By Mubasshir Mushtaq
A popular but divisive Indian Islamic preacher has found himself in the spotlight in the last week, after media reports claimed he "inspired" the attackers responsible for killing 22 people in a Bangladeshi cafe earlier in the month.
A report by Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star, that one of the attackers shared a video by Mumbai-based Dr. Zakir Naik on Facebook, set off a storm in the Indian media despite the newspaper later clarifying that it was not trying to link Naik to the attack.
Naik has admitted the attacker Rohan Imtiaz was one of his millions of Facebook “fans” but said he was "shocked at the media trial" following the attack.
“Most of the clips shown on the television of myself are either out of context, half statements or doctored. So are my statements in the print media,” Naik said, reacting to the media accusation that he has in the past justified suicide bombing and insulted Hindu deities.
Journalist Saba Naqvi wrote in the Times of Indian newspaper last week that Naik promoted an interpretation of Islam "that mocks other faiths even as it seeks to purge every local strand out of Islamic practice in India."
The controversy led to Indian federal and state-level governments ordering inquiries into Naik's speeches, though the Maharashtra state intelligence department has exonerated him after studying hundreds of videos, The Hindu newspaper reported Tuesday.
The probe will also look into the finances of Naik's Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) which receives foreign funds for "social and cultural" purposes though it is a religious organization.
Navaid Hamid, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, an umbrella organization of Muslim NGOs, told Anadolu Agency the whole controversy had been deliberately blown out of context.
“Unfortunately, in the last decade, intelligence agencies and right-wing forces create trouble for anyone who is against their ideology,” Hamid said, adding that media presented Naik as a “monster.”
“The Naik episode is part of usual phenomenon which raises its ugly head every now and then to target the Muslim community,” he said.
He added that in 2003 Naik had been invited by the pro-Indian state government of Jammu and Kashmir to promote peace in the disputed region, despite opposition from pro-independence Kashmiri leaders.
Naik has been in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, and is not scheduled to return to India for almost a month because of a lecture tour in Africa, according to his IRF organization.
A trained doctor, Naik started Islamic preaching in 1991 and addresses mass gatherings where he often converts hundreds of people to Islam. Despite the "peaceful" nature of his work, he has often courted controversy with his comments on other religions or sects of Islam.
While some influential Muslim groups, despite their theological differences, have defended Naik there have also been clerics who have called for a ban on his influential Peace TV channel, which was taken off air in Bangladesh for being unlicensed.
Naik is often associated with an old and ambiguous statement on al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, who he refused to denounce, claiming he did not know enough about him personally, and added that he supported "terrorizing a terrorist." The comments have often been taken to be support for violence, though he has denied that.
While Naik has split opinions in India, some who oppose him have also argued that he has been singled out despite wider problems with hate speech, including from the Hindu nationalist movement that Prime Minister Narendra Modi hails from.
"There's no question that the man is a dangerous, bigoted element, one that the country needs to be thinking about, even if banning him could backfire... [But] Naik is far from the only preacher of hate in the country," wrote the Scroll.in news website. "If Modi can look at addressing the threat posed by the likes of Naik, why not begin right at home within his own government and party?
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