His sermons are said to have inspired everyone from the Dhaka attackers to the alleged Islamic State sympathisers. What is it about this televangelist that makes it hard for investigators to pin him down?
At the press conference Zakir Naik had over Skype on July 15. Naik resorted to his usual style, weaving around his statements qualifications, stipulations. (Expres Photo: Prashant Nadkar)
AFTER three days of repeatedly rescheduling a press conference, Dr Zakir Naik couldn’t have stumbled on a worse moment to finally have a heart-to-heart, via Skype, with journalists. On July 15, a Friday morning, as a small hall in south-central Mumbai packed to the rafters waited for a technical glitch to be ironed out before Naik, who spoke from Medina in Saudi Arabia, finally appeared on screen, the Bastille Day attack in Nice was only a few hours old. Its lone wolf attacker had picked a method with eerie similarities to the Glasgow attack of 2007 by Kafeel Ahmed of Bangalore, driving an explosives-laden vehicle into his target. The irony was lost on nobody. Kafeel Ahmed was found to have been inspired by, among others, Zakir Naik.
Then, at Friday’s press conference, the televangelist in the eye of a storm returned to a style his detractors have long taken issue with, weaving around his statements clever qualifications and stipulations, nuances of interpretation peppered with ifs and buts. Suicide attacks are condemnable, he declared, the subordinate clause glued on, “where innocents are targeted”. As a war tactic, well, that’s a different story, he said.
It is pointless arguing that the two Dhaka attackers who were reportedly inspired by him believed they were waging war for their Caliphate. Speaking to The Indian Express when that news broke, the 50-year-old medical doctor-turned-preacher said he would not refer to the Islamic State (IS) as Islamic, for that itself would be a condemnation of Islam. “I call them the anti-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” he said, adding that the name IS had been coined by the “enemies of Islam” though he wouldn’t name these enemy countries. After the Dhaka attack, Maharashtra ordered a probe into Naik’s speeches.
A handful of previous terror detainees have reportedly claimed to be inspired by the English-speaking Naik, who has 14 million followers on Facebook, the large majority of them youngsters. Afghan-American Najibulla Zazi (New York subway bombing plot, 2009), Dr Kafeel Ahmed (Glasgow 2007), Rahil Sheikh (Mumbai serial train blasts, 2006), Feroz Deshmukh (Aurangabad arms haul case, 2006), alleged IS sympathisers (Kalyan, 2016) were all found to have listened to Naik’s sermons. Besides, at least some among the 21 people from Kerala who are missing and who are rumoured to have joined the IS are said to have been inspired by Naik. On January 20, an alleged member of Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) was arrested on charges of “radicalising” one of the 21.
The one probe the police imagine could be productive is the Centre’s proposed investigation into finances of the IRF and Peace TV. Previous probes into Peace TV activities include one in the UK.
But try to pin down the founder of Peace TV and his now stock replies flood the conversation. Saying he has been quoted “out of context”, that it is utter “misinformation” to suggest that he supported terror attacks of any kind, that he was being “branded” without evidence — all now appear to be verbal tics for the Islamic scholar.
“He’s just confusing people, especially impressionable young Muslims, with this sort of rhetoric,” says Syed Noorie of Mumbai’s Raza Academy. “What is the need to say some kind of suicide bombing is acceptable? For youngsters who believe they are right, this serves as encouragement. Islam prohibits suicide, simple.”
It’s increasingly clear that for all the self-professed width of his reach and expanse of his Peace TV empire, which is said to have nearly 200 million viewers worldwide, Naik has strong detractors among conservative Muslims too. Muslim scholars and elected representatives speak warily about Naik’s run-in with a large section of imams in 2008 over his comments on Imam Hussain, a key figure in Islam. The battle of Karbala was fought for political reasons, he contended in a two-minute video clip that was widely shared and condemned by Sunni and Shia scholars. “He hasn’t spared Muslim icons, so it’s only to be expected that he will speak against gods of other religions,” Noorie says, demanding a probe into the alleged “Wahabi” funding for Naik’s Peace TV and other ventures.
When he is not travelling the world on lecture tours, Naik mostly spends his time in Dubai, but his Mumbai roots remain firm.
Naik was schooled in Mazgaon’s St Peter’s High School, not far from the hall where journalists crammed in on Friday to attend his Skype address. In a previous interview to this newspaper, Naik had said he was an average student despite his ability to memorise huge amounts of text. A shy teenager, he also had a stammer, something, he says, he overcame when he began “speaking about the Trust”. In the late 1980s, he obtained his medical degree from Topical College that’s attached to BYL Nair Hospital, and appeared set to join his family’s busy medical practice. His father Abdul Karim Naik was a respected psychiatrist and also an active member of the community. In 1987, Naik attended a sermon in Mumbai by the late South Africa-based preacher Ahmed Deedat and that changed the course of his life. Like Deedat, Naik then memorised the Quran, dived into other religions’ scriptures and began sermonising on comparative religion, using Deedat’s style of reaching out to young Muslims with English and technology.
