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To keep both the Malays and non-Malays happy, PM Mahathir bin Mohamad has allowed the controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik to stay in the country but with an unannounced gag order

By Asif Ullah Khan

In 1970, Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad wrote a controversial book, The Malay Dilemma. As prime minister of Malaysia for the second time at the ripe age of 93, he faces another dilemma—how to deal with the presence of fugitive controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik in his country. In fact, Naik has become a Hafiz Saeed of sorts for Malaysia.

His presence has frayed racial tensions and is posing a headache for the new Malaysian government. It cannot deport him because of his popularity among the Malay Muslims but, at the same time, wants to keep a check on his controversial sermons as they threaten to rip apart the multi-racial fabric of Malaysian society.

Unlike India, where he faces terror and money-laundering charges, the hardline Islamic preacher is a popular figure in Malaysia where more than 60 percent of the population is Muslim. This is the reason why both Mahathir and his predecessor, Najib Razak, refused to deport him to India because it could be interpreted by hardline Muslim organisations as “anti-Islam”. Murmurs against Naik started in 2016 when it emerged that two of the militants who had stormed into an upmarket café in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 22 people, were “inspired by his preaching about Islam”. At that time, the Barisan Nasional (National Front) government led by Razak was in power. The Barisan Nasional coalition comprises three major ethnic political parties—United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). For the first time in the history of Malaysia, the MCA and MIC questioned their government’s continued support to Naik as they felt that his presence in Malaysia was detrimental to society.

The then health minister in the Razak government and MIC president, S Subramaniam, was the first one to express his disagreement with Naik’s stay in Malaysia and said that his activities “are outside the Malaysian context”. “I don’t think Malaysia needs Zakir Naik. Is he going to contribute to the advancement of Islam in the country? The answer is no,” said Subramaniam.

The issue took a serious turn when a group of 19 human rights activists filed a civil suit against the Malaysian government in March 2017, accusing it of failing to protect the country from the controversial televangelist. The suit, among others, sought a government declaration that Naik was a threat to national security, called for a ban to prevent him from entering the country, and sought his arrest and deportation immediately. The group, comprising different religious and ethnic backgrounds, said that Naik was an “undesirable person” and “a preacher of hate” who was currently roaming free in Malaysia.

Soon rumours started doing the rounds that the reason why the Razak government was taking no action against Naik was because it had already granted him Malaysian nationality. Finally, on April 18, 2017, then Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi clarified the government’s position, saying that Naik had not been granted citizenship but admitted that he was granted permanent resident (PR) status about five years earlier when Hamidi was not the home minister.

The Chinese coalition partner of the then Razak government, Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), questioned the granting of PR status to Naik. The MCA’s religious harmony bureau chairman, Datuk Seri Ti Lian Ker, said the government should not risk the country’s spirit of mutual understanding and respect. “The government, especially the home ministry, must also account as to why Zakir was granted PR status and special consideration, seeing that he is known for creating tension,” he said.

This led Naik’s supporters to mount a counter-offensive. The first one to come to his rescue was PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), which made it into an “us” versus “them” issue. PAS information chief Nasrudin Hassan, hitting out at Subramaniam said Naik was a renowned scholar, respected by Muslim clerics and the Muslim world as a whole. He then “advised” Subramaniam not to go overboard with his statements, especially related to the interests of the Muslims in the country, and added that being a health minister, he should not interfere in this matter.

Another right-wing group, Perkasa or Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa (Malay for “Mighty Native Organisation”), which honoured Naik with an award for his contributions to the struggle for Islam, also jumped into the fray and took offence to Subramaniam, a Hindu, interfering in Muslim affairs. Perkasa president Datuk Ibrahim Ali said that Subramaniam should resign from the Razak cabinet if he could not agree with the government’s decision to grant PR status to Naik. Perkasa even told its members to campaign against Subramaniam and other MIC candidates in the general election.

However, things changed completely when Malaysia’s landmark 2018 general election brought the 93-year-old Mahathir back to power in his new avatar as the head of the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan), which comprises mostly multi-racial, secular and centre-left parties. Since then, Naik has been lying low. He lives in a condominium in Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia, and is only seen during Friday prayers. He had made repeated attempts to meet Mahathir and even jostled with the crowd to greet him when the latter came to Putrajaya mosque to offer prayers. And finally, when he met Mahathir last July, he thanked the new government for not deporting him to India and vowed that he would abide by all laws of the country.

Mahathir, on his part, said that as long as Naik was not “creating any problems” in Malaysia, he would not be deported. But the prime minister has tactfully banned his public lectures and appearances, although the official government version denies that there is any ban on Naik’s lectures. All his attempts to appear in public have been nipped in the bud on the basis of “technical grounds”.

Recently, an Islamic NGO called the Islamic Propagation Society International (IPSI) had sought permission to use the city stadium in the Malaysian state of Penang for Naik’s lecture but the Penang Island City Council refused the permission on “technical grounds”. Its community service director, Rashidah Jalaludin, in a letter dated February 13, said that IPSI’s request “could not be considered” as the city stadium had been recently upgraded and was being used for sports. Perhaps the venue was not suitable for the “ceramah” (lecture), the official added.

