Not many people outside the Muslim community knew Zakir Naik before he came under the scanner of security agencies and the media in the wake of the 1 July attacks in Dhaka. It may be recalled that on that day, terrorists killed 22 civilians and two police officers before five of them were killed. Immediately after the attack, a report appeared in one of the Bangladesh dailies that some off the terrorists, who participated in the attack, were inspired by Naik’s preaching. The paper later backtracked from its statement, but the controversy it triggered did not die down.
This created waves in India.
The media took this case up in a major way. Naik began appearing in national headlines almost on a daily basis and mostly for the wrong reasons. Even religious leaders from the Muslim community stood up against Naik and asked their members to refrain from listening to his speeches, saying his talks encourage violence and hostility towards non-Muslims. Some supported him too. The media frenzy continued and has not died down since then. Fearing arrest, Naik refused to return to India even when his father passed away recently.
On Tuesday, when the Narendra Modi government banned his NGO, Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) for five years, Naik’s eventful story of the past two decades seemingly came to an end.
How did it all begin?
The son of a physician and educationalist, Abdul Karim Naik, Zakir Naik too is a qualified medical practitioner, who never really practiced medicine.
Instead, his interest was in religious preaching from the very beginning. Naik called himself a student and an expert of ‘comparative religion’ but most of his speeches advocated the supremacy of Islam over other religions. Naik loved to play with words by selectively picking and interpreting religious scriptures to establish how Islam is one true religion and the remaining set of beliefs aren’t pure.
During his several speeches in India and abroad, he justified war against Islam’s enemies and in one instance, even ‘suicide bombing’, saying if there is a need to defend the religion from its enemies, there is no harm in self-sacrifice. The preacher also used his television channel, Peace TV to air his speeches. Naik exhorted that Muslims love their country more than anyone and will follow the law of the land, as long as it doesn’t come in the way of the law of creator. Thus, he put the idea of religion above the idea of patriotism and constitutional responsibility of every citizen to his country.
A closer look at previous speeches by the 51-year old showed certain dangers to the religious harmony of the country.
Naik's illogical arguments about the relation between religion and the idea of a secular nation are flawed but convincing enough to those who believe in Islam’s supremacy. In a February 2012 video, addressing a large crowd, Naik implored Muslims to 'fight for Islam' and 'disobey the law of the land if it goes against the law of the creator'. Saying "Vante Mataram", Naik said, is not desirable not just for Muslims, even Hindus. Why? Because, Hinduism, Naik says, speaks against the concept of idol worship and hence, it is wrong to bow to the land.
In another, Naik endorsed Osama Bin Laden and Taliban as fighters of Islam and argued why Taliban and Bin Laden were not necessarily damaging the Islam. In one his videos, Naik says:
"If he (Osama Bin Laden) is fighting the enemies of Islam, I’m for him. I don’t now what he is doing. I’m not in touch with him. I don’t know him personally. I read newspapers. If he is terrorising America, the terrorist, biggest terrorist, I’m with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist. The thing is that if he is terrorising the terrorist, he is following Islam. Whether he is or not, I don’t know. Now don’t go around outside saying Zakir Naik is for Osama Bin Laden. If he is terrorising the terrorist I’m with him. I don’t know what he is. I cannot base my judgment only on news. But, you as Muslims, without checking up laying allegations is also wrong. I’m with those people who are holding the Quran. Even the full world is against them, I’m with them (sic)"
In short, Naik has been clever in his speeches not to get trapped by investigators by playing with words. But, ultimately, he couldn’t convince the investigators as evidenced by the Modi government’s action.
To be sure, Naik has been preaching for more than two decades. The content of his speeches has been pretty much the same all along. But, there was no investigation against him till recently. As Firstpost has noted before, during UPA rule, in 2013, a communication had gone to the Ministry of Home Affairs from the then prime minister Manmohan Singh about the potential threat caused by Naik's speeches. This was based on a complaint submitted to the PMO. But, the matter ended there.
It took the Dhaka attacks for the Indian government to wake up to the problem (possibly due to media pressure) and initiate action against the Islamic preacher.
The deeper problems
But, it weren’t just his speeches that got Naik into trouble. The alleged links between his organisation IRF and terrorist activities in the country intensified the scrutiny of investigators on Naik and his organisation’s activities. Naik’s name was linked to cases in Kerala in which youths have been brainwashed to join the Islamic State. The Kerala Police has claimed that Arshi Qureshi, guest relations officer of the Mumbai-based Islamic Research Foundation, has links with the Islamic State. This raised questions on the way Naik’s NGO has been using funds, especially money coming from abroad in the form of donations. Early this months, the government banned foreign funding for Naik’s organisations. Naik has so far refused to return to the country and has addressed the media only through web conferences and television interviews.
It is unlikely that he’ll return to the country in the near future since that could lead to his immediate arrest.
The story, however, isn’t quite over yet. Banning Naik’s IRF will not undo the messages he has preached to youth all these years. There is a need to keep continuous vigil. Following the government’s five-year ban, reports suggests that Naik’s lawyers will seek legal recourse against the government's decision. But, this won’t be easy since government action against the NGO is under the under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Naik might be planning his next moves sitting in Dubai, where he is currently believed to be.
But, the government's action puts an end to the Naik episode, for now at least.