An island. That’s what the chief minister of one of the poorer states of the Malaysian federation offered Indian televangelist Zakir Naik. The state government’s initial defensiveness regarding funding for Naik’s Malaysian preaching tour – it claimed only to have funded his board and lodging – gave way to a full blown embrace of the well known cleric culminating with the offer of an island on which to build a foundation for the study of Islam in South-East Asia.
His name was trending on Twitter for more than a week and he captured more than a fair share of front page headlines. This extended love-fest with the Mumbai-based personality is nothing short of extraordinary. It was a love-fest marked by deep political pathologies the country suffers from.
Alarmed by the preacher’s proposed public talk comparing Islam and Hinduism, organisations associated with citizens of South Asian descent protested his presence in the country. They called not only for a cancellation of his talks, but also for his expulsion from the country. They reminded the Malaysian government and public of Naik’s apparent endorsement of Osama Bin Laden’s “fight against the enemies of Islam” and subsequent barring from Canada and the UK.
Affronted by this call by Hindu rights groups as well as ethnic Indian-based component parties of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, Muslim groups from across the political spectrum came to Zakir’s defence arguing that barring him amounted to a violation of “freedom of speech”. This in turn was met with derision by liberal Muslim voices who noted the selective use of the “freedom of speech” argument, one which went unnoticed when liberal or progressive Muslim voices, faced censorship in the past.
Naiks’s presence has tapped into a deep well of passions that animate Malaysian politics. If he was naive about the effect he would have, he certainly managed a very public, if cynical, nod of gratitude to Hindraf, a Hindu rights NGO, for bringing into sharp relief the need for Muslims to stand together against the “enemies of Islam”. The police stepped in and suggested that the talk comparing Hinduism and Islam be scrapped and replaced with a less contentious topic. Zakir’s troupe conceded and this paved the way for an unencumbered run of public talks attended in some instances by tens of thousands.
Naik’s has also met with the country’s top leaders, the Prime Minister Najib Razak, in particular, who has been tainted by allegations of massive corruption involving a state-backed investment fund, 1MDB. Zakir’s reported agenda was to garner support from the much vilified Razak for an international Islamic conference in Malaysia.
Always pictured in double-breasted suits and skull cap, Naik also met with the leader of the main Islamist party PAS. The turbaned and jubah-wearing politician Hadi Awang has presided over the worst crisis in his party with almost half its federal legislators forming a splinter party the last year. The split came as Awang took the party closer to arch-rival UMNO on the pretext of pushing a bi-partisan “Islamic” agenda, thereby destabilising the most promising alternative coalition the country has seen since independence.
Razak’s ruling coalition has been in power since independence of Peninsular Malaya in 1957 and since the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. Not surprisingly then, Naik’s message for the two ethno-religious parties and the larger community or Ummah was not just Muslim unity but UMNO-PAS cooperation. It made front page headlines in the ruling-party controlled press, Utusan Malaysia.
What is the weight of his endorsement and what were Malaysians to make of his suggestion that the ideological differences that have kept this two parties as rival for decades can be overcome? Again he warned that the only barriers to UMNO-PAS unity lay with “enemies of Islam”, unnamed but in the heavily coded language of the local Muslim community.
For Razak the problem is that PAS and its Islamisation agenda is unacceptable to the dozen or more parties that make up the ruling coalition, many of which are secular or have as their base non-Muslim citizens especially in the eastern half of the country. The region is now in open revolt over what they see as the Peninsular-centric development agenda as well as deviation from the secular foundations of the federation. And while many politicians have stood in queue to embrace Naik, his political pronouncements have been met with quiet skepticism even from within the upper echelons of the Islamist PAS.
On the ground the spectacle Naik’s tour has generated can’t hide the disquiet from some Muslim quarters, even of a conservative hue, noting that his style goes against the local grain.The small but very visible public conversions to Islam at his sermons have drawn some criticism. In Muslim majority Malaysia conversion of non-Muslims to Islam is both legal and encouraged by the state, while conversion out of Islam is a complex legal matter and is accompanied by heavy social sanctions. But often, not always, these matters are dealt with away from the glare of the public eye.
On the face of it Naik seems to be enjoying his place as part of the majority, far away from India where he remains a member of a minority under pressure from the majoritarian dynamics. But whatever his motivations, Naik functioned to deepen, not disrupt, the majoritarian logic of Malaysia’s politics.
A maverick ethnic Malay-Muslim minister was a lone voice from the cabinet expressing reservations about Naik’s visit, noting how foreign preachers left locals cleaning up a mess in their wake. Despite the controversy the deputy minister in charge of religion declared on a local radio station that Naik was a “voice of moderation” who could reach out successfully to non-Muslims. It was a comment that defied the much reported facts on the ground including a molotov cocktail lobbed at the service centre of the second deputy chief minister of the opposition-held state of Penang, an ethnic Indian Hindu who referred to Naik as “Satan”.
The timing of Naik’s tour could not have been more opportune for the government. While the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the 1MDB scandal earned the paper a Pulitzer nomination recently, and various foreign investigations continue at their slow pace, the Razak administration seems to be firmly in the driving seat. It has successfully outmanoeuvred the fractious federal opposition and looks on with some relief as the campaign by former strongman, Dr Mahathir Mohammad, dubbed the “Save Malaysia” movement as flounders.
Nevertheless with the Naik, the administration demonstrates how it needs to play the sectarian card to mobilise support for its battered leader whose approval rating is below 30%. But its also true that this race/religion card has to be played on an increasingly complex field of competing political identities.
Speaking of the moral weakness of Razak and use of race and religion by politicians to mobilise support, former Editor-in-Chief of the government backed New Straits Times Group, Kalimullah Hassan, a man close to the previous Administration, warned Malaysians that what it has before it is nothing less than the prospect of a failed state. Its a contentious debate among Malaysians, one in which Naik’s over-heated sojourn might yet prove to be more than a humble footnote.