The recent developments in Afghanistan made resurface pro-Taliban sympathies that had been harbored among Muslims for a long time, proving to be quite widespread within the Ummah all over the world, Italy included. Digging deeper in search of explanations on the origins of this phenomenon, it was easy to come across – once again ‒ the notorious figure of Zakir Naik, the Indian influential (tele)preacher of extremism. In the last 30 years, with his sermons and invectives, Zakir Naik has “misled” a myriad of Muslims, concretely contributing to radicalize young believers who then moved on to terrorist action. What is the red thread that still binds Zakir Naik to the Afghanistan of the Taliban, as well as of Al Qāʿida and ISIS?
WHO ZAKIR NAIK REALLY IS
Below we recall the main traits of Zakir Naik’s negative epic, shedding light upon his collusion with terrorism and the centrality of Afghanistan in his radical “discourse”.
Said to have graduated as a medical doctor, Naik forged himself as a preacher within the school of Indian extremism. His oratory “performances” in front of large audiences made him a “reference” for the new generations of Muslims, prior in the Subcontinent and then in the rest of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
With the Quranic quotation always ready, both to be exploited in support of his theses and to impress the public, Naik began his career as a “misleader” in the early 90s. His lectures in English and Urdu were broadcast over cable networks in the Muslim neighborhoods of Mumbai, and were also widely circulated via videotapes, CD-DVDs, and the internet. He gained international fame thanks to Peace TV, a satellite television channel founded in 2006 by Zakir Naik himself: a personal pulpit for propaganda capable of reaching the four corners of the world, with more than 200 million spectators, among whom Naik most likely drew the over 22 million adepts currently following him on Facebook.
It should be noted that a consecration of this magnitude could not have occurred without the essential political and economic support that he received by the leaderships of the main Muslim countries. The latter supported him by conferring honors and hospitality also and above all from the moment his name began to appear regularly in investigations relating to various terrorist attacks, as ideological and motivational inspirator for the militants involved.
Wanted by the Indian justice for incitement to terrorism and money laundering, the 56-year-old Zakir Naik has found permanent shelter in Malaysia, from where he continues to deny all allegations despite the evidence against him is overwhelming. For starters, the Islamic Research Foundation International (IRFI), the Mumbai-based entity he established in 1991, was found out to be tied to Jamaat-ud-Dawaa, the Indian offshoot of the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba that unleashed the multiple attacks of 26 November 2008 right in Mumbai (over 190 victims and 300 injured). As a matter of fact, CDs containing Naik’s sermons were found in the backpacks of some attackers.
Previously, Zakir Naik came under the spotlight in the context of the explosions on several trains occurred always in Mumbai on 11 July 2006 (209 dead and more than 700 injured). In particular, one of the perpetrators turned out to be a militant who was working with IRFI as a volunteer. IRFI is also linked to the opening of a “series of schools, initially in India and later in various Arab and Islamic countries”, which “educate non-Arab students from an early age […] in Quranic studies”. But what extremist adulterations of true Islām have been taught in these schools so far?
Zakir Naik is also wanted by the government of Bangladesh, due to his decisive role in the radicalization of the youths (in their twenties and even younger) who killed 20 people in Dhaka on 2 July 2016. What led them to commit this heinous act, totally antithetical to Islām? The answer is Naik’s fiery sermons broadcast on Peace TV and on social media, which were also watched by the Bangladeshi “foreign fighters” before going to Syria to join the ranks of ISIS.
On top of that, Zakir Naik has been associated with the attacks carried out on 21 April 2019 in Colombo, Sri Lanka (267 dead). One of the suicide bombers, Zahran Hashim, the mastermind of the operation, made no secret of being an avid fan of Zakir Naik. “For years, this man of faith (?) has spread his incitement without being banned”, he said in a video posted on YouTube: “What can Sri Lankan Muslims do for Dr. Zakir Naik?”. The answer was the Colombo massacre.
In the terrorist chronicles, Zakir Naik also emerged in the investigation concerning a thwarted attack on the New York subway that had been planned by a cell of Al Qāʿida in September 2009. One of the arrested militants, the Afghan Najibullah Zazi, was a fervent admirer of Zakir Naik and his video sermons, especially on YouTube. During the trial, Zazi pleaded guilty and confessed that he had sought to join the Taliban in Afghanistan in the spring of 2008, but eventually “we were recruited by Al Qāʿida”. Zakir Naik’s influence on the young Afghan is obvious.
Since the creation of the first alleged Islamic emirate in 1996, Naik has persistently taken the side of the Taliban in multiple speeches and debates broadcast by Peace TV, defending them from the allegation of violating the sharīʿa, especially for their violent and discriminatory treatment of women. Not only. He also repeatedly shielded Al Qāʿida, justifying his terrorist actions in the name of Islām during a notorious lecture given to numerous young Indians, who had flocked to an auditorium to hear his “word”.