Interestingly, Penang Deputy Chief Minister Ramasamy Palanisamy, a member of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a coalition partner of Pakatan Harapan, has on numerous occasions questioned the government’s decision not to extradite Naik to India.

In April 2015, Ramasamy called Naik “Satan” and accused him of making speeches “designed to promote hatred of other faiths”. He urged, via Facebook, “peace-loving Malaysians” to lodge police reports against Naik so that he can be banned from entering the country. “Let us get ‘Satan’ Zakir Naik out of this country! He is a Muslim preacher and evangelist who has nothing but hatred and contempt for non-Muslims,” wrote Ramasamy.

“He has been banned in Canada and UK (United Kingdom) for his hate lectures. Even some sections of the Muslims in India have termed him a liar, man of half-truth and purveyor of hate,” Ramasamy wrote.

However, this did not go down well with the Malay Muslims. Not only did he face an “online onslaught”, even his office in Penang was bombed with a petrol explosive.

The question is: Can Malaysia afford to defend such a polarising figure at a time when a very mellowed Mahathir heads a coalition government which comprises multi-ethnic, secular parties? Many Malaysian commentators say Naik has become a national dilemma as his presence continues to cause uneasiness and discomfort in the multi-religious and multiracial community.

They say that although Naik talks about propagating Islam and social harmony, there is a distinct waft of cultural and religious imperialism in his recorded comments. Among them is the infamous statement to the effect that an Islamic country should not allow churches to be built because Christianity is a religion that is “wrong”. Christianity is practised by more than nine percent of the Malaysian population and there are five Christian ministers in the Mahathir cabinet.

Is Naik worth the rift he is causing in Malaysian society? The reasonable answer will be a big “No”. But to keep both the Malays and non-Malays happy, Mahathir has allowed Naik to stay in Malaysia and at the same time has tightened his leash over him by imposing an unannounced gag order.

The writer is a former deputy managing editor of The Brunei Times

Masood Azhar: China’s game

China’s reluctance to declare the JeM chief Masood Azhar a global terrorist is evidence of its symbiotic ties with Pakistan. It will protect it to keep a check on India’s influence in the region

By Colonel R Hariharan

Are we missing the wood for the trees by focusing on China putting a “technical hold” on the listing of Masood Azhar, chief of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), as an international terrorist under the UN sanctions regime? It would seem so because China’s response was not unexpected; it had been taking the same stance for the last decade. And it is Pakistan, not China, who is the main villain of the piece. India’s relentless campaign to get the UN Security Council (UNSC) to list Azhar as a global terrorist is not the whole, but part, of its efforts to internationally isolate Pakistan.

The fact that 14 members of the UNSC supported listing the JeM leader against China’s lone negative vote speaks for the success of India’s campaign against Pakistan for sponsoring and supporting trans-border terrorist operations against India.

The proposal to designate Azhar under the 1267 Al Qaida Sanctions Committee of the UNSC was moved by France, the UK and the US on February 27, nearly two weeks after a JeM-inspired suicide car bomb attack on a CRPF convoy killed 40 people in Pulwama in J&K. The committee members had 10 working days to raise any objection to the proposal.

China had put a “technical hold” on the proposal, seeking “more time to examine” it. It said the move would give it time for a “thorough and in-depth assessment” of the case and help the parties concerned to engage in more talks to find a “lasting solution” acceptable to all. China’s explanation would have been laughable, except for the grim fact that it enables Pakistan to delay concrete action to dismantle terror groups operating from its soil against India.

The anger against China after it blocked the UNSC move was palpable on Indian social media. People could not understand what was “technical” about recognising Azhar as a global terrorist. There were calls for boycott of Chinese goods, though they have become indispensable to trade and commerce and to the growth of mobile communication and the power industry in the country.

The public outrage against China is understandable as the grim sequel to the Pulwama attack took India and Pakistan to the brink of war. India had responded to the attack with an air strike on a JeM training centre at Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. The Pakistan Air Force’s counter-strike in J&K two days later and the capture of an Indian fighter pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, in Pakistan turned the situation ugly.

Further deterioration of the situation was averted when the US, China, Saudi Arabia and UAE intervened and claimed credit for defusing the situation after Pakistan released the Indian pilot. But the security situation along the India-Pakistan border and LoC in J&K continues to be anomalous. Pakistan continues to fire across the border while Indian troops are carrying out operations to eliminate terrorists and security agencies are uncovering and dismantling sources of supply and finance of Pakistan-inspired terrorist support networks within the state.

High public expectations on l’affaire Azhar have to be understood in the context of events that preceded it. India had been regularly briefing foreign diplomats about the situation leading up to the UNSC meeting. It gave a detailed dossier on Azhar and JeM involvement in terrorist activity to the members, including China. The media gave a huge build-up before the UNSC met to consider the listing of Azhar.

