Controversial Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik is currently in the eye of the storm, with his speeches under scrutiny for allegedly inspiring militants behind the Dhaka café attack on July 1, and the central government looking into the sources funding his Islamic Research Foundation.

On Friday morning, addressing a crowded press conference via Skype in Mumbai, Naik claimed he had chosen not to return from Saudi Arabia to India for now because of the aggressive media trial against him. In the past week, several Muslim clerics in India have also put on record their opposition to Naik’s brand of Islam.

But in South Mumbai’s Mazgaon neighbourhood, where Naik runs the Islamic Research Foundation and the Islamic International School for children, the preacher has won the sympathies of both his supporters as well as those who are indifferent towards him.

A controversial figure

A medical doctor by training, 50-year-old Naik emerged as a popular Islamic preacher more than two decades ago through his television channel Peace TV. Even though Peace TV no longer has a broadcast license in India, it has an international following of more than 200 million. He is known as much for his English-speaking, suit and tie-wearing persona as his ability to quote a range of religious texts from memory.

Naik preaches a particular brand of conservative, Wahabi-Salafist Islam that has brought him recognition and awards from countries like Saudi Arabia, but has also mired him in several controversies. He has been repeatedly criticised for his regressive views on women and his controversial speeches on terrorism led to him being denied entry into the United Kingdom and Canada in 2010.

While Naik has claimed in his previous speeches that “every Muslim should be a terrorist to every anti-social element”, he has also condemned the killing innocent people. At his Skype press conference on Friday, he asserted that contrary to allegations, he has never supported or praised Osama bin Laden in any of his speeches. “If you find a video clip that shows me praising Osama bin Laden, be sure that it is doctored,” he said at the press conference. “I don’t know bin Laden and have done no research on him, so I neither call him saint nor a terrorist. I have said the same about [Malegaon blast-accused] Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, but the media portrays it as me as supporting them.”

‘The media pressure is too much’

It is these recent "media trials” – particularly on the television news channels – that have made Muslims in his Mumbai neighbourhood feel sympathetic towards him.

“Not everybody who lives in this area supports or follows Zakir Naik,” said Naashid Noor, a 19-year-old commerce student who grew up just a few lanes away from Naik’s Foundation. “If you ask boys my age, we don’t really care about him or pay much attention to his lectures.” But Noor is confident that the televangelist could not have influenced any terrorist activity. “We keep hearing of it on the news but he really could not have directly influenced any wrong-doing. But I understand why he doesn’t feel safe enough to come back here – the media pressure is too much.”

Mehboob Rahman, a newspaper vendor who has lived in Mazgaon for 25 years, feels sorry for Naik even though he has never heard his speeches. “English-speaking people understand what he says, but I have never heard anything negative about him all these years,” said Rahman. “It is possible that the terrorists in Bangladesh misunderstood what Naik was saying.”

Mazgaon Muslims who do watch Naik’s lectures and support him echo the same sentiment. “He has been misunderstood and is now being framed,” said Aslam Khan, an electrician contractor from Mazgaon. “I have been listening to him for years and I know he doesn’t support criminal activity. But our media carries out its own trial of people – news anchors don’t wait for any clarifications or for justice to take its course.”