Indian media has an uncanny habit. It gets obsessed with certain issues and controversies for a short time that last less than a fortnight. Trivial news items and discussions are blown out of proportion and important ones left out. Issues related to politics and ideology do usually eclipse the issues useful to general society. Eventually, the everyday necessity of general awareness is unwittingly ignored. The obvious setback of a controversy-addicted news media is that it cannot quench the hunger of knowledge which leaves the society morally and intellectually malnourished thereby perpetuating social evils besides administrative and economic disorders. This sensationalist attitude of the media, that resembles a cannabis addicted youngster, has left the populace longing for uncontaminated food, water and unpolluted air. A generation has grown up that doesn’t remember the taste of delicious mangoes and can hardly see a locality with families of different communities living as neighbours.
Media’s Crusade Against the Islamic Preacher
The recent controversy around Dr. Zakir Naik, an Islamic preacher, was one such pill, carefully administered by a fascist lobby. The controversy began with a cunning report. The Daily Star, the leading newspaper in Bangladesh published a story about the terrorist attack in Dhaka. It reported that the gunmen who killed 22 people at a café in the Bangladeshi capital had posted some of Dr. Naik’s ideas on social media. This news was then reported by the Indian Express, Times Now and NDTV on July 5 and in Scroll which further added that the controversial preacher is banned in UK, Canada and Malaysia.
Dr. Zakir Naik responded by uploading a video on his YouTube and Twitter blogs on July 8 in which he exposed the lies of these media houses. The Islamic preacher was never banned in Canada or Malaysia but was actually honoured with the Tokoh Ma’al Hijrah Award for Distinguished International Personality in 2013 by the King of Malaysia, which is Malaysia’s highest civilian award.
The Daily Star then quickly removed the news page from its website and published another one clarifying that it stands corrected and expressed protest against the misunderstanding. Though media outlets had reported that the responsibility for the Dhaka attack was claimed by the misattributed Islamic State (ISIS), the Bangladesh government’s investigation shows otherwise.
Since then, all the media agencies have been running a smear campaign against this soft-spoken preacher who is a household name for millions of Muslims around the world. Besides being given highest national honours by the heads of states of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Gambia, Zakir Naik is also the founder of the Peace TV network, available free-to-air in 200 countries and has a total viewership of over 200 million. This makes Peace TV the largest religious TV network in the world, which is uplinked to satellite from United Kingdom and UAE. Dr. Naik has shared stages with lawyers, journalists, bureaucrats, judges, politicians, Bollywood personalities and religious leaders including the famous Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. But all the media outlets have published guile reports to falsely associate Zakir Naik with Wahhabi extremists while none of them have reported in the recent days about his public dialogue with Ravi Shankar in 2006. This is because Dr. Naik had exposed the spiritual guru’s supremacist views in his erroneous book on Hinduism and Islam which was published after the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Zakir Naik’s Peace TV does not have a cable licence in India, so cable operators are prohibited from relaying it. But like the thousands of channels available around the world, it can be viewed using a private antenna, which is not prohibited. As of now, Bangladesh has banned the Peace TV on cable, but private viewing is still permitted. Dr. Naik, as usual, is on a foreign tour holding peace conferences and other events.
Liberalism – Slander Journalism
Mainstream media and politics are distant cousins. Media outlets have the tendency to flirt with political/ideological sides and become a narrow pool of like-minded journalists who gradually lose the touch of reality and public opinion. This is why many leading news agencies gave terribly wrong analyses on the popularity of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump.
Among the most misleading criticisms published by such journalists was by Saba Naqvi in the Times of India on July 9 calling him a “preacher from hell”. An essay of not more than 700 words, Naqvi has written 10 blatant lies about Zakir Naik, terrorism, sectarianism, current affairs and history. Naqvi seems to believe that Islam is nothing more than a cultural identity, which is exactly the narrative of Sangh Parivar. Shekhar Gupta, who had interviewed Dr. Naik on NDTV, writes that Zakir Naik is a “dangerous misinterpreter of maladies” and promoted religious fundamentalism. Ironically, Gupta has neither studied religion nor geopolitics. In fact, Shekhar Gupta and Saba Naqvi have hardly ever studied or reported the complexities of theology, religion, geopolitics or terrorism. TV channels, as usual, got their choicest pseudo-intellectual critics who are obsessed with maligning certain Islamic Schools of Thought.
