Malaysia’s new government will not give in to calls to hand over an Indian Muslim preacher wanted by New Delhi for alleged extremist-related activities, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters Tuesday.
But Mahathir also declined to reveal what he had discussed with the controversial preacher, Zakir Naik, during a meeting last weekend that caused a sensation in the Indian and Malaysian press after the televangelist posted a photo of himself with the prime minister on his Facebook page.
“I cannot bow down to people’s pressure because we have to look into the matter in a holistic manner, and I am afraid that he will become a victim,” Mahathir told a news conference in Putrajaya, in response to a question from a BenarNews correspondent. The question focused on Mahathir’s meeting with Naik and the government’s decision last week not to agree to an Indian request to extradite the preacher.
“On the discussion, it is a secret,” Mahathir said.
Naik, 52, is sought by India for his TV sermons that allegedly espoused hatred and inspired militants to commit terrorist acts, including a massacre at a café in Bangladesh’s capital two years ago.
On Tuesday, the preacher defended himself in a statement. In it, he accused media outlets of smearing his name.
Naik denied that his sermons had helped spread hatred and terrorism. He also thanked Mahathir and the new government for allowing him to stay in Malaysia.
“Some sections of the media have attacked me for my supposed ‘incitement to terror,’ and it would be naive not to assume that this was done with a broader objective of demonizing Islam and Muslims,” the preacher said.
“Unable to find any evidence against me, they resorted to doctored video clips, out-of-context quotations and a host of dishonest schemes to accuse me of terrorism, hate speech and even money laundering.”
Naik said thousands of news articles, online videos and social media posts falsely attributed “appalling statements” that he said he had never made.
“To anybody who does not want Islam to be presented as a religion of peace, this is a quick and dirty way to discredit the faith. I implore anybody who comes across such material to verify it before jumping to conclusions,” Naik said.
During 25 years of lecturing on Islam and peace, Naik said he had never promoted terror in the name of his faith. While in Hindu-majority India, none of his sermons had angered non-Muslims, until a “group of religious fanatics sought to tarnish my image.”
Malaysia rejects Indian request
On July 6, Mahathir told another news conference that Malaysia would not deport Naik as long as he was not causing any trouble and because he was a permanent Malaysian resident.
Mahathir, who took power after leading the opposition bloc to an upset win in the May 9 general election, made the comment after a spokesman for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said Delhi had asked Kuala Lumpur to extradite the cleric.
“At this stage our request is under the active consideration of the Malaysian side,” spokesman Raveesh Kumar had told a weekly press briefing at the foreign ministry, in response to a question. “We had made a formal request for the extradition of Zakir Naik, who is an Indian national living in Malaysia, as per the extradition treaty we have with Malaysian side.”
Efforts by BenarNews to reach officials with the foreign ministry and the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads India’s ruling coalition were unsuccessful on Tuesday.
In the meantime, Rais Hussin, a strategist for Mahathir’s Bersatu party (PPBM), defended the prime minister’s decision not to extradite Naik to India.
He told Free Malaysia Today that he saw nothing wrong in the preacher’s sermons and activities.
Deporting Naik would be akin to deporting [Uyghur] Muslims to China, the news outlet quoted him as saying. He was referring to a request by the Chinese government to extradite 11 members of the Uyghur minority who had entered Malaysia illegally from Thailand in 2017.
Meanwhile, a leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a partner in Malaysia’s new ruling coalition, took issue with Mahathir’s refusal to send Naik back to India, saying Kuala Lumpur should honor its extradition treaty.
“With all due respect to the prime minister, I cannot fathom why he said we would be bowing to pressure if we let Naik go to India,” DAP politician P. Ramasamy said Tuesday, according to Free Malaysia Today (FMT).
“Why are we protecting a fugitive?” he added.
“Let him go back to India, be tried and defend himself in court and maybe come back to be a Malaysian citizen,” the Penang deputy chief minister told FMT.
In India, authorities have accused Naik of inspiring some of the militants who carried out an Islamic State-linked terrorist attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery café in Dhaka, where 29 people, including 20 hostages and the five gunmen, were killed on July1 and 2, 2016.
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, which have been seen by millions of viewers, are available on YouTube.
A year earlier, India banned his Mumbai-based NGO Islamic Research Foundation, which partly funded Peace TV. Indian intelligence officials also red-flagged the television channel for allegedly broadcasting anti-India programs deemed as “not conducive to the security environment in the country.”
Mohammad Amin Pirzada in Srinagar, India, contributed to this report.