Something is wrong when varsity students are taught Naik is an ‘icon’

Sound religious discourse is the responsibility not just of religious leaders, but of the education sector, when it educates the youth on the ideals of religious harmony.

Ideals here refer both to the principles of religious harmony and individuals who disseminate such messages. Controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik can hardly be seen to be an epitome of religious harmony.

We enter 2020 with an exam question more or less belittling Malaysians for not wanting to give Naik a chance.

A lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Perlis had posed this question during an exam: “Zakir Naik is one of the icons of the Islamic world. He is very active in spreading true Islam and following the Quran and Sunnah of Rasulullah SAW. He is able to reason and answer every question that is asked of him. However, in Malaysia, he is no longer allowed to deliver speeches. In your opinion, as a Malaysian, why does this happen?”

The answers provided were: (1) Malaysians do not bother getting actual information; (2) Malaysians are sensitive and feel threatened for no reason; 3) Malaysians just follow the crowd without verifying any information; or 4) Malaysians are ignorant about their own religion.

All four options paint Malaysians as fools and intellectually inferior to Naik himself. So the choices for answering the question alone are problematic.

The bigger problem is the question itself. Why is he an icon of the Islamic world in the first place?

First, allegations of money laundering don’t fit in neatly with the claim that he is following the Quran. Neither do accusations of inspiring a gunman to launch an attack in Bangladesh that cost innocent lives.

In terms of racial and religious messaging, he has condemned both Chinese and Indian Malaysians, likening them to “pendatang” and questioning the loyalty of Indian Malaysians to their leaders.

What is iconic in all this hullabaloo is that he is a Malaysian permanent resident. I am sure there are other applications for PR still pending, even if these applicants have no criminal records or allegations of criminal activity.

Granting Naik PR shows that Malaysia views him as indispensable to the country’s social harmony.

What we need to deal with is the perspective of supporters of Naik. Once a question like the above is asked during examinations, students (who will one day be our future leaders) may uncritically accept the notion that Naik’s views are fodder for an inclusive Islam when actually they serve to divide.

Naik is merely a reflection of what kind of Islam is being championed in Malaysia. It is one that is divisive.

The forum “The Future of the Ummah: Voices of Unity and Harmony” in Kuala Lumpur in September of 2019 explained examples of this type of exclusivism.

Our standards of intellectual discussions, when it comes to religion, needs to, pardon the pun, “naik” (improve).

We can laugh at him for saying it is wrong for Muslims to wish Christians “Merry Christmas”, but once students are told that he is an icon, that’s when the laughing should stop.

Let us start the new year by being less tolerant of religious exclusivism. Let us also start the year with questions that have more rigour.

Here is one that neither praises nor bashes Naik: “Discourse surrounding preacher Naik can be divided into two camps: those who view him as an exemplary Muslim leader and those who fear his views will incite conflict between Muslim and non-Muslims. How do you feel Naik should be understood and why?”

Such questions will invite debate between students, not to mention debates between students and their lecturers. This is what 2020 should look like — a year where questionable personalities aren’t unquestionably praised.

Syed Imad Alatas is an FMT reader.

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.