Sample this: “I am an extremist. I am extremely honest, extremely just, extremely kind, extremely peaceful . . . You can’t be partially just. We have to be an extremist – BUT, in the right direction,“ Zakir Naik has said. Hellfire or unvarnished truth?
Naik is a bearded, skull cap-wearing, three-piece suited middle-aged man who has declared himself to be a jihadist, extremist, and fundamentalist, everything a regular Muslim flinches from being addressed as. But Naik does so and this is the, well, extremely crucial point -by manipulating the perceived meaning of the words.
The extent to which this philosophy has been or can be practiced by people is debatable but there has never been an instance where he contradicted his stance on this ‘extremism’ and has practiced what he preached to the best of our knowledge.
Not once have I, a person who has listened to almost all his lectures, ever found him provocative in the literal sense, nor seen him lose his peaceful demeanour, even during heated debates.
Naik has said, “Every Muslim should be a terrorist… For a criminal, every Muslim should be a terrorist. . . you should cause terror in the heart of anti-social elements.” This doesn’t mean he instigated people to take law into their hands, rather explained that “a Muslim should make a criminal feel the same terror when they SEE the police.”
He goes further, and says that he is a jihadist as well “because jihad in the literal sense means ‘to strive, to struggle’. Yes, I strive for the good and thus am a jihadist.” As is clear from the context, he tweaks the negative representation of words in the modern discourse and brings back it’s literal, innocuous meaning to combat blind assertions of opposing factions.
This is the strategy that the speaker uses which unfailingly captivated millions of listeners across the world. Unfortunately, the strategy backfired and across the nation people are pronouncing him a hatemonger and provocative speaker.
On the other hand, his debates unlike an aggressive Ahmed Deedat’s (of whom Naik is said to be a ‘clone’), attempts to find common ground for different religions. In fact, in various lectures in India, he had asked the masses to learn Sanskrit in its pure form so that they could rediscover their roots in Vedic scriptures.
Whether or not his explanations are logical and rational depends from person to person; feminists might find his opinions trash, theologians might dismiss his lectures as one-sided, even different sects within Islam might disregard his opinions -he never claimed to be the ultimate scholar and himself has asked his followers to rubbish his statements if they ever find it to be against the Holy Book. But one thing he cannot be accused of is that he ‘spews venom’ and ‘creates divisiveness amongst communities’. To frame him in the name of a few terrorists in Dhaka allegedly being inspired by his talks is illogical and irrational.
In Beyond Hybridity and Fundamentalism, an Oxford University Press publication by Tabassum Ruhi Khan, there is this reference to Zakir Naik: “At first I was baffled as to why would the Muslim youth, who profess to be avid viewers of MTV and who admire competitive and assertive Muslims like Sania Mirza, so value his counsel?…Therefore, to understand the tele-evangelist, I tuned into Peace TV…However, I found nothing in the channel’s offerings that was particularly threatening or revolutionary. To begin with, Dr. Zakir Naik did not address the very inflammatory subject of internal debate within Islam, and nor did he openly critique the dominant powers arrayed against Islam. He is muted in his critique of politics.”
The massive fan following of Naik rests on the sole fact that he has a to-the-point answer for every allegation of an Islamophobic minority which posits Islam as barbaric and uncivilized and an existential threat to anybody labelled Muslim. He uses the very same vocabulary of the accusers to refute their claims, or as he himself puts it, he “turns the tables over”, and produces substantial evidence from the scriptures to defy their propaganda of Islam being a religion of violence.
Thus, when his words are taken out of context, it sounds as hate speech; just as we would presume Mark Antony to be a conspirer in Caesar’s assassination if we took only the oft-repeated ‘Brutus is an honourable man’ quip from his speech.
(Article that appeared in Times of India, Kerala on July 16, 2016)