As globalisation knits the world together, it doesn't take long for even terrible ideas to shoot down the information superhighway. So it isn't really surprising to find a Mumbai connection to the July 1 Dhaka terror attack in which five militants killed 20 diners at an upscale restaurant. Shortly after, Dhaka’s Daily Star newspaper reported that one of the suspected terrorists quoted Mumbai resident and superstar Islamic evangelist Zakir Naik approvingly on his Facebook page last year.

This report by Daily Star set off a storm in the Indian media. Zee News did no less than four reports on the theologian on Wednesday, while Arnab Goswami spouted fire and brimstone on Times Now. Both channels very loudly called for a ban on Naik.

That wasn’t all. Reports indicate that the National Investigation Agency, the Union government’s anti-terror force, has already begun to go through Naik’s speeches to search for evidence of wrongdoing. The Times of India quoted an unidentified NIA official who claimed that the agency is trying to “make a case against him [Naik] that will stand in a court of law”.

Zakir Naik’s conservative ideology, Salafism and anti-rationalist approach make him a difficult person to like for most liberals. Yet, even in these circumstances, the clamour to gag him or prevent him from speaking shows just how illiberal mainstream Indian discourse actually is.

Poor record on free speech

Zakir’s Naik’s most controversial speech revolves around his defence of Osama bin Laden. “If he [Laden] is terrorising America the terrorist [then] I’m with him,” argues Naik. “Every Muslim should be a terrorist." This was the speech shared by Rohan Imitiaz, one of the Dhaka militants.

However, Naik has, on several occasions, denounced the Islamic State, to which the Dhaka terrorists swore allegiance. He has also denied that he ever made the pro-Laden statement, claiming the video in circulation is a doctored one. This seems to be unlikely, given that he’s defended Laden many times. But to use this as a reason to gag him doesn’t pass any minimum standard of free speech.

Unfortunately, India is a laggard when it comes to defending freedom of expression. Not only are works of literature and art continuously banned but colonial-era laws make the legality of speech contingent on amorphous concepts such as promoting enmity between communities and even blasphemy. Politicians have taken advantage of this. India’s founding fathers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, made sure to place “reasonable restrictions” on the constitutional right to freedom of expression and the current regime hasn’t shied away from banning books that counter their ideology.

Brandenburg vs. Ohio

In a society with more respect for free speech, however, any restrictions on Zakir Naik’s right to freedom of expression would be a far more difficult sell. The United States, whatever its other faults, is a rather good benchmark for free speech – a right guaranteed under its Constitution. In a landmark 1964 judgement, for example, the United States Supreme Court held that even the advocacy of violence was upheld under the right to free speech. Only speech that directly aims for and is likely to incite “imminent lawless action” can be proscribed by the government, ruled the court.

Under no circumstance do Naik’s statements in support of Laden (even assuming they are accurately depicted on video) pass this Brandenburg test. There was no direct incitement by Naik of the Dhaka terror attack and, of course, his statement and the murders were separated by a number of years, far outstripping any definition of “imminent” that the court had laid down.

Bias and misunderstanding

Part of the reaction in India is, of course, simply driven by anti-Muslim bigotry. The law is applied extremely selectively. For example, open incitement to violence by Shiv Sena leader Bal Thakeray during the 1992-'93 anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai was ignored – a tradition today carried on by Bharatiya Janata Party parliamentarian Yogi Adityanath.

There is also widespread confusion over just what freedom of speech means. In February 2016, a group of Jawaharlal Nehru University students opposed an invitation given to religious-speaker-turned-FMCG-magnate Baba Ramdev to speak on campus. Somewhat comically, many Indian commentators proceeded to treat this as a right to free speech issue. The right to free speech only guarantees that the state cannot penalise you for what you say. Speaking at a university, as should be quite obvious, is not a right (JNU would be in a bit of a pickle if even a fraction of India’s 1.3 billion people decided to exercise their “right” to speak on campus).

No one can demand that they be allowed to speak at JNU (or Harvard, to take a US example). Of course, if the NIA were, hypothetically speaking, considering a ban on Baba Ramdev’s channel, that could legitimately be a made a free speech issue. Ramdev has a right to say what he wants without government harassment – but it is also the listener’s right to choose to not listen to him.

Naik's (and Modi's) visa ban

To add to the confusion, many commentators it seems are unaware of the rights that Naik enjoys as an Indian citizen. Times Now, for example, asked rhetorically, “Given that Zakir Naik is banned in multiple countries, why should he be allowed to propagate his views in Indian soil?”

What Times Now means by using the word “ban” is that Zakir Naik has been refused a visa to countries such as the United Kingdom in the past. Of course, the UK granting an Indian a visa is a privilege. But, as an Indian citizen, freedom of expression is Zakir Naik’s right. The two are hardly comparable instances. Narendra Modi himself faced a ban, to use Times Now’s terminology, from the United States for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom – a situation overturned only after he became prime minister. To have argued then that Narendra Modi should have been banned from speaking in India itself just because he was refused a US visa is obviously absurd.

Illiberal iceberg

Curbing freedom of speech is only the tip of the iceberg in India. On Wednesday, Arnab Goswami bellowed out a list punishments that he thought fit for Naik. Apart from calls to ban his television channel, Goswami also wanted for Naik to be put under “severe interrogation”. “Let all agencies lose on this man,” spat Goswami and then called on the government to “take away his [Naik’s] Indian passport”.

In democracies, the media is supposed to be a watchdog working on the liberal dictum, “unless restrained, all governments devolve to tyranny”. But what happens when the media itself calls for governments to employ draconian measures against free speech? Not only will this harm India in the long run, it will also not help to fight against the religious conservatism that Naik represents.

Zakir’s Naik’s extreme Salafism is harmful to both Indian society as well as the Muslims who consume his TV lectures. However, the solution to religious conservatism and bigotry is never illiberalism. That would only end up making the problem worse. Battling Naik’s twisted ideas rather than gagging him is what will win hearts and minds and will truly result in the defeat of both Naik and his dogma.

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