When asked by an attendee from the audience, “what is being done to correct the misconceptions that Muslims themselves have, and to tell Osama bin Laden and the Taliban that their actions are damaging Islām”, Naik replied in a resentful way: “That Bin Laden and the Taliban are damaging Islām, that is your view”. Then, he challenged him by saying “before you pass on the message, you verify whether it is right or wrong”, referring instrumentally to Sūrah “Al Hujurat” of the Qur’an, which says: “O believers, if an evildoer brings you any news, verify it so you do not harm people unknowingly, becoming regretful for what you have done” (49:6). This is actually a treacherous use of the word of Allāh (swt), which reflects all the moral and intellectual dishonesty Zakir Naik is capable of. In short, by manipulating the scenario, he made Bin Laden and the Taliban pass as victims of the disinformation of the usual “Western media”, which purposely spread news against them that do not reflect reality.
“I read in the newspapers that the Taliban are very ruthless people… They say to all women to stop working and sit at home. Right or wrong? Allah ‘Aelam (Allah knows)”. “The Taliban said it is not good for women to go out and work, and that they will receive the salary at the doorstep. I do not know if this is true or false, but if my sister was living in Afghanistan and someone tells me that she will receive the salary at the doorstep without working, what would you prefer?”. On the sensitive topic of Afghan women, Zakir Naik expressed himself along these lines in another rally: “Why are women degraded in Afghanistan, as seen on television?”, a young Muslim lady asked him. His answer was quite imaginative, other than ridiculous: “Those scenes were shot in Hollywood”.
Back to the auditorium, after drawing his sword in defense of the Taliban, Naik dangerously dwelled on Osama bin Laden. “Osama bin Laden is right or wrong, did you check that?”. “Bombings in Nigeria, it was Bin Laden, the headlines say. Did he do it or not? I do not know. But if you ask my view, if he is fighting the enemies of Islām, then I am with him”, he said peremptorily. “I don’t know him personally, I am not in contact with him, I only read the newspapers. But if Bin Laden is terrorizing terrorists, if he is terrorizing terrorist America, I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist”.
“Every Muslim should be a terrorist”, here are the teachings of the “bad teacher” that will be put into practice by “misled” disciples like Najibullah Zazi or the bombers in Dhaka, one of whom, Rohan Imtiaz, had published before the attack the fateful statement “every Muslim should be a terrorist” on his Facebook page. The Bangladeshi “foreign fighters” who joined ISIS in Syria also responded positively to Naik’s appeal.
The Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen explains that “many would-be terrorists are incited by Zakir Naik. He is not having machetes in hands. But his followers are having machetes in hands”. And among them, the Mumbai and Colombo bombers must certainly be counted.
In order not to attract new criticism after the pro-Bin Laden and pro-Taliban statements, Zakir Naik spoke out negatively about ISIS, coining the acronym AISIS, or the Anti-Islamic State. However, Mohammad Ibrahim Yazdani, the head of an ISIS cell on Indian soil, confessed after his arrest that he was influenced by Naik’s sermons, like other members of the group.
The link between Zakir and ISIS also emerged in the case of young Muslim couples who went to Afghanistan from the Indian state of Kerala to live in the alleged “Islamic State” province based in Khorasan. A leading role in the radicalization of those husbands and wives, was played by Arshid Qureshi, head of external relations at IRFI.
FREEDOM TO RADICALIZE?
Mere “disinformation”, Naik usually states to dismiss the allegations against him, thus posing as a persecuted leader to whom his followers believe blindly. The truthfulness of the news circulating in the media is an actual problem, which affects other domains as well. Therefore, prudence is always necessary, but labeling systematically as “fake news” fabricated by “Western” unbelievers any piece of information that does not put oneself, as well as the Taliban and Al Qāʿida, in a good light, is a propaganda technique that Zakir Naik has significantly contributed to spread among militants and sympathizers of the radical “discourse”, as an automatic response mechanism to any criticism. This technique was also recently adopted to support the cause of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan on social media, labeling as untrue, for example, news and testimonies on the return of a climate of fear, violence, and discrimination against women.
What is most disturbing is the freedom with which Zakir Naik has been able for such a long time to follow through with his nefarious work as a preacher/radicalizer, encountering no obstacles. In addition to the connivance of the leaderships of the main Muslim countries, the fault also lies in the permissiveness of Western countries, “misled” by their misunderstood notion of freedom of expression, which ended up being applied to the notorious Charlie Hebdo cartoons and to shady and ill-intended individuals such as Zakir Naik, with tragic consequences in both circumstances in terms of radicalization, terrorism, dead, and wounded.
