Zakir Naik and Free Speech


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.

20 thoughts on “Zakir Naik and Free Speech

  1. Finally someone said what needs to be said. And I bate asking for ipad

  2. Concise, to the point and well put!

  3. 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

    What about Benazir Bhutto’s Azaadi speech? She too only asks for “Azaadi”, no? Does that come under free speech? (okay Pakistan is a different country, but if that is a problem assume that a different person called Phenazir Phutto gave such a speech in India – would such a speech come under free speech?)


      This is when the then prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, now a peacenik-come-lately, was shouting her slogans of azaadi, and exhorting the people of Kashmir to cut Jagmohan, then governor of the state, into pieces, as in “jag-jag, mo-mo, han-han”. She would say this while making chopping motions with her right hand as it moved from her left wrist to the elbow, leaving nobody in any doubt as to what she meant.

      This piece was written by Shekhar Gupta. So, no, she was not just repeating the word Azaadi again and again.

      1. I see. Good point, and thanks for responding.

  4. Abhishek K Ghising July 14, 2016 — 4:06 am

    Pretty balanced!

  5. Very well articulated.

    Extending the Naik-Bangalrdesh cause-effect logic to Bollywood: A few crimes are inspired by Bollywood. Would we then arrest those directors /actors?

    Naik does something far more dangerous than inspiring terrorist.
    It takes great conviction to shoot and kill people. The conviction comes from an unambiguous view of the world. Naik is that catalyst for young minds.

    Naik is a great way to openly confront the muslim-closet-bigots. Yes, there are many. Unfortunately. Its sad that each muslim ‘spokesman’ thinks he speaks for the whole religion. So it becomes very convenient for some of them to brush aside Naik saying that ‘Oh! dont worry he does not speak for Islam. He is not a true mulsim!” … I mean for god’s sake he has millions of active followers.

  6. We are expecting the state to replace sensible parenting. Well said!

  7. I don’t understand – exactly which laws restrict FoE? You seem to support laws restricting hate speech, call for violence, etc. There are some who do not support even these, argument being “sticks and stones…”. If that is the case, you are not FoE fundamentalist, as you claim to be. Because if you rationalize existence of this set of laws, then why not have laws relating to defamation, etc. Some people are not okay with Kejriwal style of public slandering and may need provision in law for protection. Which is why, in an uber-sensitive country like India, article 19(2) of constitution is needed. Absolute FoE is a well meaning, utopian concept fit for winning arguments in a debate. I would much rather have some powerful people misusing these restrictions (which faces massive public outrage and ridicule anyway), than having a scenario where an aggrieved person/ community does not find recourse in law.

  8. Zakir Naik has already got what he wanted – free publicity. To prosecute him would only make him a martyr. The state always has the power to bring him into line if he does over step the line into actively advocating violence or indulging in sort of terrorism.
    Those guys in Dhaka were not kids – they were adults and responsible for what they were doing.
    A secular society and rule of law that is not dogma based sets India apart from the culture envisioned by Zakir Naik – to lock him up would be playing right into his game plan. That paradise he speaks of is a pie in the sky – not achieved anywhere in spite of many countries (including IS) adopting policies that he and his ilk talk of.

  9. rajgauravdebnath1982 July 15, 2016 — 6:59 am

    Well written… Someone had to write this…

  10. Those countries which have banned him do not have 15% muslims like India which will lose more if the youth reared in madrassas imbibe his teachings. No you cannot ignore and close your eyes to his continuous spewing of vile. Not withstanding how he couches his language so as to avoid direct legal hassles, the fundamentalist ISIS ideology is obvious; India by not banning him and upholding the FOE would do grievous harm to it self in the long run. There is a definite turn of tide against islamism woldwide and also turmoil within islam very rightly. US did not worry about making OBL as martyr when it planned to meticulously kill him. I think only we indians have this charitable more liberal than thou approach / head in the sand view. Enough of prevarication. Time to take stand is NOW for everyone.

  11. Would you agree that Zakir naik is an antethesis of Subramanian Swamy – nothing more than that. (except of course Swamy has an Harvard degree, and he has a medical)..

  12. Started following your blog since 2005. Stopped reading around 2010. Checked here today, two things has not changed: your effort to be diplomatic, and your first commentors to ask for iPad 🙂

  13. I am not really sure what people expect from Islamic preachers. Do they want Islamic preachers to be like Dalai Lama ? Unlike Dalai Lama or Sri Sri Ravishankar they are bound by one true god, one fucking truth and they are just preaching Islam.

    The people who demand ban on Zakir are doing more verbal gymnastics to claim that he is some kind of fringe or radical. Zakir Naik is actually as close as an ideal muslim as one can get.

    I really hope more and more people world over watch him, understand Islam from him and also see the wide support for him.

    1. lost sanity or is it satirical?

  14. i am so glad to hear such sane and cool views.

  15. There is nothing wrong with half-boiled eggs, you ovacist.

  16. Jakir Naik has emerged now as a symbol of free speech in India. Ironies never cease to end.

  17. The best way to make the Zakir Naiks of the world irrelevant is to give them a mike and broadcast what they say to everyone. In fact, instead of banning him, the government should make sure every Indian hears him.

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