Above: Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad is in no mood to extradite Zakir Naik to India, but the reason cited now is different/Photo: UNI
Wanted in a clutch of cases in India, the Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik is playing the Muslim card in Malaysia to stave off New Delhi’s demands for his extradition
By Asif Ullah Khan
Controversial Islamic preacher and fugitive Indian national Zakir Naik is wanted in India for a clutch of cases that range from spreading hate speeches, money laundering to terrorism. Since 2017, he has been living in Malaysia and has permanent resident status in that country. India and Malaysia signed an extradition treaty in 2010 which enables the two countries to exchange people like Naik who are on the wanted list. Yet, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the 93-year-old who came out of retirement last year to take over as Malaysia’s prime minister, is emphatic that his country will not extradite Naik to India. Has Naik become a pawn or central piece in the politics of Malaysia?
Naik took refuge in Malaysia in 2016 after it emerged that two of the perpetrators of the July 2016 Dhaka terror attack were inspired by his teachings. Many Al Qaeda followers have reportedly said that he was a huge influence on them. Earlier, he was banned from entering the UK in 2010 by the then home secretary and recently by Prime Minister Theresa May. India’s Enforcement Directorate in 2016 filed a money laundering case against him under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
But, given Naik’s huge following among Malay Muslims, both former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his successor, Mahathir, have used his popularity to bolster their support base among Malay Muslims, who constitute more than 70 percent of the country’s population. Razak used him to bolster his sinking political fortunes during the last general election. Naik not only endorsed the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) but even suggested that it should form a coalition with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). He felt that it will propel the country forward and strengthen Islam.
Initially, Mahathir had said that Malaysia will not deport Naik if he doesn’t break any law. But now, he has made it clear that Malaysia will not extradite Naik to India and justified his decision by comparing it with a totally unrelated case. He said Australia has refused to extradite Sirul Azhar Umar, former police commando, who was sentenced to death in Malaysia for murdering Mongolian Altantuya Shaariibuu. “We requested Australia to extradite Sirul and they are afraid we are going to send him to the gallows,” Mahathir said, adding, “Zakir, in general, feels that he is not going to get a fair trial [in India].”
Arfa’eza Abdul Aziz, a senior Kuala Lumpur-based journalist, told India Legal: “The problem is that Dr Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan coalition government is seen by the Malays as anti-Malay and anti-Islam because they feel it is controlled by the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which is dominated by Malaysian Chinese.”
What gives credence to this perception is that it is the DAP which is very vocal about Naik’s extradition. The deputy chief minister of Penang state, Ramasamy Palanisamy, a member of the DAP, has on numerous occasions questioned the government’s decision not to extradite Naik to India. Ramkarpal Singh, a DAP MP from Bukit Gelugor, has also questioned Mahathir’s comparison of Naik with Umar, calling it “misconceived’. The parliamentarian said Umar has been convicted by Malaysia’s apex court for murdering Shaariibuu, while Naik is yet to be convicted for alleged money laundering offences.
“It is clear that Umar has exhausted all his legal avenues and remains a convict facing the death penalty whereas Naik has not been convicted and only faces a trial in India for now,” said Singh. He also pointed out that Australia’s refusal to extradite Umar is not due to the possibility that Malaysia may not give him a fair trial, but the fact that he faces the death penalty in that country.
For the Mahathir government, the issue has come in handy to restore the image of the government among the Malays, who have accused it of not upholding Islam. This is the reason why people say that his rationale behind not extraditing Naik is aimed at appeasing the Malay Muslim voters. A close aide of the prime minister has even said that extraditing Naik would be akin to deporting Uighur Muslims.
Arfa’eza, too, agrees with this viewpoint and says: “I think no Malaysian government will extradite him as he has a large following among the Malays and secondly, it will be seen as anti-Islam.”
