Controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik, whose sermons allegedly influenced at least two militants who attacked a café in Bangladesh earlier this month, told reporters Friday that Indian agencies were targeting him unfairly in probes into his activities.
“I did not inspire any terrorists. Suicide bombings targeting innocent people are condemnable. My statements have been taken out of context. I am a messenger of peace,” Naik, 50, whose Peace TV channel was banned in Bangladesh in the wake of the July 1 Dhaka attack, told Indian journalists from Saudi Arabia during a press conference held via Skype on Friday.
He said his statements on terrorism and suicide bombings reported by the Indian media were “tampered and doctored.”
Naik said he had applied for permission from Indian authorities to air Peace TV through his Mumbai-based Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) in 2008, but the request was denied “possibly because the channel was Islamic.”
Although Peace TV does not have a license to air in India, it is widely broadcast in several parts of the country through private cable TV operators.
The doctor-turned-preacher, who mostly delivers his sermons clad in western suits and in English, said he was not planning to return to India this year, but added that he was willing to cooperate with any investigation if approached.
‘Not running away’
“I am not running away. As per my travel plans, I am supposed to come to India by next year, not before that,” Naik said.
Even though Naik said he had not been contacted by any Indian investigating agency, Mumbai-based intelligence sources told BenarNews that all angles related to the televangelist, including his speeches, were being probed.
In an apparent reference to Naik, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who belongs to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has said “preachers of hate and violence are threatening the fabric of our society.”
Last week, Information and Broadcasting Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu hinted at “appropriate action” against Naik, calling his speeches “highly objectionable.”
The home ministry is checking for possible violations that Naik’s IRF may have committed under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) while receiving foreign funds in India, the official said.
IS threat peaks
The heat on Naik is coming during a heightened sense of a threat from the Islamic State (IS) in India following the attack in the Bangladeshi capital, which killed 29 people, including an Indian hostage.
Until recently, New Delhi had denied that the Middle East-based terror outfit had any significant presence in India, but officials on Friday confirmed that the Dhaka attack had forced security agencies to make “certain procedural changes.”
“Naturally, security has been enhanced [after the Dhaka attack]. Several checks have been instituted along the Indo-Bangla border to prevent intruders into our cantonments and protect installations,” Wing Commander S.S. Birdi, spokesman for the defense ministry in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, which borders Bangladesh, told BenarNews.
Bangladesh to monitor sermons
In Bangladesh, authorities on Friday moved to regulate weekly sermons in mosques across the Muslim-majority country amid a stepped-up campaign to combat Islamist extremism.
The state-run Islamic Foundation has prepared and delivered a sermon to more than 300,000 mosques in the country. It invokes verses from the Quran to prevent Bangladeshis from joining the path of radicalism, foundation chief Shamim Mohammad Afzal told Agence France-Presse.
“It is not mandatory, but we hope imams will follow our sermon or take inspiration from it,” Afzal said, adding, “Our core message is [that] there is no place for terrorism in Islam. We want to make sure our children cannot be brainwashed to commit an act of terrorism.”
Suspected IS operatives held
Meanwhile in India, Indian security agencies have made at least two IS-linked arrests since the Dhaka attack.
The Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested a civil contractor, identified as Naser Yafai Chaus, 31, who hails from the Parbhani district of Maharashtra state, on Thursday.
While the department would not confirm the basis for Chaus was arrested, sources said he allegedly had contact with an IS handler in Syria.
On Tuesday, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) claimed to have arrested Naimathullah Hussaini alias Abu Darda from Hyderabad, alleging that he was involved in recruiting youngsters from the south Indian city for the IS.
More than 40 suspected IS operatives have been arrested in India since the formation of the terror outfit in 2014.
At least 23 Indians have left for Iraq and Syria to fight alongside the IS, which has called Hindu-majority India an enemy nation in its propaganda material, according to intelligence agencies.
However, the figure could be higher, analysts warned after reports emerged that 21 Muslims missing from different districts of south India’s Kerala state over the last month may have joined the IS.
IS ‘knocking at our door’
D.C. Pathak, former chief of India’s Intelligence Bureau, told BenarNews that the IS threat to India was real.
“They have come near our homes. They are knocking at our door,” Pathak said in reference to the recent Dhaka attack. “It is time to fend it with vigor.”
Moushumi Basu of the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the Indian government should acknowledge IS a threat.
“[The government] has to take stock of the situation. It has to chalk out a proper plan to prevent Indian youth from joining such radical outfits. It has to identify and focus on resolving the issues driving our youngsters to join jihad or other forms of extremism. Simply a backlash from a recent terror attack or a knee-jerk reaction won’t solve the problem,” she told BenarNews.