Firebrand Indian Imam Becomes a Malaysian Flashpoint

The strange case of Zakir Naik, a firebrand Indian Imam and televangelist whose preaching is banned in India, Bangladesh, Canada and the United Kingdom and who has successfully sought refuge in Malaysia, is causing a backlash against the winners of Malaysia’s May 9 general election, the newly formed Pakatan Harapan coalition, proving the adage that winning an election, no matter how difficult it may be, is the easy part.

Zakir’s presence in the country has complicated the life of retreaded Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who led a blistering campaign to oust the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition led by the Malays National Organization in the May 9 general election. The imam arrived in Malaysia more than a year ago, fleeing Indian allegations that in addition to causing unrest there, the imam had inflamed religious politics in Bangladesh, generating a terror attack that killed 22 people.

Zakir, wanted in Bangladesh as well, is also accused of influencing recruits to join the murderous Islamic State. The controversy over his proposed extradition, stalled since it was requested in January by the Indian government, has caused murmurs of discontent over other issues to filter through the electorate, which is 60 percent Muslim and ethnic Malay.

Some are prepared to wait for the coalition to settle into its new role. After all, Malaysian was ruled for 61 years by a national coalition dominated by one political party, the United Malays National Organization, and the voters are waiting for Harapan to find its feet.

Others are impatient. For them, the sense of relief and euphoria after the Harapan victory, led by the 93-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, is beginning to lose its shine.

UMNO for decades championed racial and religious divisions as a means of maintaining its popularity against other coalitions, making common cause with the rural-based Parti Islam se-Malaysia in the most recent election. Malaysians welcomed what they expected to be a new, nondenominal Malaysia and embraced its returning nonagenarian PM. He has promised to stand down in perhaps two years to allow Anwar Ibrahim, who endured years of imprisonment on bogus charges of sexual impropriety and corruption, to take over.

But Mahathir’s decision to allow Zakir to remain in Malaysia has infuriated moderate Malays and non-Malays, with some calling Harapan “just UMNO 2.0.” More serious questions have been directed at Mahathir, with critics accusing him of reverting to the genetic makeup that enabled him to run UMNO for 22 years with an iron hand from 1981 to 2003.

During the campaign, Mahathir insisted that he had seen the light – that his curbs on the press and freedom of speech, his willingness to countenance crony capitalism – that characterized his earlier reign now had been discarded. But critics say he is showing few signs of honoring a pledge to observe universal human rights including those of the LBGTQ community. Amnesty International on July 11 registered alarm, renewing a call for the new government to abolish laws used to criminalize gays.

Mahathir is also showing faint enthusiasm for repealing an onerous “fake news” law passed in the waning days of the previous administration in an effort to curb free speech.

The decision to delay Zakir’s extradition to India as well as the antipathy to gay rights is regarded by his critics as a pander to rural Malay Muslims’ the country’s biggest voting bloc, which had deserted UMNO and its deeply corrupt leader Najib Razak.

Even if he is reformed, many say, the desire to hang onto power is so strong that he has had to appease the base, or does the wily old fox have a cunning plan which he is refusing to share with the public? There are rumors that behind the scenes, Mahathir is quietly negotiating with Saudi Arabia to take Zakir, a Saudi permanent resident, under their care.

Mahathir is aware that he has to toe a fine line, that his coalition is fragile. Najib stoked racial and religious fervor among his supporters to denounce Mahathir as a stooge of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, arguably the dominant Harapan coalition partner, awakening ever-present suspicions among ethnic Malays that the Chinese will come to dominate the political sphere as they have the economic one.

Despite freezing the bank accounts of both UMNO and Najib, Mahathir knows that behind the scenes, UMNO cadres are trying to make a comeback and topple his newly formed administration. Najib's supporters have claimed that the Malays are not protected by Mahathir, that Islam is being sidelined, that the national language is being cast aside, and that royal institutions that preserve the country’s nine sultans be phased out. Mahathir slashed their power dramatically during his previous reign.

Mahathir has countered by suggesting that his own party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu (United Indigenous Party), can protect the Malays. However, the Malays are still unsure of Harapan, or Mahathir realizes that it will take generations to convince the Malays of their survival. Mahathir attended Zakir's talks in 2012 and it is assumed, must be aware of their incendiary nature.

In a move to prevent Zakir from appearing a victim, Mahathir has repeated that he won’t be pressured into deporting the charismatic imam unless he has broken Malaysian laws. Concern that conservative Malays might blame him if Zakir is extradited to a life in prison in India – where Hindu nationalism is now rampant – appears to be part of his calculus.

The Hindu Rights Action Force (Hinda), a militant group purporting to defend the rights of Malaysia’s 2 million Hindus, has held protests against the imam, whose talks attract record crowds in Malaysia, where many Malays converse in Malay and have only a superficial knowledge of Islam, Zakir is highly respected and revered, delivering public "conversions" of non-Malays and non-Muslims during his talks.

No police action has been taken against Zakir despite his proselytizing. One by one, Mahathir's ministers have fallen in with Mahathir's reticence to extradite him to India. Go bind Singh Deo, the Communications Minister, a vocal critic of Zakir, refused to confirm if India had processed an extradition request. M Kulasegaran, the minister for Human Resources, and a former Zakir critic, said that he would ask the Attorney-General whether India has initiated a formal request for extradition.

Aware that Saudi Arabia had also granted him permanent residence, many Malaysians are furious that Zakir has been allowed to stay. In Malaysia, he can move unhindered and has been treated like a princeling by the previous government despite his vitriol among the multi-cultural Malaysian community. The public was further outraged when allegations surfaced that the religiously conservative Terengganu government on the country’s rural east coast, had awarded Zakir three islands on the strength of his talks, which champion Islam and Islamic values.

Ng Chok Sin, the deputy chairman of the religious harmony bureau of the Malaysian Chinese Association, the ethnic Chinese component of the deposed Barisan Nasional, has criticized Mahathir for taking non-Muslim votes for granted with the Zakir controversy and other issues.

On the contrary, Mahathir, half Indian himself, hasn’t been indifferent to the non-Malay voters, although on the surface this may be difficult to comprehend. The former PM is aware that ethnic Malaysia are suspicious and unpredictable. His reforms, designed to encompass race, religion and the issue of the royal households, will have to be introduced, sooner or later.

Mahathir has had 18 years of retirement in which to realize some of the religious and ethnic mistakes he perpetrated that produced the country’s current delicate racial balance. He probably knows the Malays better than they know themselves. Baby steps, he knows have to be taken lest they return back to UMNO, which considered itself the guardian of Malay interests since independence in 1957

The Zakir problem, together with the issue of banning JAKIM, the Malaysian Islamic authority, and the issue of child marriages, will be tackled at a pace that will not panic the Malays. Mahathir's reluctance to extradite Zakir to India, where he faces money laundering and terrorism charges, is pure political survival.

Mariam Mokhtar is a Malaysia-based correspondent and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.