PUTRAJAYA: Friday prayers at the Putrajaya mosque have just ended. As worshippers rush to beat the fast building traffic congestion outside, a small crowd begins to gather at the back row of the main prayer hall.
The excitement at the end of the weekly congregation here is almost a ritual now. Their focus is Zakir Naik, India’s most controversial Muslim preacher.
Naik is wanted in different ways in India and Malaysia.
Authorities in India have been eager to question him on allegations of extremism and money laundering, charges Naik has dismissed as false. In Malaysia, Naik finds solace not only in support from government leaders and local Muslim leaders – his celebrity status among his millions of fans worldwide has increased his welcome within the local Muslim community.
The small crowd follows Naik as he makes his way outside, escorted by two local men. They are hired from a local security company to be his personal bodyguards.
Outside, Naik catches up with Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the deputy prime minister. Naik’s freedom depends on Zahid, who heads the powerful ministry in charge of immigration and who could put the preacher on the next flight to Mumbai “at the press of a button”, as one close associate told FMT.
Zahid would be obliged to comply with such a request. “If the Indian government makes a request to extradite him (Naik) based on Mutual Legal Assistance, we will return him,” he had told Parliament last November.
Outside the mosque, the men hug like old friends, touching their chins.
“Congratulations,” Zahid is heard telling Naik, before they part ways.
Zahid’s congratulatory message is timely. Just a week earlier, the Kuala Lumpur High Court threw out a lawsuit led by Hindraf. The Hindu pressure group is unhappy that the Malaysian government is “harbouring” the fugitive Naik by giving him permanent resident (PR) status.
For more than two decades, Naik has spoken on comparative religion, a topic that has drawn large crowds to his lecture events around the world, but which has not sat well with some Hindu and Christian groups.
This is not the only reason for Naik’s controversial reputation.
Following the terrorist attacks of 2016 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, there were accusations that he had inspired one of the youths who carried out the attacks.
Rohan Imtiaz, 22, had reportedly shared a video clip of one of Naik’s old lectures praising Osama bin Laden, the Saudi citizen linked to the 9/11 attacks in the US.
“If he is terrorising America, the biggest terrorist, I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist. The thing is that if he is terrorising a terrorist, he is following Islam,” Naik said in the video shared on Facebook.
For decades, Naik’s missionary activities were carried out under his Islamic Research Foundation (IRF), a well-oiled centre he set up in Mumbai.
At Tamara Residence, a middle-class condominium just a stone’s throw from the Prime Minister’s Office, there is no celebrity welcome for Naik, who had just arrived after attending Friday prayers.
That sort of indifference, so to speak, allows Naik the space and time to recoup, even with the intense surveillance he could be under by Indian police.
Like other neighbourhoods in Putrajaya, the bulk of residents here are civil servants, but there are also many expatriates from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.
It is here that Naik has been holding meetings with his aides, including a businessman who recently arrived from Mumbai.
Although Naik’s future plans are not known, they are not hard to guess.
With his path cleared by the recent High Court ruling against his critics, now is the best time for Naik to rebuild his IRF, which was shut down by Indian authorities over allegations of money laundering and promoting extremism.
One source with knowledge of the preacher’s activities told FMT that plans to rebuild his “empire”, specifically his Peace TV Islamic propagation channel, are already underway.
Naik has hosted many like-minded Muslims at his unit in Tamara Residence, including local preachers who share his vision of spreading an “austere” version of Islam, similar to that promoted by some Gulf governments, including Saudi Arabia.
Naik has a large following around the world. Every day, his Facebook page dishes out attractive Islamic graphics containing Quranic and lecture quotes to some 17 million fans. In his home state alone, he has wowed the crowd in mega-lecture events, where his skills in quoting the Bible and Veda often draw applause.
But his Salafist style of Islam has come under criticism from Muslim scholars in India, where Islam was mostly spread under the influences of local cultures and religions, including by Sufis who are condemned by Salafis as heretics.
Among his critics is prominent author Wahiduddin Khan, who once suggested that Naik’s popularity was just a symptom of the Muslim world’s decline after centuries of ruling vast empires.
“The wave of Islamophobia in the aftermath of 9/11 and the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan have only added to the Muslims’ sense of injury,” Wahiduddin, commonly known as the “Maulana”, was quoted as saying by Times of India.
“In such a situation, when a debater like Zakir Naik, in eloquent English, takes on preachers of other faiths and defeats them during debates, the Muslims’ chests puff with pride.”
Naik, who was bestowed with Saudi Arabia’s highest award three years ago, could easily make the kingdom his home. However, he decided to set up base in Malaysia.
“He finds the Malaysian authorities more supportive, and the country is conducive for his da’wah (propagation) work,” said a source who is familiar with Naik’s activities.
Rebuilding an empire
Naik probably made the right decision, at least business-wise. A man with millions of Muslim fans around the world would come in handy for politicians who cannot avoid playing the religion card.
Last year, Malay right-wing group Perkasa presented Naik with a “Malay warrior” award. Naik also found admirers in both government and opposition leaders. One vocal supporter is Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, who is often forced to defend himself against accusations of promoting Wahhabism, the derogatory name for Salafism.
At the Surau Al-Syifa frequented by Tamara residents, Naik is not a regular figure.
The surau has hosted speakers from abroad for its religious programmes, but Naik is not one of them although there are plans to change this.
“People here are quite comfortable with his presence,” said a residence committee member when met at the surau.
But Naik is busy with other plans.
With help from well-placed locals, he has been quietly rebuilding Peace TV in Malaysia, with an office space somewhere in the administrative capital.
Naik has made no secret of this plan. In 2016, he told Utusan Malaysia of his expansion plan for Peace TV in this part of the world, including to broadcast in Malay and Mandarin.
In the past, he had sent Malaysians to Mumbai for “intensive training” to produce more speakers like him.
“In 12 to 45 days, God willing, Malaysia will have a preacher like me,” he had told Utusan.
Whether or not Naik or his “clones” continue his work in Malaysia remains to be seen. For now, it looks like his decision to settle down here is paying off, both in his personal life and his business of Islamic propagation.