In Zakir Naik saga, fault lines among Muslims slowly disappearing?

Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin posted pictures of his meeting with top PAS ulama such as Hashim Jasin and Ahmad Ali on his Facebook page on Thursday.

PETALING JAYA: While Dr Zakir Naik is faced with accusations of creating disunity and planting suspicions among Malaysians, a contrasting change seems to be taking place in Malay-Muslim dynamics.

The controversial Indian preacher and non-Muslim leaders have been engaged in a war of words. In contrast, there have been rare goodwill gestures between Malaysia’s two rival Muslim factions, both of whom have defended Naik in the wake of the media’s intense coverage of his recent speeches.

“One faction is that behind Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin. He represents a brand of Islam that has sometimes defied Malaysia’s traditional Islamic practices. The other faction is that of the conservatives, which includes almost all other political figures, which represent mainstream Islam in Malaysia,” said a local observer of contemporary Malaysian Islamic movements.

He said Asri’s conciliatory words to PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang for Hadi’s defence of Naik is all that it took for the two sides to forget their bad blood, especially in Perlis.

Asri has been critical of the government but has made no secret of his admiration of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, after the prime minister repeatedly rejected calls for Naik’s deportation.

On Friday, Asri welcomed Hadi’s statement in defence of Naik, even addressing the PAS leader with the salutation normally used by PAS members. “May Allah reward Tuan Guru Dato Seri, the PAS president,” the vocal mufti wrote on Facebook. “We are with TGHH (Tuan Guru Haji Hadi) on this issue.”

Just three months earlier, Asri and PAS supporters in Perlis had been condemning each other when three PAS members were accused of torching the mufti’s official car.

PAS supporters have in the past frequently accused Asri of promoting Salafist Islam, a claim Asri’s followers have taken pain to dismiss. Asri’s criticism of PAS’ plans to implement Islamic capital punishment or hudud is only part of the animosity.

But Asri wields great influence in tiny Perlis and beyond. He is close to Perlis royalty as well as to politicians of the ruling and opposition parties. His frequent comments on current affairs, though not holding political position, have earned him both fans and foes.

It was his strong support of Naik, however, which clearly distinguished friends from foes.

Malay politics observer Kamarul Zaman Yusoff agrees about Asri’s reach. “Many people don’t understand how big a figure Asri is. He has many followers nationwide, and not just among the public but political leaders and even members of the royalty,” the Universiti Utara Malaysia lecturer told FMT.

“So you can’t ignore what Asri says the way you can ignore what PAS says.”

Kamarul said Asri’s recent backing of Hadi in the Naik episode was significant, as well as him meeting top PAS ulama such as Hashim Jasin and Ahmad Ali.

He said it also showed how Naik, a popular Muslim evangelist who has been charged with money laundering in India, can be a rallying point for politicians and people who identify as being Muslims first. “These include those in Umno, PPBM and PKR,” he said.

“The Naik issue, by bringing together the Muslim conservative groups will strengthen PAS. More significantly, it can cause friction among Pakatan Harapan supporters at both the grassroots and leadership level.”

Political analyst Awang Azman Pawi said the government’s unclear stand on Naik, as well as the prime minister’s changing statements, would be of benefit to PAS and Umno.

On Friday, Mahathir surprised many by warning that Naik’s status as permanent resident could be revoked if he caused disharmony.

“The Naik issue should have been nipped in the bud. The government has allowed it to fester,” said Awang Azman.

He said the Naik issue can only be put to rest with a firm decision from Mahathir.

However, he believed the Naik episode was pushing Malays further away from the ruling coalition, which has been at pains to sustain its fragile Malay support.

In the midst of all this, Mahathir had also been playing a delicate political game, which included meetings with Malay opposition leaders.