Mainstream media can easily support the opinions of a Bangladeshi or Pakistani exile to criticise Islam but cannot understand the swarm of Islamic scholars and Muslim intellectuals who preach Islam and build communal harmony.
Liberalism, therefore, is emerging as a fanatic ideology whose supporters would resort to all kinds of sinister methods and lies when faced with a formidable challenge. All the constraints of journalistic professionalism, objectivity, integrity and fact checking are candidly broken. Character assassination is also a card to be played lest all the other methods fail. This is when mainstream journalism turns into toxic propaganda. Social Media channels too, that are otherwise liberal and fairly objective, have shown their talent of misinterpreting Zakir Naik’s talks. This kind of attitude that conceals and belies the truth is referred to in Arabic as ‘kufr’ and a person who does this consistently is called a Kaafir (which by the way is a word of secular and pre-Islamic origins). Everyone in this world who tries to reform the society goes through such trials.
Zakir Naik, Wahhabism and the Middle East
Contrary to Arnab Goswami’s defamation, Zakir Naik frequently condemns terrorism and violence by quoting the Qur’anic verse in his programmes, “… whoever kills anyone, unless for murder or spreading corruption in land, it is as if he has killed the whole mankind. And if he saves anyone then it’s like saving all the people” (The Table Spread, 5:32) But none of the news or opinion platforms, whether print, electronic or online have mentioned it anywhere. Anyone who watches Dr. Naik’s programmes in their unedited entirety knows that the preacher is all against violence and has been actively promoting inter-faith dialogue and understanding.
Mahatma Gandhi had said that all religions proceed from the same God but are all imperfect because they have come down to us through imperfect human instrumentality. Dr. Zakir Naik, therefore, holds public gatherings for free, to present a practical path that is free from human manipulations. He commands respect from several Muslim and non-Muslim guests who thank him for opening their eyes to brightness and clarity.
Almost every media house, of late, has been associating the Mumbai based preacher with Wahhabism which they consider to be an extremist Islamist ideology. Bewitched by a habit of naively buying the narrative of Western lobbies, almost every Indian media agency is propagating the notion that neo-Wahhabism (known as Salafism) is the cause of global terrorism. Salafism, in reality, is just a theo-jurisprudential School of Islamic Thought that emerged in the twentieth century. Ironically, articles in the print media criticising Salafism are never written by anyone who is a proper cleric from a madrasa or at least has a master’s degree in Islamic Studies from a university. All of them are poets, writers, historians or at best professors of cultural studies.
Contrary to the media portrayal, Salafism is a very broad creed and is not synonymous with the Saudi Wahhabism. It has gone through many changes and bifurcations since its founding by Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab in the eighteenth century in the Najd region of Arabia. Salafism traces its legacy to Imam Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 14th century CE) and the Ash’ari School of Islamic theology. It emphasises a pure and pristine monotheism (Tauheed) based on Qur’an and the Prophet’s tradition (Sunnah). Similar to other revivalist movements around the Muslim world, it opposes superstition, hero worship, grave reverence, extravagant celebrations, the transactional nature of religion which accumulates wealth by exploiting the ignorance of laymen and blind loyalty to scholars or creeds. Through its influence in the House of Saud it also reunited a fragmenting Muslim world, in the matters of religious jurisprudence (Fiqh), during a declining Ottoman Empire.
The famous School of Deoband in India is closer to Salafi jurisprudence, and also opposes extravagance and grave reverence. Interestingly, the most respected Salafist scholars drew inspiration from an Indian Sufi luminary named Shah Waliullah Dehalwi, who was a contemporary of Ibn Abdul Wahhab. Salafism therefore, like Buddhism, Sufism or Marxism is far from a monolithic creed. Noted Salafi scholar Dr. Yasir Qadhi, who studied under the most influential Salafi scholars, has listed seven strands diverging from Salafism. Six of them are concerned only with theological and jurisprudential issues and the seventh strand – the terrorist one – has emerged only in the late 1990s. Ironically, the very word ‘salafi’ was popularised by a scholar named Rashid Rida whose views differ widely from the contemporary mainstream Salafism.
