He is an able manipulator and a serial liar whose popularity amongst some people relies heavily on his recitation of the holy texts and their own unintelligence.
Zakir Naik is one such religious supremacist. Born in Mumbai in 1965, Naik is an Islamic preacher described as one of the leading figures of the Salafi movement -- an ultra-conservative reform movement within Sunni Islam. Through his Dubai-based Peace TV channel, Naik's lectures reach 100 million viewers around the world. He is widely popular in orthodox circles – and widely controversial elsewhere.
As is the case with almost all ultra-conservative religious leaders, Naik has almost always been the news for the wrong reasons. His brand of Quranic literalism, anti-pluralism, and puritan Wahhabism has made him one of the most notorious religious preachers today.
Naik has openly (no, shamelessly) called for ex-Muslims who propagate other religions to be punished severely. He has called for homosexuals to be penalized with death (homosexuality, according to him, occurs due to sexual boredom). He has refused to condemn Osama bin Laden because he "has never met him" (but he will call American Presidents terrorists even though he has met none of them either). While he encourages the spread of his brand of Islam in all countries, he supports banning the propagation of other faiths in Islamic nations.
Naik has time and again stressed that the Quran accurately describes many scientific phenomena (all the while calling biological evolution "unproven conjecture" which scientists support just because it goes "against the Bible"). He has spoken offensively in favour of sexual slavery, supported polygamy and described the causes of rape with all the stereotypes rejected by modern civilization – most prominent among them being victim-blaming: that "revealing Western dresses" make women susceptible to rape.
It is easy to see how Naik can be a nightmare for feminists and secularists – or anybody capable of even a little rational thinking. And it is not difficult to see how he can easily prey upon the uneducated and ill-informed. Naik is an influential televangelist because of his sheer excellence at manipulating facts, igniting discord, courting controversy and embracing sensationalism.
[T]here can be no doubt that Naik and others like him are anathema to Indian democracy and modern civilization.
He is famed for his knowledge of the Quran and even other religious texts, often quoting holy verses from memory. But when it comes to making rational arguments, one needs more than religious knowledge. One also needs unbiased evidence and a great deal of logic. Any neutral observer of Naik can easily conclude that he lacks both of them.
In the aftermath of the recent terror attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh, it came to light that some of the terrorists were inspired by Naik's ideologies. This was not particularly surprising given the high popularity of Naik's Peace TV in Bangladesh. Following the revelation, there have been repeated calls to take action against Naik's hate speeches (because that is what they are). The Union MoS for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju has said, "Zakir Naik's speech is a matter of concern for us. Our agencies are working on this."
Naik is already banned from making speeches in the United Kingdom (UK) and Canada. UK Home Secretary Theresa May (who is predicted to become Prime Minister later this year) said the following on denying Naik entry into the UK: "Numerous comments made by Dr Naik are evidence to me of his unacceptable behaviour." Naik's lawyer called May's decision "barbaric and inhuman", citing the ban as an attack on free speech.
And therein lies the catch: The sane and unbiased among us will not think twice before condemning Naik's extremist views. But should an individual be banned from a country for making controversial statements? Should deviant and divisive ideologies be protected or prosecuted in modern, secular democracies? It all boils down to the eternal debate: How free should free speech be?
Zakir Naik, Yogi Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj... Whatever the nuances of the term "anti-national", these individuals certainly qualify for the label.
There are those among us who want Naik to be penalized for his hate-mongering. There are those among us who despise Naik's views but do not want him to be prosecuted because that would nullify the status of free speech in our society. Then there are those among us who continue to be blinded by the divisiveness of Naik and others like him and rebuff any attempt to demonize him. Which side is right? That is a question that will be answered by our personal biases and individual introspection and research. But it must be the firm view of secularists that no matter what your politics, no matter what your beliefs, there can be no doubt that Naik and others like him are anathema to Indian democracy and modern civilization.
Zakir Naik is neither a representative of Indian Muslims nor a personification of Indian secularism. He is a bully who thrives on misinformation and sectarianism and represents everything that is wrong with blind religiosity. He is an able manipulator and a serial liar whose popularity amongst some people relies heavily on his recitation of the holy texts and their own hapless unintelligence. Khushwant Singh aptly said that Naik's audiences "listen to him with rapt attention and often explode in enthusiastic applause when he rubbishes other religious texts." Naik is an expert in the politics of division.
Which is why we need to actively speak out against Naik and other personalities like him. Zakir Naik, Yogi Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj – they all work hard to create discord and initiate conflict. Whatever the nuances of the term "anti-national", these individuals certainly qualify for the label. They are threats to our democracy and to our future as a stable nation. Whether hate speech should be banned – or punished – is a matter of crucial debate. What is not a matter of debate is that agents of division like Zakir Naik should be condemned by Indians of all walks of life.