11/07/2016 7:32 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST

How The Zakir Naik Controversy Became A Wasted Opportunity For Indian Muslims

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The Indian national media has been taken by a storm after news reports said at least one of the Dhaka cafe attackers was influenced by the speeches of controversial Islamic scholar, Zakir Naik. The founder of the Mumbai-based Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) and Peace TV, an Islamic broadcast channel that operates from Dubai, Naik has a huge fan following among middle-class Muslims in India. In 2015, he was given the King Faisal International Prize by King Salman of Saudi Arabia for his "services to Islam". No wonder Naik's speeches are more than often characterized by a Wahhabi zeal, an ideology funded and propagated aggressively by the Saudi Arabian monarchy.

Following the controversy, Hindu right-wing groups in India such as the Hindu Sanatan Sanstha have taken to the streets to demand his arrest, and the Home Ministry has reportedly put Naik's institute, IRF, under the scanner for alleged misuse of funds to support radical activities.

"The Home Ministry probe will cover the allegations that foreign funding to IRF was used in political activities and allegations that the NGO's funds were used to draw people towards Islam and for "attracting" youths towards terror," Firstpost reported a senior Home Ministry official saying.

Many Muslims in the country look to Naik as an "ideal" – a "true Muslim" who knows his faith. And that's where the root of the problem lies.

A conversation around everything that is wrong with mainstream Islamic scholarship and Muslim religious scholars around the world has now been hijacked by a Hindu right-wing government and its blind followers. All that we are left with is an utterly flawed debate around Zakir Naik. Social media and TV news abound in black and white arguments that do not bother about the nuances. There is mass hysteria generated by private news channels such as Zee News. We must now take sides – be with Zakir Naik or call a ban on him. There are comparisons being drawn by well-meaning liberals between Naik and those like Babu Bajrangi (involved in the mass murder and mayhem directed at Muslims in Gujarat in 2002). Others have said the government must prosecute the likes of Praveen Togadia and Yogi Adityanath before talking of putting Naik behind bars.

There is also a petition being circulated in favour of Naik. In Jammu and Kashmir, there was a massive protest against the government's decision to probe Naik's speeches for allegedly inciting terror in Dhaka. Milli Gazette, a Muslim news portal, has taken a public stand in support of the televangelist, and it feels it has valid reasons to do so: many Muslims in the country look to Naik as an "ideal" – a "true Muslim" who knows his faith. And that's where the root of the problem lies.

While Togadia or Adityanath would openly call for communal violence and incite hatred through their public speeches, Naik would never do such a thing. Naik's worldview is at best supported by mainstream Islamic scholarship, which tends to be sexist, misogynistic, homophobic and supremacist. But mainstream scholarship around the Quran and Hadiths (oral traditions of the Prophet) is also what most Muslims in a country like India have access to (through mullahs, Muslim councils, etc.). Thus, a televangelist saying "music is haraam (sinful)" or "homosexuality is forbidden" or "masturbation is the way to hell" would not sound alien to someone from a traditional Muslim family.

More often than not, such views arise in spaces where there is little or no questioning of religious scriptures. Religious beliefs are also influenced by societal and cultural norms. The victims of such regressive views are often women, LGBTQ individuals and everyone who refuses to stand by the idea of a monolithic Islamic existence. This is compounded by the fact that there are very few resources and training modules available for religious leaders on questions of gender and sexuality.

It must be noted that several modern-day Muslim scholars have offered pluralistic and gender-sensitive interpretations of Islamic scriptures. Amina Wadud, an Islamic scholar and one of the first few women to lead a congregation of prayers, has called for a "reformed theology" that delves into the depth of Islamic scriptures such as the Quran and sayings of the Prophet and questions patriarchal biases from the roots. In the US and in Canada, there are inclusive mosque initiatives that hold prayer meetings for Muslims across race, sect, gender and sexual orientation.

Such a change within Muslim communities in a country like India can only be brought about by asking difficult questions about what we hold close to our hearts about Islam, and constantly pushing for educational, social and economic upliftment of India's Muslims. When a government that is driven by a Hindu right-wing worldview, and whose Prime Minister is himself the recipient of Saudi Arabia's highest civilian honour, wants to teach Naik a lesson with the use of state machinery like the NIA (that has reportedly gone soft on Hindu fundamentalists), it is certainly going to upset Naik's large support base amongst middle-class Muslims in India. A new narrative of Muslim victimhood and "hurt" sentiment will emerge. But those who are the most affected by toxic views like those of Naik's will remain ignored as always.

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