Several Salafist scholars have denounced and condemned terrorism as much as military aggressions in the past few decades. Dr. Yasir Qadhi, besides many others, who graduated from the Islamic University of Medina, has repeatedly condemned terrorism and also criticised the Saudi regime for its indifference towards the Syrian refugee crisis. Some scholars like Yusuf Qardhawi, who condemn the 9/11 attacks, opine that suicide terrorism may be allowed by a military commander when a country is besieged and extreme conditions like those in Palestine prevail.
Most critics of the misattributed Islamist terrorism don’t know that Palestine is a centrepiece territory in the Middle East and has been occupied since about 100 years. Some prominent terrorist organisations in Palestine are Communist groups founded by Christians. More than 9 million Palestinians live under horrible conditions like refugee camps, military occupation, economic suffocation, systematic deprivation and poisoning of water bodies to name a few.
Terrorism is Not a Muslim Monopoly
This explains why terrorism by a fringe of radical Muslims has emerged only since the 1980s while Wahhabism is about 250 years old. In fact, suicide terrorism, before the Iraq War 2003, was dominated by the LTTE of Sri Lanka which is now a defunct Hindu Communist organisation. Hezbollah, a Shia group in Lebanon resorted to terrorism after the Israeli invasion in 1982. Indira Gandhi was assassinated when she ordered the violent removal of Khalistani (Sikh) terrorists from Harminder Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar. Taliban, which subscribes to Deoband School in India and emerged only to reconcile the tribal infightings in Afghanistan, had not employed terrorism before the American invasion in 2001. They were actually supported by CIA against the Soviets and Hollywood had dedicated the movie Rambo III to Mujahedeen of Afghanistan. The assassin of Governor Salman Taseer of the Punjab province in Pakistan was eulogised by the largest Sufi School.
Terrorism, therefore, is neither a monopoly of Muslims nor Wahhabism. It is always, without exception, a desperate reaction to military aggression by a foreign or a mainland government. Presence of a ‘conflict zone’ or excessive ‘military intervention’ is always the cause of terrorism. Religious fundamentalism is hardly the cause. The above explanation is not a justification for terrorism but an empirical cause of its rise, understood through several years of academic research. Two wrongs, of course, do not make a right. It only aggravates the problem.
The Ulterior Motives
When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was preaching in Mecca and nothing seemed to stop the spread of Islam, some Meccan chieftains offered reconciliation to him. They promised to make him the king if he could accept only a few aspects of their paganism, if not all. In our times, a prominent leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had once said to his karsevaks that the only problem between Hindus and Muslims is about the mode of practices and rituals. If Muslims, he said, can understand that there isn’t much difference between qawwali and bhajan or between idol worship and grave worship, then all differences would disappear.
Dr. Zakir Naik, along with the mainstream Schools of Islamic Thought outrightly rejects both qawwali and grave worship as infringements to Sharia (as a result of monotheism). But mainstream media believes that non-clerical and non-practising Muslims are the proper representatives of Islam and Sharia, just because they are rich or famous. This is a grave logical flaw and can be very dangerous if similarly applied to extremists, who can also acquire riches and fame (though bad fame).
The Portuguese imperialists, in Sri Lanka, had used the divide and rule policy to weaken the Buddhists and Hindus, even as both the belief systems are based on Dharma, Karma and Moksha. In a similar move today, fascist divisive forces in India are working to weaken the Muslims along sectarian lines, even as they all believe in Monotheism, Prophethood and Final Judgement. These are the fanatics who judge people’s right to citizenship by the religion of their ancestors.
If India is to flourish as a great land of peace and prosperity, then the government and media should refrain from targeting sections of the society. The police and intelligence agencies must stop the policy of making scapegoats to conceal their inefficiency of catching the real culprits. Journalists of different inclinations need to strengthen their integrity and learn to acknowledge and tolerate the conflicting religious views instead of ignoring them and lobbying a majoritarianist approach. Indian journalists and scholars need to independently report and analyse international affairs instead of copy-pasting articles (and geopolitical narrative) from Western media. Until that happens, the best Indian talent will continue to migrate away from the misinformed lot, only to be later appeased by a demagogic leader at the Madison Square Garden.