Until renowned Pakistani commentator Khaled Ahmed mentioned his name to me, I did not even know someone called Zakir Naik existed. Khaled was surprised that I didn’t, in this conversation I think sometime in 2009, at a track-2 type conference and said he was rising as a significant Islamic tele-evangelist not just in the subcontinent, but globally as much of his discourse was in English.
“Watch his Peace TV closely,” he said, “get to know this man, we will all hear a great deal more about him going ahead”. He said he was impressed by his skilled rhetoric and rationalisation of conservative dogma.
I did go, where everyone goes, to “Hazrat Google” (not my choice of the description but someone else’s who we will talk about in a bit) and started reading about Zakir Naik, and watching his recorded speeches. It wasn’t difficult to understand the point Khaled was making. The degree-holding allopathic doctor-turned-tele-evangelist had emerged as the subcontinent’s most significant, articulate and powerful spokesman for conservative Saudi-style Islam.
His language, easy smiling manner, prolific quotations chapter-and-verse from the Quran as well as Bhagwad Gita, Upanishads and the Bible, his inclination to take all questions at his congregations, even from Christians, Hindus and atheists set him apart from the Maulana stereotype. He wore a suit and tie, spoke measured sentences in fast-paced English and although his loose, relatively sparse beard and skull-cap marked him out as a devout Muslim, little else in his demeanour did. I reached his people through one of my colleagues and they welcomed the idea with some enthusiasm that he and I record an interview together. Which we did in March 2009.
Zakir Naik does not have an official or religious title. He objected, on camera, to being described as a Maulvi or a Maulana. To be described as a rock-star of tele-evangelism (whatever my views on any religious evangelists) he not only didn’t mind, but accepted most gleefully. There is a TV star quality to him. The conversation, by and large, was not confrontational. The tone was mostly friendly, he engaged and there wasn’t much left to argue with when he praised–and expressed his fullest faith in—the Indian constitution, judiciary (“all, including Muslims get justice, sooner or later,” he said). His view on Partition, by the way, was no different from that of the RSS: a tragedy for the subcontinent, as one nation, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh would have been “global power, from sport to economy”, he said.
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Most Muslims never needed or even asked for Partition, he said, and many who led the campaign for Pakistan were “not even practicing Muslims”. Of course, unlike the RSS, he viewed it more from the angle of Muslims’ interest and I know there is a background to conservative Muslims opposing Partition, led by Jamaat-e-Islami. But his position, in today’s discourse, will be quite welcome and may only annoy most Pakistanis.
Even on Kashmir (he referred to General K V Krishna Rao, as the governor, asking him to use his wide influence in the state to calm things down), his view was what most of those who hate and demonise him would generally accept. That Kashmiris were fed up of both India and Pakistan and in a free vote would prefer to be left alone. But since that was not an option, it was for India to improve education, employment and peace on its side and Kashmiris would be happy.
Subtle problems arose as we got to trickier issues. He would freely condemn 26/11 and even 9/11 as far as “the person who has destroyed the twin tower is 100 per cent wrong. He cannot be a practicing Muslim, he has to be condemned…(but not sure if it’s Osama bin Laden) because I keep on traveling, I get information from documentaries, 9/11, which says that it was an inside job, this 9/11 was an inside job done by George Bush himself…the evidence what I saw in that documentary is far superior to the evidence against Osama bin Laden”. His rising hold over the Muslim mind was acknowledged in his making it to the carefully chosen Indian Express annual power list in 2010.
His Osama kind of equivocation underlines what is wrong and dangerous with him. Besides the ancient stupidities he repeatedly supports like “Islamic” way of punishing your wife, with “light beatings as if with a toothbrush” or ruling that Muslim tombs as un-Islamic. His modern facade, quote-a-verse-every-three-sentences rhetoric represents a deep, conservative, scriptural view of Islam. And while his method looks non-threatening and amiable, he is dangerous in how he can play with genuinely inquisitive, innocent minds. I do not believe he would ever advocate violence against other people or the state, and definitely he will oppose ISIS as a “conspiracy against Islam” but an innocent, young Muslim mind could easily extrapolate his fundamentalist interpretations of Islam to justify the more extreme alternatives and methods. No surprise, therefore, if some of the Bangladeshi terrorists were his followers.
A question is often asked: why are so many new, young Muslim terrorists, particularly those of the ISIS, well-educated, English-speaking and from prosperous families. In short, why does the new Muslim terrorist defy the old poor, illiterate stereotype of Ajmal Kasab? The answer may lie in what Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi, who is another favourite hate-figure of the Hindu Right wing, once told me.
He took me for a drive around the inner city of Hyderabad which his family and its MIM (Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen) have ruled for decades. He took me to see the educational institutions he runs there. At his medical college, I was pleasantly taken aback to find a 70:30 girl-to-boy ratio in his MBBS class and happily posted some pictures on social media. It brought an avalanche of abuse with most complaining about the fact that all the girls wore hijab. Ask those abusing you, he said, if they’d rather that these girls go to a madrasa instead of a medical college.
And then he reflected: “may be, it will be better if young Muslims also went to the madrasa. A maulvi will tell them the meaning of Islam, its principles, even jehad.” It will be better, he said, than when young Muslims become engineers, doctors and MBAs, have no knowledge of their faith and are now curious. So where do you go, “but to Hazrat Google”. On Google, he said, when a young Muslim hits jehad on Google he is “most likely to see Mohammed Hafiz Saeed and his JuD at the top.” This, he said, is the biggest challenge for Islam today. Sure enough he sees ISIS as an abomination and has put up hoardings in the old city against it.
Ok, he is no Mr Congeniality, but you can also see his larger, and more profound point. How do you deal with this phenomenon where young, educated Muslim professionals go to Google and even modern television-evangelists to learn about their faith? Their minds are overwhelmed with propaganda and Zakir Naik’s kind of convincing story of Muslim victimhood. Then some self-styled secularists, including Congress leaders–not just Digvijaya Singh–stoke that victimhood by calling everything, from Ishrat Jahan encounter to Batla House a conspiracy against innocent Indian Muslims. If this is how complex it is in India, you can imagine the situation in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and this assault on the minds of nearly 500 million, or indeed about 40 per cent of the world’s Muslims.