Ghair Muqallideen (those who don’t adhere to established doctrines of Islam).
With so much arrayed against him, Naik may not be such a difficult adversary to deal with if the government doesn’t fall into the trap of using the wrong weapons in this battle of ideas.
India is lucky that Naik is still a preacher, not a martyr.