Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Saudi Award Goes to Muslim Televangelist Who Harshly Criticizes U.S. By BEN HUBBARD - The New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/world/middleeast/saudi-award-goes-to-dr-zakir-naik-a-muslim-televangelist-who-harshly-criticizes-us.html?emc=edit_tnt_20150302&nlid=28904237&tntemail0=y

The New York Times

Saudi Award Goes to Muslim Televangelist Who Harshly Criticizes U.S.

By

MARCH 2, 2015


Dr. Zakir Naik, right, a televangelist from India, receiving an award from King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Sunday. Credit King Faisal Foundation, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
BEIRUT, Lebanon — He has publicly declared that “the Jews” control America, that apostates can be killed, that the United States is the world’s “biggest terrorist” and that the Sept. 11 attacks were an “inside job” by President George W. Bush.

But last weekend, Dr. Zakir Naik, a prominent Muslim televangelist from India, appeared at an elaborate ceremony at a luxury hotel in Saudi Arabia, where the new monarch, King Salman, gave him one of the country’s highest honors.

The award for “service to Islam” highlighted the conflicted position of Saudi Arabia as an American ally that continues to back Islamists who espouse hatred of the West.

Scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s role in shaping thought in the Muslim world has grown with the rise of the Islamic State extremist group in Iraq and Syria, which shares some aspects of the fundamentalist Islam propagated by the Saudi state.

Saudi officials reject any comparison to the Islamic State, noting that they are on its hit list and that they have joined the American-led coalition that is bombing the group.

But despite longstanding ties between the United States and the Saudi royal family, the gap between what the two countries consider appropriate religious rhetoric was clear in the public celebration of Dr. Naik.

Reached by phone in Saudi Arabia on Monday, Dr. Naik said he was proud to join the “icons of the Muslim world” who had received the award. He remained harshly critical of the United States.

“I am absolutely against Muslims who kill, but what is the U.S. doing?” Dr. Naik asked, saying that the United States had killed Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian Muslims. “Is the U.S. really bothered about human rights? No!”

Saudi Arabia is not alone in seeing Dr. Naik as a vital spokesman for Islam. In 2013, he was named the Islamic Personality of the Year by a religious association in Dubai, an honor bestowed upon him by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, which has also joined the coalition against the Islamic State.

Dr. Naik, 49, was trained as a medical doctor but now heads the Mumbai-based Islamic Research Foundation, whose website says it seeks to spread “the proper presentation, understanding and appreciation of Islam.”

Dr. Naik, a thin man with a wispy beard and a penchant for dark suits, has made his name internationally through colloquial lectures about Islam, the religion’s links to science and why he considers it superior to other faiths.

In videos on his YouTube channel, he addresses such questions as “Why are music and dancing not allowed in Islam?” and “Why do Muslims have nonvegetarian food?”

Other videos show him engaging with Christians, Hindus and atheists, some of whom are said to be so persuaded by his arguments that they convert on the spot.

Thomas Blom Hansen, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University who studies religion in India and who met Dr. Naik in India in the late 1990s, said that the televangelist struck a chord with some upwardly mobile Muslims who liked his combative way of defending their religion. But, he said, Dr. Naik is not a jihadist directly calling for violence.

“He is a conservative for sure, but is he someone who would endorse people going to Syria, for example? That is not my view,” Dr. Hansen said.

A journalist who covers Mumbai’s Muslims for a prominent Indian newspaper said that Dr. Naik was controversial at home, where opinion is divided on his puritanical views.

“He promoted the supremacy of Islam, and when he is in dialogue with the heads of other religions, he talks about how Islam is superior to all other religions,” the journalist said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his sources.

The Mumbai police have barred him from holding conferences in recent years because he stirs controversy, the journalist said, and Indian satellite providers have refused to broadcast his television channel, Peace TV.

Dr. Naik often deflects when talking about Muslim violence. Asked by phone about the Islamic State, he said he was against its actions if the media had reported them correctly, although he said he had no way of knowing.

Years ago, he gave a similar answer about Osama bin Laden, saying he could not judge since he did not know the man. But Dr. Naik also said he supported him if he was fighting the United States.

“If he is terrorizing America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him,” he said. “Every Muslim should be a terrorist.”

Dr. Naik has also said that apostates who propagate other religions should be killed and that “the Jews” control the United States.

“The Jews are a minority less than 5 percent in America, but they are controlling the economy, they are controlling America,” he said.

As for Sept. 11, in one lecture, Dr. Naik discussed conspiracy theories suggesting that the American government had lied about the attacks. He concluded that by “the amount of ample evidence, a fool will know this is an inside job.”

Citing online documentaries, he said: “If you see all this, it is a blatant, open secret that this attack on the twin towers was done by George Bush himself.”

When asked on Monday about the accusations, Dr. Naik said he had been misquoted.
“People say Muslims have done it, and some others said Bush had done it,” he said. “But who knows who did it?”

In Saudi Arabia on Sunday, Dr. Naik was given the King Faisal International Prize for service to Islam by the King Faisal Foundation, a research institute in Riyadh. The award citation called Dr. Naik “one of the most renowned non-Arabic speaking promulgators of Islam.”

King Salman gave Dr. Naik his certificate. He also received a gold medal and a cash award of nearly $200,000.

Saudi watchers were unsurprised that the kingdom would honor a harsh critic of its American allies, noting that many members of the Saudi religious establishment hold similar views.

“If you ask them their opinions about America, they would share lots of Zakir Naik’s opinions,” said St├ęphane Lacroix, an associate professor at Sciences Po in Paris who studies Saudi Arabia. “But usually they don’t talk about it.”

Dr. Naik’s positions have caused him trouble before. In 2010, both Canada and Britain denied him entry for speaking engagements.

Theresa May, the British home secretary, said then that “numerous comments made by Dr. Naik are evidence to me of his unacceptable behavior.”

On Monday, Dr. Naik blamed Christian missionaries who fear that letting him in will cause Christians to convert to Islam.

“I know, and that is why I haven’t even tried going to these countries,” he said. “People can hear me on the Internet.”

Suhasini Raj contributed reporting from New Delhi, and Neha Thirani Bagri from Mumbai, India.