In 2006, he burst on to the radar of terror investigators when one of those arrested in connection with the Aurangabad arms haul case turned out to be an employee of the Islamic Research Foundation, a trust Naik established in 1991 and which has its headquarters in a nondescript building in Dongri, south Mumbai.
By 2012-13, his sermons began to get noticed and the Hindu right-wing organisations sought a “ban” on him.
Every year, Naik would organise public meetings at the KG Somaiya Ground in Central Mumbai. The setting was always opulent, with a replica of the Taj Mahal at one such rally. “He put up these extravagant sets to attract the commoner,” explained a senior police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
It was after one such meeting in 2012, where he spoke about Hindu god Ganesha, that a series of cases began to be registered against him. In the video, Naik is purportedly heard saying, “If your god is unable to recognise his own son, how will he know that I am in danger?” On Naik’s plea, all the cases were clubbed and he was granted anticipatory bail by the Bombay High Court. The case is still being probed.
“The 2012 incident also pushed the Mumbai Police to deny permission for Naik’s annual gatherings,” said the officer.
Women’s rights activists too have been railed against him for long, terming him a regressive chauvinist in the garb of an educated theologist.
In one YouTube video they cite, Naik is seen clarifying whether he really ever advised men to not leave a mark on their wives after a beating. “That’s a portion of my answer,” he is seen saying, a phrase he now uses repeatedly. “What I really said”, he says, falling back upon another phrase he uses over and over, is that a wife who is disloyal may be beaten “symbolically”, “with a toothbrush”.
These multiple demands for a probe have flummoxed law enforcement agencies, who acknowledge that previous efforts to pin Naik down yielded little.
In the 2006 Aurangabad arms haul case, where 40 kg of RDX, 17 AK-47 assault rifles and 50 hand grenades were seized, the arrests made by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad led them to Zakir Naik. Rahil Ahmed Sheikh, an alleged Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) operative and one of the main conspirators in the case, had worked as a volunteer with the IRF. Feroz Deshmukh, another person the ATS held in the case, was allegedly a librarian with Naik’s IRF. According to a retired officer who was part of the team that probed the case, the ATS questioned Naik but there wasn’t much to ‘link’ him to the case.
While the Mumbai Police is investigating his speeches, with many of the arrested IS sympathisers from India claiming to have been inspired by Naik, the televangelist has never been too far from the NIA radar.
“These young men who are taken in by this idea of fighting for the Caliphate get indoctrinated online and Naik’s videos are a key resource material. We suspect his videos are deliberately shared by handlers so that the potential recruits connect to him as one of their own — an Indian Muslim,” said a source in the police.
So far, the investigations into the videos have yielded little. But the one probe the police imagine could be productive is the Centre’s proposed probe into the finances of IRF and Peace TV. While the IRF was registered in 1991 in Mumbai, beginning its operations by producing video tapes of Naik’s sermons to be aired by local cablewallahs, it now runs various charitable initiatives, a women’s wing as well as a school and junior college. Peace TV, set up in 2005-06, gathered steam almost immediately. Previous investigations into its activities include one in the UK over allegations of extremist messages.
Former Mumbai Police chief Satyapal Singh, who is now BJP MP from Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh, has claimed that during his stint in the Mumbai Police, he had sought a ban on the IRF for contravening the provisions of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. Singh alleges that his report against the IRF’s funding was ignored by the then UPA government.
Peace TV, which operates from Dubai, used to have a small studio set-up in Mumbai for recordings, but this is now reportedly not in use. Among the allegations against Peace TV is one regarding its funding, with charity funds raised by the IRF allegedly backing the channel. While Peace TV remains available in some parts of Mumbai, the big operators have discontinued it in recent years. Those who continue to view the channel on demand in Mumbai would rather not talk about it.
With the government refusing to grant a downlinking licence to Peace TV, its transmission by cable operators becomes illegal. In his Friday briefing, Naik had blamed the Centre for not allowing this “messenger of peace” to carry out his duties. Following the Dhaka blast, the Bangladesh government recently banned Peace TV in that country.
Speaking to The Indian Express, an IRF spokesperson said they were ready to face any probe. “Questions are being raised on how the charitable institute is being funded but we have nothing to hide. In 2014, there was a probe by the Enforcement Directorate into the financial dealings of the IRF. We later learnt that they found nothing,” he said.