Naik’s popularity in Malaysia can be gauged from the fact that in 2013 he was awarded the Tokoh Ma’al Hijrah Distinguished Personality International Award by the Malaysian king himself. “I think Malay communities here have always been compassionate about fellow Muslims persecuted abroad or at their homes. So, it will be very difficult for Mahathir to succumb to India’s demand as his reputation is already not so good among the Malays. So, I am sure he will not agree with India,” said Arfa’eza. According to her, Malaysian governments always had non-Muslim coalition partners, just as Barisan Nasional had Malay Indian Congress (MIC) and Malay Chinese Association (MCA) but rarely did they question or interfere in the issues involving Malays and Islam.
But the case of the incumbent Pakatan Harapan government led by Mahathir is different as DAP politicians are playing a leading role in many issues involving Malays and Islam. Such concerns were further heightened by the naming of an ethnic Chinese, Lim Guan Eng, as finance minister for the first time since 1974 and the appointment of a Catholic Indian, Tommy Thomas, as the attorney general. As finance minister, Lim is also in charge of Malay Government-Linked Investment Companies (GLCs).
Recently, the Muslim community protested against DAP non-Muslim leaders holding functions in mosques to distribute zakat to Muslims. According to Arfa’eza, they asked why non-Muslim politicians should take the lead in zakat distribution when they have nothing to do with it. “Of course, it is not un-Islamic, but it was rarely done by MCA or MIC leaders when the Barisan Nasional government was in power,” she added.
Political analyst Dr Mohamed Mustafa Ishak believes Malaysia was shouldering a huge responsibility to protect a fellow Muslim, whom sections of the community regard as a renowned scholar. “Zakir Naik is neither a terrorist nor has he been proven to have links to related (terrorist) networks. He is an accomplished scholar whose expertise is in comparative religious study. His debates are based on facts,” he added.
Many political analysts, therefore, have already warned of dire consequences should Malaysia accede to India’s request. Malaysia, being a Muslim nation, will be seen as a country which failed to protect a fellow Muslim. “If we send him back, there will be a huge implication regarding the Muslim sentiments, both domestically and internationally. It is something that needs to be ruminated, particularly in the interest of the majority,” said Ishak.
The Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has already urged the prime minister to ignore India’s request saying that the charges against Naik in India are aimed at “blocking his influence and efforts to spread religious awareness among the international community”. Most Malay Islamic organisations feel that as Naik’s case is “sensitive” and he will never get a fair trial in India as the right-wing government of Hindu nationalists in India has already branded him an extremist Muslim evangelist and a terrorist network ally.
Writing in the New Straits Times, Syed Umar Ariff says that judging from Naik’s previous brushes with the Hindu nationalists, right-wing parties and occasional death threats, returning home is an idea best shelved for now.
Ishak, too, contends that the rule of law should not be followed blindly at the expense of true justice. “The rule of law is about fairness and justice. Will Zakir get a fair trial there? There are already concerns (that he will not). He is already being treated as if he is guilty. If we cannot see the forest for the trees, then there can be a miscarriage of justice on our part,” he added. He warned that this will not only trigger huge protests in the country but can also drastically alter the dynamics of domestic politics.
Arfa’eza says the prime minister is very much aware of the fact that Zaik’s extradition will be exploited by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and PAS and he will be seen as a weak leader who betrayed the cause of Islam by succumbing to Indian pressures and handing over Naik.
Dennis Ignatius, a former Malaysian diplomat, said that Naik’s case is not about the legalities of extradition but about local politics and religious sentiment. With a thorough understanding and knowledge about Malaysia’s fractured political and religious landscape, Naik is skilfully playing off one segment of Malaysia’s population against another to stave off extradition. By conveniently insisting that he is a victim of religious persecution by right-wing Hindu nationalists, Naik has made it obligatory for the local Muslims to come to his defence.
Ignatius said that it is a narrative that resonated all too well in Malaysia, adding that the more local Hindus call for Naik’s deportation (on the basis of his egregious and insulting comments about Hinduism), the more his support will grow. He is of the view that having spent months building up an extensive network of political and religious connections across Malaysia, Naik’s reputation is now such that he is virtually untouchable.
—The writer is a former deputy managing editor of The Brunei Times
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