[Reader-list] The Trouble with Dr. Zakir Naik

Pawan Durani pawan.durani at gmail.com
Tue Jun 22 13:48:48 IST 2010

Source : http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704365204575317833268479268.html?mod=WSJINDIA_hps_sections_opinion

"Britain's decision to bar an influential Muslim cleric from entering
the country underscores the failure of Indian secularism."


If you're looking for a snapshot of India's hapless response to
radical Islam, then look no further than Bombay-based cleric Dr. Zakir
Naik. In India, the 44-year-old Dr. Naik—a medical doctor by training
and a televangelist by vocation—is a widely respected figure, feted by
newspapers and gushed over by television anchors. The British,
however, want no part of him. On Friday, the newly elected
Conservative-led government announced that it would not allow Dr. Naik
to enter Britain to deliver a series of lectures. According to Home
Secretary Theresa May, the televangelist has made "numerous comments"
that are evidence of his "unacceptable behavior."

The good doctor's views run the gamut from nutty to vile, so it's hard
to pinpoint which of them has landed him in trouble. For instance,
though Dr. Naik has condemned terrorism, at times he also appears to
condone it. "If he [Osama bin Laden] is fighting the enemies of Islam,
I am for him," he said in a widely watched 2007 YouTube diatribe. "If
he is terrorizing the terrorists, if he is terrorizing America the
terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him. Every Muslim should
be a terrorist."

Dr. Naik recommends the death penalty for homosexuals and for apostasy
from the faith, which he likens to wartime treason. He calls for India
to be ruled by the medieval tenets of Shariah law. He supports a ban
on the construction of non-Muslim places of worship in Muslim lands
and the Taliban's bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas. He says revealing
clothes make Western women "more susceptible to rape." Not
surprisingly, Dr. Naik believes that Jews "control America" and are
the "strongest in enmity to Muslims."

Of course, every faith has its share of cranks; and, arguably, India
has more than its share. But it's impossible to relegate Dr. Naik to
Indian Islam's fringe. Earlier this year, the Indian Express listed
him as the country's 89th most powerful person, ahead of Nobel
Laureate economist Amartya Sen, eminent lawyer and former attorney
general Soli Sorabjee, and former Indian Premier League cricket
commissioner Lalit Modi. Dr. Naik's satellite TV channel, Peace TV,
claims a global viewership of up to 50 million people in 125
countries. On YouTube, a search for Dr. Naik turns up more than 36,000

Nobody accuses Dr. Naik of direct involvement in terrorism, but those
reportedly drawn to his message include Najibullah Zazi, the
Afghan-American arrested last year for planning suicide attacks on the
New York subway; Rahil Sheikh, accused of involvement in a series of
train bombings in Bombay in 2006; and Kafeel Ahmed, the Bangalore man
fatally injured in a failed suicide attack on Glasgow airport in 2007.

Nonetheless, when the doctor appears on a mainstream Indian news
channel, his interviewers tend to be deferential. Senior journalist
and presenter Shekhar Gupta breathlessly introduced his guest last
year as a "rock star of televangelism" who teaches "modern Islam" and
"his own interpretation of all the faiths around the world." A handful
of journalists—among them Praveen Swami of the Hindu, and the grand
old man of Indian letters, Khushwant Singh—have questioned Dr. Naik's
views, but most take his carefully crafted image of moderation at face

At first glance, it's easy to understand why. Unlike the foaming
mullah of caricature, Dr. Naik eschews traditional clothing for a suit
and tie. His background as a doctor and his often gentle demeanor set
him apart, as does his preaching in English. Unlike traditional
clerics, Dr. Naik quotes freely from non-Muslim scripture, including
the Bible and the Vedas. (You have to pay attention to realize that
invariably this is either to disparage other faiths, or to interpret
them in line with his version of Islam.) The depth of Dr. Naik's
learning is easily apparent.

But this doesn't fully explain Dr. Naik's escape from criticism. It
helps that Indians appear to have trouble distinguishing between free
speech and hate speech. In a Western democracy, demanding the murder
of homosexuals and the second-class treatment of non-Muslims would
likely attract public censure or a law suit. In India, it goes
unchallenged as long as it has a religious imprimatur. However, create
a book or a painting that ruffles religious sentiment, as the writer
Taslima Nasreen and the painter M. F. Husain both discovered, and
either the government or a mob of pious vigilantes will strive to
muzzle you.

In general, India accords extra deference to allegedly holy men of all
stripes unlike, say, France, which strives to keep religion out of the
public square. Taxpayers subsidize the Haj pilgrimage for pious
Muslims and a similar, albeit much less expensive, journey for Hindus
to a sacred lake in Tibet. This reflexive deference effectively grants
the likes of Dr. Naik—along with all manner of Hindu and Christian
charlatans—protection against the kind of robust scrutiny he would
face in most other democracies.

Finally, unlike Hindu bigots, such as the World Hindu Council's
Praveen Togadia, whose fiercest critics tend to be fellow Hindus,
radical Muslims go largely unchallenged. The vast majority of Indian
Muslims remain moderate, but their leaders are often fundamentalists
and the community has done a poor job of policing its own ranks.
Moreover, most of India's purportedly secular intelligentsia remains
loath to criticize Islam, even in its most radical form, lest this be
interpreted as sympathy for Hindu nationalism.

Unless this changes, unless Indians find the ability to criticize a
radical Islamic preacher such as Dr. Naik as robustly as they would
his Hindu equivalent, the idea of Indian secularism will remain deeply

Mr. Dhume, a columnist for WSJ.com, is writing a book on the new
Indian middle class.

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