Hardline preacher finds support in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR • When Dr Zakir Naik emerged from a prominent Malaysian mosque last month fans swarmed about him, seeking selfies with the Muslim televangelist from India whose hardline views have sparked a criminal investigation back in his home country.

Dr Naik was making a rare public appearance at the Putra Mosque in Malaysia's administrative capital, where the Prime Minister and his Cabinet members often pray.

Dr Naik, who has been banned in Britain, has been given permanent residency in Malaysia.

Critics see his presence in Malaysia as another sign of top-level support for hardline Islam in a country with substantial minorities of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, and which has long projected a moderate Islamic image.

Support for a more politicised Islam has grown in recent years under Prime Minister Najib Razak, especially after he lost the popular vote in the 2013 general election.

Since then, his ruling party has been trying to appease an increasingly conservative ethnic Malay-Muslim base ahead of elections the Prime Minister has to call by mid-2018.

Dr Naik, a 52-year-old medical doctor, has aroused controversy with his puritan brand of Islam - recommending the death penalty for homosexuals and those who abandon Islam as their faith, according to media reports.

A YouTube video shows him saying that if Osama bin Laden "is terrorising America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him".

Last week, India's counter-terrorism agency prepared charges against Dr Naik, saying he has been "promoting enmity and hatred between different religious groups in India through public speeches and lectures."

The Malaysian government accommodates Dr Naik because "he remains a reasonably popular character among Malays, who gloss over his more controversial aspects," said Mr Rashaad Ali, an analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

"If the government were to kick him out of the country, it causes them to lose religious credibility in the eyes of the public."

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told Parliament on Tuesday that Dr Naik was not being given "preferential treatment"and "there is no reason from a legal standpoint to detain or arrest him".

The government has not received any official request from India "related to terrorism allegations involving him", he added.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2017, with the headline 'Hardline preacher finds support in Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe