Indian protesters demonstrate against Islamic preacher Zakir Naik in New Delhi on July 18, 2016. He was accused of supporting jihadist attacks and inciting militants who killed 20 hostages at a Bangladeshi cafe. (Photo by Sajjad Hussain/AFP)
Zakir Naik, an Indian Islamic scholar who lives in Malaysia, has been banned from giving talks in the multiethnic Muslim-majority nation after inciting racial unease.
Malaysia's Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador said on Aug. 20 that the ban was issued to keep the peace and it included Zakir making statements on social media, national news agency Bernama reported.
“It is clear that we don’t want these religious lectures, forums to include political issues. It is inappropriate for religious lectures to include political issues, whether local or international,” he said.
“All state police chiefs are responsible to advise any parties having plans to invite Zakir to give public lectures not to do so.
“A directive has been issued by police whereby Zakir is prohibited from making any further speeches after the episode in Kelantan recently, which is aimed at giving us time to complete investigations relating to reports lodged on that episode.”
The police chief said the Indian preacher's recent lecture in the northern Malaysian state ruled by the PAS-led Islamist government had caused public uneasiness and confusion.
“We will get the facts on what actually transpired,” he said, adding that it was “a fair directive to keep a calm situation, it is temporary, and if things are still messy, the directive will stay.”
Seven of Malaysia’s 13 states had earlier banned Zakir, 53, from delivering sermons.
The preacher has repeatedly provoked criticism for his remarks about Malaysia's non-Muslim minorities, especially ethnic Chinese and Hindu citizens, and the ban comes after he made comments questioning their loyalty to the country.
He was reported to have said Hindus in Malaysia enjoyed “100 times more rights” than Muslims in India, supported India's Hindu-centric Narendra Modi government and were disloyal to their own.
After his comments sparked calls for his deportation, the preacher doubled down on his criticism of Malaysia's non-Muslim minorities by suggesting that ethnic Chinese Malaysian citizens should leave the country first as they were “old guests” of the country.
More than 100 police reports were made against Zakir and he was called in for questioning "for intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of the peace."
The preacher claims his comments were taken out of context.
Threat to racial harmony
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had previously defended the controversial televangelist, joined his critics last week by saying that Zakir's residency status could be revoked if it was proven that his actions were a threat to racial harmony in the Southeast Asian nation.
Mahathir also noted that Zakir, as a permanent resident, was not allowed to engage in politics but said his government would wait for the police to complete their investigation before deciding on his status.
Attempting to calm the situation, Zakir issued a public apology on Aug. 20.
"I feel I owe an apology to everyone who feels hurt because of this misunderstanding. I do not want any of you to harbor ill feelings toward me. It was never my intention to upset any individual or community,” he said.
"It is against the basic tenets of Islam, and I would like to convey my heartfelt apologies for this misunderstanding."
Zakir denied he was a racist and said his remarks were "used selectively with fabrications added to them."
"I have always been a man of peace because that's what the Quran stands for. It has been my mission to spread peace throughout the world," he said while blaming his detractors for his predicament.
He recently filed police reports against his critics, including ministers and MPs, and has demanded that they apologize for defamatory statements and pay him compensation.
PM Mahathir and many Malay officials in his government have previously been cautious about moving against Zakir for fear it would cost them politically given that the preacher is hugely popular among conservative Muslims.
Zakir was granted permanent residency in 2012 when disgraced ex-prime minister Najib Razak — now on trial over corruption charges — was still in power.
The preacher's arrival in Malaysia coincided with Najib's bid to attract more conservative parts of the country’s Malay-Muslim base in order to stem waning popularity and possible electoral defeat by the multiracial alliance now in power.
Zakir, a doctor, once said that if Osama bin Laden “is terrorizing America — the terrorist, the biggest terrorist — I am with him.”
His Dubai-based television channel, Peace TV, broadcasts a show called “Strengthening Your Family — The Valley of the Homosexuals” in which gay people are reportedly described as “worse than animals” and more “corrupted and contaminated than pigs.”
The channel is banned in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and Britain’s telecoms regulator Ofcom is also considering a ban.
The preacher is barred from entering Britain, Canada and Singapore and is a fugitive from India, where he is wanted for alleged money laundering and inciting extremism.