What I think of Zakir Naik

By Wong Jae Senn

Let’s start with what he was alleged to have said that triggered a deluge of anger:

1. Indians in Malaysia are more loyal to PM Modi than they are to this country

2. Chinese, the “old guests”, should be sent back to China

Now, let’s see what he actually said:

“..so much so that they support the prime minister of India but not the prime minister of Malaysia, mashallah. The prime minister of India wants me. The prime minister of Malaysia does not want injustice to be done to me. The Hindu Malaysians are, most of them supporting the prime minister of India.”

Okay, so here we see the context. He meant “supporting the prime minister of India” as in, they want Zakir Naik to be deported back to India, to be arrested and jailed. He meant that the Hindu Malaysians do not agree with Tun Mahathir in wanting to keep Zakir Naik in Malaysia, away from certain persecution that he would face in India.

So, it turns out, what he said had nothing to do with loyalty to any head of government.

Let’s continue to what was actually said regarding the second statement:

“..and later on, more there were people coming, afterwards, Malaysia. They became fully Muslims. Then you had the Chinese coming, the Indians coming and the Britishers (sic) coming. They’re our new guests. You know, somebody called me a guest. So I said before me, the Chinese are the guests. They aren’t born here. If you want the new guests to go, first ask the old guests to go back. The Chinese, never born here, most of them, but maybe the new generation, yes.

If you want the guests to go back, and those guests which are bringing peace in the community, they are benefits for the family.. which sword? (Referring back to an earlier part of his speech)”

Okay, let us unpack this. When he first mentioned about the Chinese being guests, it was in the context of the British colonial period. You can see his statement as either inaccurate, or a convoluted way of saying it, but basically what he said is that most of the Chinese in Malaysia, at that time, during the British era, were not born here. But the newer generation today are. You can see that he was a bit uncertain about his own understanding of our colonial era and immigration history. So, yes, he should have been a bit more careful with this part of his speech.

In the parts where the controversial “go back” statement came from, “if you want the new guests to go, first ask the old guests to go back”, this is a bit out of line although we can see that the context is that the new guests should be welcomed as much as the old guests. And we can see again, in his next sentence, the context is basically “Do you want to chase away your new guests, such as those who are beneficial to society?”. So when taken as a whole, it seems to be a not-so-articulate way of saying “New guests should be just as welcomed as the old guests, especially those who are beneficial to the country/society”.

Zakir Naik made a name for himself as a very combative and aggressive comparative religion debater. I’m not surprised that at times, his sentences end up being unpolished, and his actual meaning doesn’t get delivered effectively. Some will say that he spread hatred, some will say that he belittles other religions, some will say that he supports terrorism. To be fair, these are all just subjective points of view. Many people (mostly Muslims) view him as a great scholar, while many others (unsurprisingly, mostly non-Muslims) view him as a divisive hate-monger. Without a doubt, Zakir Naik is a polarizing figure, mainly because of the trade-in which he plies – comparative religion debates and preaching. When you compare him with similar people of other faiths, such as similarly-combative Hindu and Christian apologetics and debaters, you will find that these people of different religions are, just like Zakir Naik, very polarizing as well.

I have not watched all of Zakir Naik’s videos on YouTube, but I’ve watched some. It’s easy to understand why he draws such scorn. He is aggressive and most of all, highly confident, when he engages others in debates. He is confident even when he is mistaken. Does he belittle others? Well, when it comes to religious debates where you end up questioning others’ beliefs, how does that not come across as belittling others? So, again, this is a highly subjective point, but I can see how that impression can arise. Does he make mistakes? Yes, of course, he does. No normal human being has absolutely photographic memory that never errs. And not everyone who has a broad spectrum of information and knowledge is able to recall and correlate all of them without any mistakes. Even Ustaz Auni Mohamad, whose videos I find very entertaining and informative, makes some mistakes from time to time (mainly just spelling mistakes or slightly wrong names) despite his incredible ability to recall information.

Speak of Auni Mohamad, he became well-known for his analogy of Ultraman and Syiah theology. That was a creative analogy that made his points easier to remember and understand. But what happened? People ridiculed him and said that he claimed Ultraman was Syiah, when his actual lecture made absolutely no such claims. Auni Mohamad was an unfortunate victim of his words being taken out of context, and his analogies and anecdotes being taken as literal accounts. But, unlike Zakir Naik, Auni Mohamad is not an aggressive and combative chap, and to my knowledge, he’s not a debater and he hasn’t offended anyone. Therefore there’s no angry mob constantly watching every word he says, waiting for the chance to pounce upon a few words or sentences that can be seen as offensive. Zakir Naik, unfortunately, does not have this luxury, and he’s a big easy target for others to pounce upon.

