He supports Osama bin Laden’s “terrorizing America.” He recommends capital punishment for homosexuals and wants the death penalty for those who abandon Islam as their faith.
Zakir Naik, an Islamic preacher from India, has long courted controversy. He is wanted in his home country for money laundering and spreading hate speech, and he has been accused of fueling the worst terrorist attack ever to hit neighboring Bangladesh.
Now in Malaysia, where he was given sanctuary after being declared persona non grata in Britain, Canada and several other countries, Naik is at the center of a storm after he made disparaging remarks about minority non-Muslims in the multi-racial country.
The bearded medical-doctor-turned-TV-preacher is popular among Muslims in Malaysia, where he has been given permanent residence status.
In his latest gathering, where he attracted as many as 100,000 people, according to news reports, the firebrand cleric questioned the loyalty of minority Hindus and likened ethnic Chinese to mere “guests” in Malaysia.
Police have banned Naik for making any speeches and questioned him twice, in one instance for up to 10 hours, on charges of “making an intentional insult aimed at provoking a breach of the peace,” after receiving 115 complaints against him.
Several non-Muslim ministers in Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s cabinet have called for Naik’s expulsion after the preacher compared minority Hindus in Malaysia to minority Muslims in India, saying that the Hindus in Malaysia enjoyed “100 times” more rights than Muslims in India.
Naik then alleged that Hindus in Malaysia were more loyal to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi than to Mahathir, whom he praised for stoutly defending Islam.
He also said that if ethnic Chinese in Malaysia wanted him ejected from the country, they should be expelled too because they, like him, were “guests” in the country.
Naik has since apologized for his remarks but said his detractors had taken his comments out of context. “It was never my intention to upset any individual or community,” he said in a statement last week.
“Even though I have clarified myself, I feel I owe an apology to everyone who feels hurt because of this misunderstanding,” he said as he sought to dispel allegations that he was a racist.
“That is against the basic tenets of Islam,” he said. “Racism is an evil I am staunchly against.”
Mahathir said that police would proceed with its investigations on Naik’s case and the government would deal with the matter in accordance with the law. But the prime minister suggested that Malaysia would not send Naik back to India because his safety could be jeopardized, even though the two countries had an extradition treaty.
“The problem that we face is that we cannot send him back. Because he runs the risk of being killed,” Mahathir said. “If any country wants to have him, they are welcome to do so.”
Mahathir’s government and that of his corruption-tainted predecessor, Najib Razak, have appeared unwilling to take action against Naik despite previous complaints about his divisive rhetoric.
The recent furor had led to a plethora of calls for his expulsion and, according to some reports, threatened to split Malaysia’s ruling coalition.
Naik, 53, has faced the wrath of governments before he fled India to Malaysia in 2016, when news reports emerged that one of the suspects in the deadly Dhaka café siege in Bangladesh had posted a Facebook message quoting him.
Bangladeshi investigators said Rohan Imtiaz, 22, had posted Naik’s sermons on social-media before he disappeared in January 2016, only to be seen six months later with four other terrorists during the Holey Artisan Bakery attack that killed 29 people.
Following the attack, Bangladeshi human rights activist and writer Taslima Nasreen posted on her Twitter page that Naik’s speeches were “dangerous” and that he was promoting “7th century Quranic texts on sex slaves, polygamy and wife-beating in 21st century.”
“Many Bangladeshi would-be-terrorists are inspired by Zakir Naik,” she said. “He is not having machetes in hands. But his followers are having machetes in hands.”
In 2017, the Indian government filed charges against him alleging he was involved in a criminal conspiracy by lauding terrorist organizations, and had laundered money through his NGO and a shell company.
Naik, a trained medical doctor, became a televangelist in 2006 when he founded Peace TV, a nonprofit satellite network based in Dubai.
Bangladesh banned Naik’s TV channel just after the Holey Artisan siege. Then-Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu told reporters that the TV channel’s broadcasts “were not consistent with Muslim society, the Quran, Sunnah, Hadith, Bangladesh's Constitution, our culture, customs and rituals.”
The 24-hour TV channel, which is broadcast in English, Urdu and Bangla, has also been banned in Sri Lanka and India.
But Naik’s official channel is still available on YouTube, with 1.2 million subscribers getting access to his videos.
Naik, who wears spectacles and suits and always gives his religious discourses in English, founded the nonprofit Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) in Mumbai, India in 1991. IRF’s website says it promotes “the proper presentation, understanding and appreciation of Islam, as well as removing misconceptions about Islam.”
Officials from several countries accuse him of often twisting Islamic teachings to incite hate. Naik, however, has claimed that his comments have often been taken out of context.
The Mumbai native once enjoyed immense popularity in India, and was described in some newspapers as “the rock star of tele-evangelism and a proponent of modern Islam.”
The Indian Express included Naik at least twice in its list of the “100 Most Powerful Indians” explaining that a million people attended the preacher’s 10-day "peace conference" in November 2010 in Mumbai.
About 200,000 people, including former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is now a leader of a key component party in Mahathir’s ruling coalition, attended one of Naik’s lectures during that event, the newspaper said.
Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, an associate professor at the Universiti Utara Malaysia in the northwestern state of Kedah, explained that religion was the galvanizing factor for Malay Muslims to back Naik, not his personality.
“He is seen more as a symbol of the religion,” Ahmad said. “The same goes for other preachers. Malays will rise and back them as well because of the religious sentiment, so it is not exclusively to Zakir.”
Book authors, such as anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen, have said that Naik’s missionary activities and his style of memorizing the Quran, the Muslim holy book, may have endeared him to his followers.
“That he is medical doctor and scientist who can recite by memory both the Koran and Hadiths (commentaries and interpretations of the Koran) in Arabic, Urdu and English and travels to America and Europe to debate Islam with theologians has made Naik quite a star in Central Mumbai,” Hansen wrote in his book, “Wages of Violence.”
But several powerful politicians have slammed Naik, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said in a campaign speech in May that the preacher’s words “have triggered blasts in Sri Lanka,” referring to the April 21 suicide bombings at three churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo in which 259 people were killed.
“No one is above the law. Certainly not citizens, much less a permanent resident, even one as respected for his knowledge as Zakir,” Malaysia’s Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told reporters this week, underscoring that the preacher’s statements had caused “discomfort.”
In June 2010, Naik was denied entry into the United Kingdom and Canada, where he was to give a series of lectures.
“Numerous comments made by Dr. Naik are evidence to me of his unacceptable behavior,” Theresa May, then the U.K. home secretary, told reporters.
Three years later, Malaysia bestowed him the “Maal Hijrah” award in appreciation of his contribution to the development of Islam and in 2015, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz presented Naik with the “2015 King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam.”
On July 31, 2008, in one of his most controversial remarks captured on TV, Naik said the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States were “done by George Bush himself.”
During a televised open forum that followed his sermon, Naik was asked whether he viewed the slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as a terrorist.
“If he is fighting enemies of Islam, I am for him. I don’t know him personally,” Naik replied. “If he is terrorizing America, the biggest terrorist, I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist. The thing is that if he is terrorizing a terrorist, he is following Islam.”
Abdul Rahman Othman, an Islamic scholar in Malaysia’s Pahang state, told BenarNews that Naik’s expulsion could lead to anger among his Muslim followers.
“We have to go back to the law and everyone has to understand the role of a preacher who preaches in an Islamic country,” he said. “Muslims have the right to propagate and explain Islamic teaching.”
Nani Yusof in Washington contributed to this report.