In 1999, the Ku Klux Klan wanted to have a rally in New York City. The City refused to grant them permission. The Klan ultimately did have their rally, no small reason due to the support they got from the unlikeliest of quarters, black Civil Rights groups.
This Voltarian “I may not agree with what you say but I shall fight till death your right to say them” is a principle every free speech fundamentalist parrots, but very few stand by them consistently. It’s easy to stand for free speech as long as you agree with it. But the rubber truly hits the road when you come face to face with opinions that you consider despicable. Do you then stand by the right of the individual to express what he wants to say, as Black Civil Rights groups did, or do you run to Mummy government asking for duct tape and a room with no windows?
Zakir Naik is such a test. Since sometime during the 2010s, I have been following the preachings of Zakir Naik, marveling at his unapologetic Islamic supremacist world-view, with a sense of revulsion that I reserve for flying cockroaches and half-boiled eggs and centipedes mating. Every other religion is wrong and his is perfect, and women may be beaten at the husband’s behest, and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was a lesson for Buddhists, and a variation of “If loving Osama, the enemy of those who make Islam their enemy, is wrong, I don’t want to be right”, and all this is just him clearing his throat, getting started.
So when “the nation” or rather that one person who claims to represent it on prime-time asks for banning him and taking his Peace TV off air, I have to, with infinite reluctance, as a free-speech fundamentalist, support Zakir Naik’s right to say what he does without being gagged for it. This is a grey area, but as far as I have seen or heard, Zakir Naik never directly gives a call for violence or for war, in the way that a Hafeez Sayed does, which would then put him squarely in the area marked as hate-speech and subject, in my opinion, to legal sanction. Not that Naik does not skate close to the red line, for instance look at his dancing around death for apostasy in Islam, but he never gives an overt call for action.
He is smart that way.
Zakir Naik isn’t a recent phenomenon. He is well-known, has been provided a platform on national news channels, is as mainstream as mainstream gets, and continues the messaging and the techniques of his “guru”, Ahmed Deedat. Nothing new anywhere. No one seemed to have a problem with him for all these years. Now that we hear that he was the inspiration for the Dhaka attacks, not that he directly planned or executed them, the call has been raised for him to be banned. The “inspiration” or “provocation” argument is a slippery slope, shifting responsibility from the perpetrator of the evil to supposed external stimuli, and, once accepted, can be used to regulate or ban chow-mein, cell-phones, short skirts, item numbers (all external stimuli held responsible for violence against women), or cartoons of Prophets and books written by Salman Rushdie and Tasleema Nasreen and then by extension, pretty much everything else. What Zakir Naik does is again qualitatively different from shouting “Fire in a crowed theater”, where the natural legally-justifiable reaction should be to run. Not here though. No matter what Zakir Naik may say or imply, the criminal act starts the moment you enter that restaurant and start slicing necks. Not before.
India’s laws are, if you go by the letter, not very favorably inclined to the likes of Naik. Anyone who promotes disharmony between religions is subject to legal sanction, and Zakir Naik is pretty much dead to rights on that one. But then I have argued before on the blog that I believe that Indian laws provide too many restrictions on free-speech, which allows anyone, prominent media figures and owners of educational institutes and political figures, to shut down pretty much anything they don’t like, by exercising the power of a lawyer letter and a day in court. I favor something akin to the US First Amendment, and before you point out that Zakir Naik was refused entry to the US and so how can they be for absolute free speech, let me say that this is for that reason only, the US does not want Naik to enter the US and use the power provided by its laws to carry on his proselytizing activities. And since he is not an US citizen, that is a legitimate thing for the US to do. Alas, we in India do not have the choice but to bear him, he being an Indian citizen.
The problem with banning someone like Naik, besides of course the principle of it, is the sheer impracticality. His videos will circulate and be hosted on Youtube and people who had never heard of Zakir Naik before will now do, and he will be on the cover of magazines as a “victim” of India’s intolerance, the dog-whistle of choice for the opponents of the current regime. Also Zakir Naik preaches to the choir. The irony is that anyone who actually gets “influenced” by his supremacist ideology, is already convinced, and if it’s not Naik, it will be someone else. There is no shortage of his ilk on Youtube.
But this I can say for Naik. At least he is honest. In that he says what he means.
Far more insidious in their messaging, and hence more dangerous, are many of our media personalities, who under the garb of neutrality and moderation, spin a false narrative, as evidenced by the recent image-makeover of a dangerous terrorist into an idealist rebel, that de-legitimizes the rule of law and demonizes the notion of India as a nation.
Of course I would still support their right to free speech, as I do Naik’s and Kamlesh Tiwari’s.