Malaysia has temporarily banned a controversial Indian-born Muslim preacher from delivering sermons, officials said Tuesday, amid complaints that his speeches carried racist comments about the multicultural nation that is sheltering him from prosecution in India.
Zakir Naik, 53, is the founder of the Dubai-based satellite television network Peace TV, which has more than 284,000 subscribers on YouTube. In 2016, Naik left India, where he faces money-laundering charges, and subsequently obtained permanent residency in Malaysia.
“Police have issued a directive to stop him from delivering a speech as this will allow us time to investigate the reports filed by several parties pertaining to the matter,” Inspector General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador told the state-run news agency Bernama, referring to Naik.
“My state police chiefs will advise those who plan to host Zakir [Naik] to scrap the plan,” he said.
Abdul Hamid gave his comments hours after a document containing the order was leaked on social media.
Asmawati Ahmad, head of the police’s corporate communications, said the order was issued to avoid any controversy and disharmony in Malaysia.
Muslim Malays, along with other indigenous people, make up 69 percent of Malaysia’s 33 million people, while ethnic Chinese comprise 23 percent and ethnic Indians, 7 percent, according to official figures.
“To avoid potential tension among multiracial Malaysians, all state police chiefs have been instructed to advise parties who wish to organize any programs involving Zakir Naik to abort the plan,” Asmawati said.
“All activities involving Zakir Naik at all states have been banned,” she said.
In November 2017, Indian officials said Naik faced charges of money laundering and inciting hatred through his sermons broadcast on Peace TV. India and Bangladesh have banned his channel but videos of his previous sermons are available on YouTube.
Indian authorities had accused Naik of inspiring some of the militants who carried out an Islamic State-linked terrorist attack at a café in Dhaka, where 29 people, including 20 hostages, were killed in July 2016.
The Malaysian government has in the past appeared reluctant to take moves against Naik, with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad saying that the preacher might end up being killed if Malaysia agreed to India’s request for extradition.
But on Sunday, Mahathir told reporters that Naik had crossed the line when he began talking about racial politics.
“It’s quite clear that he wants to participate in racial politics in Malaysia,” Mahathir said. “He was talking about sending the Chinese back to China, Indians back to India, that’s for me a political move.”
On Friday, Mahathir even suggested Malaysia could take away Naik’s permanent resident status “if he does something that is detrimental to the well-being of the nation,” reports said.
In an event sponsored by Muslim political party PAS in conservative Kelantan state, Naik said that Hindus in the Muslim-majority were more loyal to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi than to Mahathir, the Malaysian leader.
He continued by saying that if he must return to his home country of India, Malaysians of Chinese ethnicity, whom he called “old guests,” should also “go back” to where they came from.
After Naik’s remarks, police received 115 complaints, authorities said.
Police had questioned Naik twice over his speech in Kelantan, including on Monday when he was interrogated for 10 hours at the country’s Federal police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, officials told BenarNews.
Authorities said Naik was being investigated under Section 504 of the Penal Code for “insult with the intention to provoke a breach of the peace,” which carries a penalty of two years in prison or a fine or both.
It was not the first time that Naik’s statements had generated controversy.
In one online broadcast, Naik suggested in July 2008 that al Qaeda was not behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that killed almost 3,000 people in the United States. Instead, he claimed, the terror attacks were the result of an “inside job.”
After he was questioned by police on Monday, Naik issued a public apology and denied being a racist.
"Even though I have clarified myself, 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 towards me,” Naik said in a statement.
“It was never my intention to upset any individual or community,” he said. “That is against the basic tenets of Islam, and I would like to convey my heartfelt apologies for this misunderstanding.”