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Politicizing the Zakir Naik Controversy: The Winners and the Losers
Saturday July 16, 2016 7:01 PM, Vahit Fahri Kutluer,

Zakir Naik

Zakir Naik
is a person who needs no introduction after the on-going controversy surrounding him in the period following the recent terrorist attack in Dhaka earlier this month. The allegations that one of the terrorists is Naik’s follower has put him at the centre of heated debates in all major television channels and newspapers in India and he is now well-known more than ever. This has been an immense opportunity for Zakir Naik to reach to those who have so far remained unfamiliar with the televangelist. In the past two weeks we have read tens or perhaps hundreds of articles in various media outlets about Naik, most of which portrayed the Indian Muslim community as a vastly heterogeneous group with diverging opinions regarding the support for the Ahl-e Hadith preacher Zakir Naik.

Diverging Opinions
Considering the political, ethno-religious as well as socio-economic diversity among Indian Muslims, the wide range of responses in the form of support for and opposition against Naik is completely understandable. Nevertheless, it is a helpful exercise to briefly list what has happened in the last two weeks contextually and to infer what this means for Zakir Naik and for the rest of Indian Muslims and non-Muslims.

After putting off his press conference (PC) three times, Zakir Naik finally spoke to his audience on Skype on Friday and tried to clarify the allegations against him. The venue had to be shifted from the posh areas of the city to a congested area, amid allegations that the city authorities asked the luxury hotels not to provide Naik with a venue for his speech. This was definitely a point minus for BJP, the ruling political party of India, in the eyes of common Muslims.

The tone of the Shiv Sena, the regional ally of BJP centred in the state of Maharashtra, has been even more aggressive compared to its ally and the party mouthpiece, Saamana, urged the BJP government to ‘show some guts’ and fight with ‘the enemy inside’ and ‘throw Naik into the same cell as Ajmal Kasab’, who was hanged in 2012 as one of the perpetrators of the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist attacks. A former VHP leader, Sandhvi Prachi, even went so far as to say that whoever beheads Naik would be rewarded Rs. 50 lakh.

Within the Muslim community, it was the Barelvis and the Shias that opposed Naik the most in the last two weeks. Naik’s views on propagating the Salafi ideology and disrespecting the Sufi values among the Barelvis have been the main reason for the verbal bashing, this is why, it did not take long for the Barelvi groups like Raza Academy to take a stand against Naik. Similarly Naik’s comments on Yazid, who martyred prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hussain ibn Ali, and his using the respect expression of ‘radhiallahu anhu’ for Yazid in 2007 made him a target among the Shia community. Naik has also failed to receive support from the elite Muslims of Mumbai and India, who generally distance themselves from the religious actors. Recently Javed Anand, a well-known elite Muslim of Mumbai and the general secretary of the Muslims for Secularism and Democracy (MSD) argued that Naik shall be prosecuted for promoting enmity between religious groups.

On the other hand, Zakir Naik enjoys the support of numerous Muslim groups from Kashmir to Kerala for various reasons. While it is no surprise that he is supported by the Salafi groups at the city and pan-Indian levels, Deobandi groups such as Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind and Jamaat-e-Islami Hind also expressed solidarity with Naik on the controversy but they have a completely different motive for the support. A good number of JUH and JIH followers argued that they do not agree with everything that Naik says and they are not happy with the way he disrespects other religions and Muslim groups. But they believe that it makes no sense to hold him responsible for what happened in Dhaka and this whole attack on him may come and hit them at some point if they do not object to this ‘witch-hunt’. Some even argued that this is a BJP plot to polarize the public for the 2017 elections.

And the winner is...
Maharashtra State Intelligence Department (SID) gave a clean chit to Zakir Naik last Tuesday stating that he will not be arrested upon his arrival in India and during his press talk on Friday Naik confirmed that he has not been approached by any government agency for investigation yet. It might be too early to declare the winner of this controversy but Zakir Naik seems to have benefitted the most by becoming much more publicly known as a ‘victim of media trial’ and he also consolidated his relations with the Deobandi masses.

Main political parties like Congress or BJP have preferred to stay out of the controversy due to political risks involved but the regional actors like Samajwadi Party (SP), All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslemeen (AIMM) and Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) haven’t missed the opportunity to gain more popularity by openly supporting Naik. Taking the institutional strength of the Deobandi community by his side, Zakir Naik seems to get the far-reaching support of the Deobandi electronic media domestically and outside India to spread the witch-hunt argument in a plausible way among the Muslims and thus he stands one step ahead of his opposers. This is bad news for the Times Now anchor Arnab Goswami, who is considered by the Muslims supporting Naik as the spearheading figure of the ‘witch-hunt campaign’. Naik with the support of various groups and regional actors may conclude this controversy ahead of the Hindutva brigade or those whoever support banning or prosecution of Naik as long as no strong evidence can be shown against him in the following days.

Sadly, this is a controversy that puts everyone in a lose-lose situation and we have no winners. There is more polarization around religion and both inter-faith and inter-community relations are weakening from an inter-community as well as an intra-community perspective. Once a local respondent from M.A. Road (Mumbai) used the expression ‘Noah’s Ark’ to describe me the diversity among Indian Muslims. The same as expression can well be used to underline that the diverse actors are all on the same ship and the ship needs to stay intact for everyone’s own good.

[The author is a PhD candidate at India Institute, King’s College London.]



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