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Why a Saudi award for televangelist Zakir Naik is bad news for India’s Muslims

Zakir Naik’s popularity amongst India’s middle-class Muslims points to a debilitating Salafi conservatism taking root.

Of the thousands of videos featuring superstar Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, a particularly interesting one is where he talks about another superstar, Shah Rukh Khan. On a set which looks like a cross between that off a late-night talk show and a 1980s discotheque, Naik speaks rather admiringly of his fellow Mumbaikar. But, a questioner asks him, isn’t Khan a non-believer? Naik, benignly says he doesn’t know: you see, he doesn’t go by hearsay; however, Khan’s views, he maintains, are more in consonance with the “true” teachings of Islam than many so-called believers.

To hold up Shah Rukh Khan – who openly claims he does not read the namaaz five times a day, has married a non-Muslim and entertains people on screen for a living – as a model Muslim, seems a rather liberal thing to do. Another video shows Naik warn against using public disorder and killing of innocents to protest blasphemy. “Is there death in Islam for apostasy?” asks another person from the Maldives (Naik’s reach is truly global). “No,” answers Naik, even if you can see him getting a bit flustered. Naik’s views on triple talaaq are more liberal than the Indian state’s: he discourages it. Naik encourages inter-faith dialogue: he frequently quotes from non-Islamic scripture and debates with evangelists from other faiths.

Cracks begin to show

It is easy to get mesmerised by Naik and his elephantine memory – he quotes from religious texts almost at will. He’s preaching not in a kurta-pajaama but a suit and uses machine gun English, not Urdu. It’s all very impressive, frankly and he puts on quite a show. But then showmanship is part of the core skill-set of a televangelist. Peer closer and you'll begin to see the cracks.

Yes, blasphemy doesn’t warrant public disorder but Naik is quite clear that in an Islamic state, the “blasphemer” needs to be punished as per the Sharia. There is no death penalty for apostates in Islam, Naik claims, until, the apostate starts to preach his new religion: then he can be put to death. Shah Rukh Khan might be a good chap, but it is quite clear that his singing and dancing, Naik pronounces, is “haraam”. And almost every non-Islamic religious scripture he quotes is either to disprove it or prove it to be in consonance with his view of what Islam says in the first place. In fact, in an Islamic state run as per Naik’s rules, the preaching of any religion other than Islam will be banned. And he doesn’t leave Muslims alone either, taking great care to disparage Shia and Ahmadi beliefs.

More gems: Americans swap wives at will because they eat pigs which also swap their wives (Naik, I presume, only eats animals who’ve been faithful to their partners). Islam allows a man to marry multiple women because "in the USA, there are more women than men". He was factually wrong here because the US has a sex ratio of more than 1; however, what was maybe most confounding was why he chose the US as Islam’s ideal testing ground, especially since, he claims, it’s the Jews who control it.

A pukka Salafi conservative

His views on Osama bin Laden are worth quoting: "If Osama bin Laden is terrorizing the enemies of Islam, I am with him. If he is terrorizing America, the biggest terrorist, then I am with him.”

The attacks of 9/11, Naik says, were executed by George Bush and was such a hatchet job that “even a fool would know this”. This view caused his visa to the UK and, later, Canada to be rejected. Muslim women should be covered with an all-enveloping burqa: only their face and wrists should be seen. This is Naik’s solution to sexual assault.

The list goes on and on, but it’s quite clear that beneath that ill-fitting suit, beats the heart of a pukka Salafi conservative. Not surprisingly, the Salafi mothership, Saudi Arabia recently acknowledged Naik’s “services to Islam”, awarding him with the King Faisal International Prize.

This prize to Naik should ring the alarm bells as to how deep Salafism has spread its roots. Zakir Naik is not a preacher from South Punjab in Pakistan or an Afghan who grew up under the Taliban or even a Saudi citizen. He’s from Mumbai. Not only geography but his socioeconomic background serves to surprise: he’s a qualified doctor. Yet, he is the world’s leading Salafi evangelist.

Popularity amongst English-speaking Muslims

Not only that, Naik enjoys massive popularity amongst India’s English-speaking Muslims. Having left the Urdu-chhaap (Urdu speaking) mullah, railing against the evils of not keeping a beard, behind, the middle-class Muslim switches on his television set and allows Naik’s Salafism to stream into his living room.

It is one of the conundrums of the modern age: prosperity and education have not led automatically to liberalism. On the other hand, using the tools modernity has provided it, religion, in its most conservative form, has redoubled its efforts to take control of hearts and minds. Naik uses his television channel, Peace TV, to reach a massive 100 million viewers. His language, English, gives him access to people across India and indeed the planet: people from Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan and, of course, the Maldives can all tune into his Salafism.

This phenomenon is, of course, not limited to Islam. Hindutva’s core support base is amongst the educated middle classes and evangelical Christianity originates from the world’s only superpower. Modernity, rather than ending the worst forms of religious conservatism, has become a megaphone for it. The Zakir Naik brand of “modern” conservatism strikes a particularly harsh blow to Indian Muslims, who have anyway been the victims of their own inwardness for close to 150 years now.

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