Unfortunately, the “friend or foe” binary vision of the visual and social media in the country got very shrill in the events leading up to the UNSC meeting. As the Indo-Pak confrontation happened close to the general election, it inevitably led to a lot of chest-thumping of the ruling party, countered equally and vehemently by the Opposition. Cumulatively, these developments influenced their understanding of China’s stand on the Azhar issue. People expected China to be more sensitive to India’s concerns about terrorism as their hopes were kindled after Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Wuhan unofficial summit last year.

In this context, the statement of Liu Zongyi, senior fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, quoted in the Communist Party of China’s tabloid, Global Times, is interesting. He said the question of whether to list Azhar as a global terrorist has been a long-lasting dispute between China and India. In 2017, New Delhi’s demand was partly behind the Doklam stand-off. “If New Delhi succeeds in having both JeM and its leader black-listed, Islamabad would be branded a state sponsor of terrorism and isolated on the international stage. This is what India wants to pursue till the end,” he added.

International columnist Fareed Zakaria’s quote that “foreign policy is a matter of costs and benefits, not theology” applies to China’s negative stand on Azhar. It has shown that China’s approach to India will be transactional, selective and based on the hard reality of its national self-interest rather than ephemeral notions of harmony and bonhomie. China-Pakistan relations are built upon what Chanakya said long ago: “There is some self-interest behind every friendship. There is no friendship without self-interest. This is a bitter truth.”

Pakistan is increasingly becoming dependent on China—strategically, economically, politically, diplomatically and militarily. China will continue to use Pakistan’s vulnerability to protect and pamper it, not merely because it is its long-term friend and strategic ally in South Asia. It suits China that Pakistan firmly keeps a check on India’s strategic strength and influence in the region. Pakistan enlarges China’s options in handling India, its potential challenger in the region and beyond.

Moreover, China is under pressure to make a success of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in which it has invested over $40 billion to showcase the Belt and Road Initiative which has come under heavy weather. CPEC’s infrastructure would enable China to flex its strategic naval power to secure its interests in the Indian Ocean Region and South Asia, which had been dominated by India’s naval power.

Diplomat Gautam Bambawale, who served as India’s ambassador to both Islamabad and Beijing, while addressing the Indian Association of Foreign Affairs Correspondents, recently put the Wuhan meeting in perspective. He said he was averse to the term “Wuhan reset” as some people have described the informal summit. He said both India and China “saw what happened at Doklam, analysed that particular experience and drew their own conclusions from it”. Then they independently came to the decision that it was “much more important to have a relatively harmonious and balanced relationship between the two most populous states on the globe”.

He cautioned that “if the word (Wuhan) ‘reset’ in any way implies that the tensions and ill temperedness of Doklam was being brushed aside or under the carpet, then I strongly object to this term”. He added that he would go along with the use of the term “reset” if it described “a cool reappraisal of the relationship and a desire to put it on an even keel”.

On the Azhar episode, the diplomat was of the opinion that India must have a transactional approach to the issue. “Perhaps China will permit the listing to move ahead if there is something we can do for them or offer them in return? If there is, a bargain can indeed be struck,” he added.

So it is not surprising that despite all the media hoopla over the Azhar episode, India’s take on the issue was realistic as the Ministry of External Affairs’ (MEA) carefully worded statement showed. The statement did not even name China, but merely expressed disappointment “by this outcome. This has prevented action by the international community to designate the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a proscribed and active terrorist organization, which has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir on February 14, 2019”. However, one wishes the MEA had named China in the statement, at least to signal that India was not happy with its role.

China is here to stay as a powerful neighbour. It is in India’s interest to maintain a cordial working relationship with it, regardless of the hiccups in bilateral relations from time to time. Bambawale in his speech suggested an eight-point Pune Plan to build better relations with China.

These include maintaining high-level political relations, enhanced and expanded military exchanges between both countries, working to increase Chinese tourist visits to India through public-private partnership, focusing on attracting more Chinese students, creating a financial model for Chinese firms to modernise our railway stations, persuading it to join the International Solar Alliance as a member and expanding engagement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

However, some of these proposals might become politically controversial or inconvenient. But any foreign policy strategy to deal with China runs the risk of getting mired in political controversy.

After Modi took foreign policy initiatives to the political main stage with his signature showmanship, foreign policy has become one of the mainstream issues in the national political discourse. In a way, it has become a victim in the raucous election campaign, with rival political leaders making short shrift of nuanced policy initiatives to dispense their penny wisdom to the masses. Can political parties and leaders rise above petty politics to build a consensus on foreign policy?

American elder statesman Henry A Kissinger may well be speaking of India when he remarked that “our great foreign policy problem is our divisions at home. Our greatest foreign policy need is national cohesion and a return to the awareness that in foreign policy, we are all engaged in a common national endeavour”.

Can our polity prove that Kissinger’s words do not apply to India?

—The writer is a military intelligence specialist on South Asia, associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Studies Institute

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