In his recent interview to The Times of India, the controversial Salafist-Islamist preacher and televangelist Zakir Naik, the founder of Peace TV, was posed a question as to how did his followers become terrorists who participated in the Dhaka attack.
Speaking to the Times of India correspondent from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Naik replied: "This news first appeared in a Bangladeshi newspaper on July 3, and later in Indian media on July 4. It is totally wrong. The paper later clarified but the Indian media ran a trial against me."
Thus, in the controversy over his provocative statements promoting militant views, Naik has accused the Indian media of conducting trials against him. It is, of course, worth pondering and soul-searching. Basically, the question arises whether it was ‘media trial’ against him or ‘media portrayal’ of his case.
Going by the definition given in Wikipedia, ‘media trial’ is a phrase which became popular in the early 21st century to describe the impact of television and newspaper coverage on a person's reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt or innocence before, or after, a verdict in a court of law.
Indian media has been accused of ‘running trials’ in various cases in the recent times. Not so long ago, the cases of Aarushi Talwar, Jessica Lal, Priyadarshini Mattoo, Nitish Katara, Bijal Joshi among the others were seen as glaring examples of ‘media trial’. In all these instances, we took note of how a section of the national media intervened and passed the verdict even before the court’s judgment came. This is precisely what we know as ‘media trial’.
So, should the case of Naik be seen in the same light? This question became more pertinent after the All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), has issued its statement in this connection. Bearing in mind that this apex body of Sufi-Sunni Muslims in India has been vehemently opposed to the controversial televangelist since his emergence, the AIUMB’s take on the ‘media trial’ of Naik is significant. A couple of days ago, Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kichhouchhawi, the founder-president of the AIUMB, has asked Naik to come clean on the charges against his objectionable speeches, his organisation Islamic Research Foundation and the Peace TV broadcasts. But at the same time, the AIUMB’s president has also appealed that Naik be put to scrutiny by the Indian government, and not by the ‘media trials’. It should be noted that the AIUMB has been leading the mainstream Indian Muslims to fight against the radical movement of Naik in the country.
On the other hand, a section of Naik’s staunch supporters in India have also shown their rage against this ‘trial’ by Indian media. They took out processions in Patna and Kashmir after Naik sought support from them against what he termed as “media trial”. One wonders how Naik’s appeal captivated the young, ambitious, yet gullible, Muslims who were not even seen in any protest against the recent terror attacks on the holy Islamic cities—Madina and Baghdad—let along the democratic countries like France and Germany.
This reminds us of a similar instance in the country. When the Hindu religious guru Asaram Bapu came into limelight for the wide media coverage of the alleged sexual assault cases against him, the same narrative of "media trial" was doing the rounds. Asaram requested the Supreme Court to tone down the "trial" of the mainstream media which, he accused, was convicting him even as the police was yet to file a charge-sheet. Interestingly, none of the political Muslim leaders who endorse Naik today against the Indian media was in favour of the Hindu supporters of Asaram. Not even the liberal voices denounced this ‘trial’. But the fervent supporters and blind fathers of the guru were cautioning the media against reporting this case and holding this ‘trial’.
Senior advocate Vikas Singh, who was appearing for Asaram, referred to the apex court's judgment and requested a bench of chief justice P Sathasivam and justice Ranjan Gogoi to protect his client from the continued trials of media against him.
It cannot be denied that the role of media, the fourth state of democracy, is as powerful as a weapon in war. Naik has rightly pointed out that media can "convert a hero into villain or even a villain into a hero". Every citizen has every right to be presumed innocent till a court scrutinizes the charges and draws a conclusion from its own legal trial.
But why the mainstream media in our country should be bereft of its independence and enquiry only when it comes to the cases of religious gurus?
From the last five years, whenever the national media tried to pose hard questions on an accused religious stalwart, it faced the ire of the community leaders who came out to fully support the accused even before the court’s verdict. From the case against Asaram Bapu, Baba Ramdev, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati to Zakir Naik, the exclusive and detailed media coverage of all the religious figures has been taken as ‘media trial’ rather than ‘media portrayal’.
In the case of Naik, the conspiracy theorists have easily evolved and spread two more narratives: First, a large section of the Indian media is working under the saffron influence to further the political ends of the ruling party. An instance that they often cite is that the ‘prejudiced Indian media’ stepped up its vilification campaign against the alleged terrorists who were acquitted for the lack of evidence after they spent a large part of their life behind the bars. So, they maintain that the same media agenda is playing out in the case of the onslaught on the controversial sermons of Naik. Nearly all the conservative Muslim leaders and clerics belonging to all factions of Islamic school endorse this view without urging the community for a rational reasoning or soul-searching in it. Urdu news media are replete with such editorials and opinion pieces which promote the same viewpoint in an organised style.
Second, the issue of Naik is also hyped as ‘a sectarian slugfest’. His Wahhabi-Salafi orientation is being cited as the only reason why he faces the ire of the mainstream Sufi-Sunni and Shia Muslims. Naik is an undeniably Salafist preacher, though he often calls himself ‘only a Muslim’. His association with Wahhabism-Salafism is self-evident from his extensive references to the Salafi clergy while justifying the vile practices of the medieval era like child marriage, sex slavery, self-supremacist religiosity and most deplorably the suicide attack as ‘war tactic’. His Salafism is also corroborated by his being state guest in the Saudi Kingdom, which only welcomes the preachers of its own state religion—Wahhabism—and receiving the Shah Faisal award, the greatest honour conferred by the kingdom. The kingdom left no stone unturned in providing logistical support to Naik for his IRF and Peace TV.
Now when the AIUMB has announced to organise a large-scale peaceful protest of Indian Muslims against the terror ideology of Naik on 26 July in an attempt to publicly denounce the recent terror attack on Medina, Naik’s sympathisers are more likely to repeat the same sectarian narrative.
Regrettably, in this hype over the ‘sectarian slugfest’, ‘political agenda’ and ‘media trial’, the most important reason why Naik should come clean on the allegations will again be ignored. In an article on Firstpost, prominent Indian Muslim intellectual Wajahat Habibullah has pinpointed the reason why Naik has come under the shadow of the Indian media: "There have been quotations from the Quran spouted out of context to prove that it is a faith that encourages violence and hence a danger both to modern civilisation and to the exercise of democracy. And this is complicated by the many interpretations given to the Quran, the scripture for every Muslim, whatever their sect, by clerics of different sects of Islam. Note the frequent reference to Zakir Naik by the Indian media in the shadow of the terrorist outrage in Dhaka."
The author is a scholar of Comparative Religion, Classical Arabic and Islamic sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in Media and Communication Studies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.