Ever since news broke last week that one of the Islamist terrorists involved in the Dhaka attack was a fan of Zakir Naik, an amusing drama has been playing out on social media. Those who wanted to send Kamlesh Tiwari to the gallows for the victimless crime of blasphemy are now defending Naik's freedom of expression. On the other hand, those who didn't bat an eyelid at Yogi Adityanath's inflammatory statements, and tacitly endorsed Baba Ramdev's yearning to behead sickulars, are demanding criminal proceedings against Naik. It seems some of us only outrage over speech that is incongruous to our identity politics.
I often criticize religion and call out its role in inspiring acts of terror. However, as a free speech advocate, I am opposed to a gag on Naik. While his vocal support for Bin Laden is contemptible (no more so than a Hindutvawadi's glorification of Godse), there is nothing in his videos that can hold up in court as direct incitement to murder. His speech asking Muslims to "terrorize the terrorists" is lukewarm compared to the calls for murdering homosexuals, apostates, idolaters and fornicators, beating insolent wives, casteism and misogyny found in the sacred pages of the world's mainstream religions.
However, the immense appeal of Zakir Naik's demagoguery, especially among articulate, seemingly educated folks who hail him as an intellectual, is a symptom of a far worse affliction – one that is not confined to the Muslim community alone. The real problem is that our education system is churning out millions of literate number crunchers, code writers and paper pushers, but lays little emphasis on critical thinking.
This proclivity for pseudoscience that makes people throng to charlatans isn't restricted to any particular religion or socioeconomic strata.
The irony of Zakir Naik dismissing evolution by saying "Homo sapiens went extinct 500,000 years ago" in an auditorium packed with Homo sapiens would be hilarious if it wasn't for the loud applause that followed his rant. Naik's arguments against evolution are embarrassingly archaic, and most of them outright lies. You can easily refute them by reading any one of the vast number of books written by modern day evolutionary biologists debunking Creationism (Dawkins and Coyne being the best of them). If only the good doctor had paid more attention at med school to the awry routing of the recurrent laryngeal nerve, or the backward pointing photoreceptors in the human eye, he would realize how blundering his "best creator" (sic) has been with his prized creation. His followers are a product of religious dogma that has very little tolerance for scepticism, and a State curriculum that is focused on glorifying alleged rapists in moral science text books, rather than inculcating a scientific temper (as Article 51A of the Indian Constitution implores).
This proclivity for pseudoscience that makes people throng to charlatans isn't restricted to any particular religion or socioeconomic strata of society. Virat Hindus who are mocking Naik's clips on "Islamic science" this week, were days earlier sharing "Vedic science" posts and ludicrous conspiracy videos of ancient Pushpak Vimana found in Afghanistan. Many gullible Christians flock to evangelical faith healers, and statues that miraculously drip water (which turn out to be bad plumbing). I know of a Parsi IIT-ian, who is a member of an ultra orthodox quasi-Zoroastrian cult called Ilm-e-Khshnoom, and talks like a cross between Deepak Chopra and Sri Sri. An engineering degree from one of the best technical institutes in the country couldn't protect him from falling prey to the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that the cult passes off as "ancient Zoroastrian science".
The best antidote to the likes of Naik is an education system that stresses on evidence-based beliefs, teaches the importance of the scientific method to validate claims, and instills a spirit of inquiry. That's the only way to free the masses from the clutches of Bronze Age ideologies and their flag-bearers.