The mastermind of the Colombo massacre, Zahran Hashim, exalted the freedom that Zakir Naik has widely (and with impunity) enjoyed in promoting his extremist proselytism: “For years, this man of faith has spread his incitement without being banned. What can Sri Lankan Muslims do for Dr. Zakir Naik?”.
At the same time, it must be highlighted what has been done for Zakir Naik by Western countries, which naively granted him the pulpit of prestigious universities, study centers, and mosques during conferences and debates, as an alleged Muslim “intellectual”. Unfortunately, not even Italy was spared. In July 2008, Zakir Naik went to Rome, as distinguished guest of the Center for American Studies, and then, in February 2009, to Milan and Brescia, where he met some local Islamic communities, with sermons held in Urdu. The visit to Lombardy took place after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (November 2008), for which Zakir Naik had already been abundantly exposed due to his direct responsibility in the radicalization of the attackers.
The sprouting of the poisoned “fruits” of his intense extremist preaching, brought about a change of attitude toward Zakir Naik on the part of Western countries. In 2010, the UK and Canada banned him from entry, out of fear that his lessons could fuel radicalization at the local level. British justice also launched an investigation into how the funds received by IRFI British branch based in Birmingham had been used: about 7 million pounds between 2009 and 2014, a part of which was donated to Peace TV, as a proof of the huge room for maneuver that the UK had previously granted him.
London’s list of grievances toward Zakir Naik also encompassed the cell of Al Qāʿida that had recruited the Afghan Najibullah Zazi in New York, as it was linked to other qaidist militants active in the UK and planning an attack on British soil. However, it is only in 2020 that London decided to ban Peace TV for violating the regulations on incitement to hatred and carry out criminal acts and murders. The same provision was taken by the governments in Bangladesh (2016) and Sri Lanka (2019), in the wake of the attacks in Dakha and Colombo (in India, Peace TV was declared illegal in 2009).
This is a culpable delay, made even more culpable by the official reasons provided by the Bangladeshi authorities to explain their decision to ban Peace TV, which was reckoned as “non consistent with Muslim society, the Qur’an, the Sunnāh, the Hadīths, the Constitution of Bangladesh, our culture, customs, and rituals”: why did they wait over 10 years, the time to radicalize a generation of young Bangladeshis, before taking action?
However, banning Peace TV to counter the radicalization engendered by Zakir Naik is a move with very limited effectiveness, given the unrestricted circulation on social media of videos and films of his “performances” on the satellite channel and others platforms.
Facebook and YouTube hold an endless archive, which irresponsibly contributes to fueling the cult of Zakir Naik among those Muslim users who fall into his trap. Unofficial pages dedicated to him are also present in Italian, while a myriad of posts with propaganda statements inspired by Naik go around the web without ever stopping. There are also numerous cases of propaganda content taken from his speeches, without explicitly mentioning the source.
In short, thanks to complicit, extremely permissive or careless contexts, Zakir Naik keeps pervading both the web and the air, always almost unchallenged. Figures speak clearly: 200 million viewers for Peace TV, 22 million “followers” on Facebook, all “misled” by Zakir Naik? These are gigantic numbers compared to the total world Muslim population, which leave no doubt about the dreadful proportions that the poisoning of the Ummah has now reached due to extremism.
Faced with this threat to Islām arising from within the Ummah, Muslims cannot rely neither on rulers nor scholars, but are directly called upon themselves to a major “effort” (Jihād) to fight the incarnation of Shayṭān that matches the name of Zakir Naik. The battlefield is now clear from the slightest residue of “ignorance”, his true face as a “false Muslim” has been disclosed once and for all: what can Muslims do for Islām? #Ban_Zakir_Naik!
If you happen to watch his hoaxes or read his rants, have no doubt: it is a deception that serves the purpose to push believers into the arms of violence, even when the “wolf” presents himself dressed as a “lamb”, with messages that aim to make him pass as an authentic “man of faith”. Therefore, block the contacts of those who disseminate Zakir Naik’s propaganda, not forgetting to expose them also publicly on Facebook and other social media, in order to warn all our brothers and sisters. If you prefer not to show yourself, do it privately and in the way you think most appropriate, but do it…
As Muslims, let’s fight together against Zakir Naik, for Islām and for the Ummah, so that “a community may arise among you that call other to goodness, encourages what is good, and forbid what is bad” (Sūrah“ Āl ‘Imrān”, 3: 104), according to the wishes of Allāh (swt) the Most High. “Here are those who will prosper”, the Qur’an tells us, which certainly does not refer to the “misled” followers of Zakir Naik.