Why Empower a Demagogue Like Zakir Naik?

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Former ambassador Dennis Ignatius on the controversial preacher’s growing influence over the nation.

Whatever else you may say about Zakir Naik, and I have said much about him, one thing is certain: he’s one of the most astute and manipulative operators that this nation has ever seen. He understands – better than most of the political and religious leaders that now mollycoddle him – that in an essentially feudal nation like ours, the man who captures the religious imagination of the people will be the one who rules them.

After his meeting with Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad last year and the glowing endorsement he received from the minister in charge of Islamic affairs, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, his support and popularity across the nation has grown exponentially. Even though he speaks in English to a largely Malay-speaking crowd, thousands upon thousands turn up to listen to him wherever he goes.

In Kelantan, over 100,000 people turned up to listen to him, making it one of the most spectacular religious gatherings ever held in Malaysia. Not even Mahathir – as respected as he is – has come close to evoking such passion. It is a testimony to the power and influence Naik has amassed in the short time he has been here.

What does it say about Malaysia though that nowhere, not even in Saudi Arabia, has he been treated with such adulation and adoration, with everyone from the prime minister downwards eager to shake his hand? In Kelantan, he rode in an open car, replete with flashing lights and police outriders, waving to adoring followers desperate to catch a glimpse of the great man. It was quite an extraordinary sight!

Naik’s supporters are now planning yet more high-profile mega rallies for him across the country. At this rate, he will become the nation’s most influential figure and his pronouncements will carry fatwa-like significance. PAS itself will soon have to defer to him because he has proven himself infinitely more popular than all the PAS leaders put together.

And his influence over the nation itself is set to grow yet further as he takes to the air on local TV stations like Hijrah TV and tours our public universities to spread his Salafist message and promote himself as the country’s foremost Islamic thinker and preacher.

Worryingly, as his influence grows, he has taken to involving himself in our domestic affairs as well. In Kelantan last week, he lauded Kelantan for being the most Islamic state in the country. Was this an endorsement of the PAS leadership and a not so subtle hint that the rest of the country is not Islamic enough for his liking? Will he soon join PAS in agitating for Sharia law to be made the law of the land? With a man like Zakir Naik, we should take absolutely nothing for granted.

While PAS leaders were, no doubt, pleased, PH will have cause for worry.

Apart from taunting Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, he accused local Hindus of being more loyal to Modi than to Mahathir although Hindus in Malaysia, he said, are better treated than Muslims in India.

Malaysian Hindus are bound to be further enraged and further disappointed with PH for allowing him to continue belittling them and their religion. Naik is doing PH a great disservice but they are too enamoured of him to notice.

PH had promised to ensure that Naik would not use his religious platform to stir up racial and religious discord, but apparently, he has now become too powerful to rein in.

In any case, who is Naik – an Indian citizen who has been nothing but disloyal and disdainful of his own country – to question the loyalty of any Malaysian? But that’s what he thrives on – stirring up division and provoking religious and ethnic discord. He’s been doing it for years and he’s been allowed to get away with it.

Our politicians think they can use him for their political purposes; they’ll discover soon enough that he will use them to further his own ambitions. And make no mistake, he is an ambitious man who has finally found a nation gullible enough to embrace him and welcome him as a great leader and Islamic thinker. Perhaps the people have become so disillusioned with their own leaders that they are now willing to look to a foreigner, a fugitive from justice no less, for leadership.

And if that’s not enough, just wait till the next election comes around. His political and religious endorsement will surely be worth its weight in gold. Malay politicians will find themselves falling over each other to seek his endorsement and support.

The last time around, he endorsed Umno-PAS with the asinine assertion that Muslims are obliged to support “Islamic” leaders even though they might be corrupt. It backfired on him, of course, but he had only to run and kiss Mahathir’s hand to get back into favour. This time around, he’ll certainly be more careful; he’ll endorse them all for so long as they kiss his hand. And he’ll be assured of his place no matter who forms the next government.

When are our politicians going to realise that they are empowering a dangerous and incendiary demagogue who is destabilising our country and destroying what remains of our fragile unity? – FMT

The views expressed are those of the author.