Meet the latest headache for Indian security agencies: Zakir Naik.
Naik, a wiry man in his 50s, is an unlikely preacher of Islamic theology. He talks in English interspersed with Bombaiyya Hindi, wears a suit, tie, skullcap and several hats: That of a doctor, debater, preacher, televangelist, Salafist and a globally recognised Islamist scholar based in Mumbai.
Naik is caught in the middle of a controversy after investigations revealed his sermons and ideology inspired Rohan Imtiaz, one of the perpetrators of the recent terror strike in Dhaka.
Naik’s name has been linked also to the alleged Hyderabad module of Isis that was recently busted by the National Investigation Agency. According to the Economic Times, the alleged module’s head Mohammad Ibrahim Yazdani told the NIA during his interrogation that his inclination towards violent outfits working to establish Shariah law was also because of Naik.
This has led to calls for not only banning his sermons but also arresting Naik for allegedly inspiring terrorists. Naik is already persona non grata in several countries, including Britain, where his entry was banned in 2010 by the then home secretary Theresa May, the current front-runner for the prime minister's post since David Cameron’s resignation.
“Naik’s speech is a matter of concern for us. Our agencies are working on this. But as a minister, I will not comment what action will be taken," Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju told reporters in Delhi on Wednesday.
Is Naik a recruiter for terror?
According to Gatestone Institute, an international non-profit think-tank, although it is not suggested that Naik is directly involved in terrorism, the following known terrorists have reportedly been inspired by his preaching:
Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-American arrested last year for planning suicide attacks on the New York subway;
Rahil Sheikh, accused of involvement in a series of train bombings in Mumbai in 2006 and;
Kafeel Ahmed, the Bengaluru man fatally injured in a failed suicide attack on Glasgow Airport in 2007.
The Mumbai resident runs Islamic Research Foundation and Peace TV, a channel, according to its website, dedicated to promotion of “Truth, Justice, Morality, Harmony and Wisdom for the whole of humankind.” He claims to achieve this by “presenting Islam and removing misconceptions about Islam." His organisation claims Peace TV is broadcast in over 200 countries and has millions of followers, especially middle-class urban Indian Muslims.
But, Naik’s acceptability even among Muslims is disputed.
Some years ago, his comments on Yazid, the Ummayad caliph whose army killed Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussain in the Battle of Karbala, angered Muslims so much that they sought a ban on him.
On another occasion, 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 labelled him an agent of Ghair Muqallideen (those who don’t adhere to established doctrines of Islam).
On his part, Naik, who is trained in medicine, demolishes several stereotypes. Unlike a typical Islamic preacher, he gives his lectures in what others call ‘machine-gun’ English, wearing a suit, tie, skull cap and the preacher’s beard. He quotes liberally from religious texts of several religions, compares their doctrines and, ultimately, much to the glee of his followers, argues Islam’s supremacy over everything.
Naik rejects the Islamic State as un-Islamic but, ironically, doesn’t want to call Osama bin Laden a terrorist, instead blaming George W Bush for the 11 September, 2001 attacks. He says Islam prohibits the killing of even one innocent person, but argues that Muslim apostates (who start preaching another religion) and homosexuals can be put to death.
Some years ago he argued that every Muslim should be a terrorist, clarifying that to terrorise means to scare others. This sermon was reportedly shared by Rohan Imtiaz on his Facebook page.
Naik favours spread of Islam across the world but argues that in Islamic countries preaching of other religions should be banned. “Other religions teach 2=2=3; they are fundamentally wrong,” he once famously argued.
So, what does one make of Naik?
People who watch him closely assert that he is a smart salesman for Islam who combines modern tools — the English language, suit, tie, TV, technology — to disseminate his doctrine. His penchant for getting into televised debates with people of other religions, whom he loves to outwit and silence, endears him to Muslims who go home with a sense of religious supremacy.
“He brings Islam to the living room of his followers and presents it as the only ideology that can save the world. Some of his arguments are valid, some childish and a few outlandish. The mullahs hate him for his combination of salesmanship and popularity and youth love him for giving their religion the aura of superiority. But, I won’t call him dangerous,” says a journalist who runs a blog on Islamic preachings.
But, the problem with terrorism today is that it is getting inspired more and more by preachers who interpret Islam in their own way. The fight against terrorism has quintessentially turned into a battle against ideas that have the potential to radicalise people.
Security agencies across the globe have become nervous since their experience with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical preacher from the US, who was killed in a drone strike authorised by his own government while he was hiding in Yemen. The US believed Awlaki’s sermons had inspired several terrorists, a charge Awlaki denied.
Like Naik, Awlaki spoke on almost everything — from marriage to paradise, from Jesus to Mohammed and on tolerance, mixing Quranic verses with Americanised English. But, among thousands of his sermons scattered all around on social media were also calls for jihad and exhortations to Muslims to kill Americans as a religious duty.
Killing Awlaki didn’t help the US. His sermons, spread on social media, continue to inspire followers, turning him into an immortal enemy in the war against terrorism.
‘The (US) government has a portentous euphemism — ‘‘removed from the battlefield’’ — for the targeted killing of terrorists. But Awlaki has by no means been removed from the most important battlefield in any ideological conflict, the battlefield of ideas…(In July 2015), Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, a troubled 24-year-old electrical engineer, opened fire at two military installations in Chattanooga, Tenn., killing four Marines and a sailor. F.B.I. investigators who examined his computer discovered that he had been watching Awlaki videos in the weeks before the shootings,’ the NY Times wrote in a piece titled The Lessons of Anwar al-Awlaki.
Naik may not be in the Awlaki mould. But, as recent events in Dhaka and Hyderabad suggest, he is a key player in the battle of ideas. A combination of ambiguity on terror, arguments that verge on anti- Semitism, notions of superiority of one religion and use of modern technology make Zakir difficult to ignore both for followers and security agencies.
A big headache.