The Diplomat: "Controversial Indian Salafist a Litmus Test for Malaysia on Counterterrorism"

December 11, 2017

Controversial Indian preacher Zakir Naik is vowing to fight an extradition request sent to Malaysia regarding terrorism-related charges.

India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) has filed terrorism charges against Naik accusing him of influencing Indian Muslims to join the Islamic State (ISIS). It also declared his Mumbai-based NGO, the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF), an unlawful organization.

“Naik is accused of a number of offenses including spreading communal hatred,” said Animesh Roul, executive director of the New Delhi-based Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict.

The government of Malaysia is considering extraditing the preacher back to India and is monitoring his movements. The case comes at an interesting time for Malaysia, which is attempting to re-assert itself as a force in regional counterterrorism efforts and improve ties with India.

“We monitor him because this person has a very ‘interesting personality’ and he attracts a lot of attention,” said Mohammed Fuzi Harun, the inspector-general of Royal Malaysia Police. Harun, who has been at his post since September, has taken a special interest in cracking down on extremism and terrorism. He also told the Malaysian press that Naik has not applied for Malaysian citizenship, a move which would likely prevent his extradition to India.

Naik is regarded as one the most influential Salafi evangelists in the world today. He rose to prominence in the 1990s by preaching in English, not in Urdu, which allowed him to reach a wider audience. As a televangelist on his very own Peace TV or through social media, his austere version of Islamic thinking has reached millions of people – mostly in Asia.

Naik has given contradictory claims regarding the relationship between his organization and the key suspects in the 2006 Mumbai train bombings, which killed 209 people and injured more than 700. In 2016, reports revealed one of the perpetrators, Rahil Shiekh, had volunteered at Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation (IRF).  Naik claims he never met Shiekh.

Naik’s preaching has long drawn criticism for his radical views. He voiced support for Osama bin Laden and in a 2006 lecture asked “every Muslim to be a terrorist.”

Naik has claimed that some of his comments were taken out of context and says he condemns terrorism.

Some Indian Muslims and the Qatari state-funded media network Al Jazeera have argued that Naik’s case is part of ongoing discrimination against Muslims in India. Naik’s lawyer has stated that the case is politically motivated.

Malaysia’s response to India’s request for extradition should provide insight into its changing attitudes toward terror. Five years ago it granted permanent residency to Naik, whose radical views have led Bangladesh, Canada, and the United Kingdom to deny him visas in the past.

“Zakir Naik’s permanent residency status in that country [Malaysia] will help him further [his case] as he has no criminal record in that country,” said Roul.

However, during the past year, Malaysia has been cracking down on extremists both within the country and in Malaysia’s near abroad. Malaysia’s position regarding Naik represents an about-face – just a few years ago, in addition to being granted residency, he apparently even met with Prime Minister Najib Razak. Malaysia’s apparent willingness to extradite Naik now reflects the country’s increased involvement in fighting terrorism not only at home but within Asia at large.

This year Malaysia’s prime minister made two important international visits to the United States and India, which demonstrated a new approach to counterterrorism policy.

During an April trip to New Delhi, Najib signed agreements, including a pledge to work closely on counterterrorism and security efforts. Following that meeting, a senior Malaysian naval commander met with his counterparts and visited Indian naval bases in early November.

Naik’s “extradition, if it happens, would be a major boost for already robust bilateral ties. In the past Malaysia helped India in detaining an influential Italian businessman in connection to the Bofors payoffs scandal in the early 2000s,” Roul said.


The Diplomat, December 11, 2017