Here’s something about Zakir Naik’s presence in Malaysia. When was the last time Malaysia had open inter-religion debates? I don’t recall if we’ve ever had. When was the last time Malaysia ever had any no-holds-barred inter-religion debates, then? Never. But, it’s this type of no-holds-barred religious talks and inter-religion debates that Zakir Naik excels in. He has carved a reputation for himself in this no-holds-barred arena. I believe it’s this reputation of his that has made many Malaysians extremely uncomfortable with his presence in this country, because to us, aggressive debates about religion is a no-go zone. So, even before he made these statements that made the headlines, knives were already out for him. Many people were already expecting him to be trouble even before he’s made any public speeches. In the various Zakir Naik videos that I’ve watched, I’ve never seen him advocating violence even once. I’ve never heard him running down other races because his goal is to bring people of all races to Islam. He seems to believe strongly in the universality of Islam and how it should reach all races. So, from my current observation, I don’t see his link with radicalism and terrorism just yet. I don’t think an aggressive debating style qualifies as radicalism.

(On a related note – I don’t speak for everyone and my point of view is definitely not representative of everyones. We all have different thresholds for offence and outrage.)

Another thing about his presence in Malaysia. Zakir Naik is famous for being an Islamic proselytizer. How often do we run into Muslim proselytizers in Malaysia? When was the last time you saw Muslims in street corners handing out leaflets and inviting non-Muslims to the mosque, or inviting non-Muslims to a khutbah? Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses have had the freedom to proselytize (to non-Muslims) for as long as I remember and yet, for a Muslim-majority country, we hardly see any Muslim proselytizing in our streets and neighbourhoods, or on our mass media. The exception would be the Syiah proselytizers who were openly handing out leaflets about Syiah Islam at Bukit Bintang last year. Against this backdrop, Zakir Naik being here is a sudden disruptive force. Here’s one of the most famous Islamic proselytizers in the world, and he will be having public talks in a way that has never been seen in this country. Consequently, many people started to have a sense of unease because this isn’t something that we’re used to seeing.

He is controversial. He is disruptive. He is polarizing. But he is also knowledgeable about his religion. He is also motivating and inspiring to many. Some people love him, some people hate him, and we can’t change the way things are. This is why freedom of speech is important. Although Zakir Naik might offend some people, although he might say the wrong things, I believe that he should just have his mistakes and errors pointed out and corrected. Just because we don’t like or don’t agree with what he says, that doesn’t necessarily make what comes out of his mouth “hate speech”.

As controversial as what he says maybe, I support freedom of speech for Zakir Naik.

Banning him from public speaking is an unnecessary move. That’s just nothing but censorship. Censorship kills ideas. It kills debates. It kills the exchange and flow of information. More seriously, it prevents the correction of erroneous beliefs and wrong data. Censorship and the taking away of someone’s right to speak in public will not solve any issue that has arisen from Zakir Naik’s speech. Instead, it might cause the growth of negative ideas that spawn from resentment among those who support Zakir Naik. There’s also the futility of it. You may ban him from speaking publicly, and yet thousands of his similar speeches are immortalized on the Internet, accessible round the clock, delivering the same messages. It would be far better to allow Zakir Naik to continue public speaking, but sharing the stage with others, so that there’s an exchange of ideas and his exuberance will not go out of hand.

Threats of sending him back to India are also unwise. We know that he will face persecution if he’s ever deported back to India. It’s the same as sending him to certain death. We can already see the Indian news media having a field day running him down over his gaffes in Malaysia. I’m pretty sure groups like the RSS and Shiv Sena would like to have his head on a pike. Zakir Naik has already apologized for the misunderstanding that he had caused. He’s already been reminded not to say anything about our politics and race relations. He should be given a second chance and allowed to be a productive PR, doing what he does best as an Islamic preacher.

There will be things that he says that will not sit well with some people. There will be thoughts and ideas that he puts forth that some will find aggressive and offensive. But, these same words, thoughts and ideas will also be of value to others who have a different point of view. If there’s an outraged minority but a pleased majority, do we put the minorities first at the expense of the majority? Or, if it’s the majority that is outraged and there’s a supportive minority, does it mean the majority opinion should silence the minority opinion? To avoid such sticky questions, this is why I believe that there should be no censorship and no curtailing of free speech, regardless of how we feel about it. As long as it’s not a unanimous outrage over definite hate speech, it is unwise to revoke a person’s right to speak.

If he says some incorrect things about our social and political situation, or if he clearly incites violence in his speech, then our law enforcement agencies can take action against him. Until then, I think we should let him go and allow him to speak freely.

At some point in my life, there will definitely be a moment in which I will accidentally offend others with some inaccurate or inflammatory statement. At such a time, I would definitely like to be able to apologize and be given a second chance and be more mindful of my words. Because I would like to be given such an opportunity if I’ve ever committed such a mistake, I feel it’s appropriate for me to extend this courtesy to Zakir Naik as well, although I’m neither his supporter nor detractor.

If we don’t support others’ right to speak and right to harbour a different opinion, that would mean we ourselves do not deserve such right to speak and right to different (and conflicting) opinions. Supporting free speech does not mean supporting only what we like to hear.

Whether it’s a popular or unpopular opinion, my take is that Zakir Naik should have his freedoms, he should be given a second chance, and he should not be barred from public speaking. If he squanders this second chance, then the authorities may take action.

Wong Jae Sen is a BENAR political analyst
The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of New Malaysia Herald.

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