Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Zakir Naik's incendiary words
Freedom of speech includes freedom to offend – but when a preacher's words incite violence, there has to be some sanction
www.guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 22 June 2010
by Tehmina Kazi
What do Dr Zakir Naik, Russian skinhead Pavel Skachevsky, far-right US talk show host Michael Savage, former Kahane Chai leader Mike Guzovsky and Kansas Baptist pastor Fred Phelps have in common? They are all on the list of people who have been banned from entering the UK.
Several commentators, like Inayat Bunglawala last week, have asked exactly what Naik has done to deserve such company. A quick internet search of his public statements throws up the following: "You heard the Muslims saying Osama Bin Laden is right or wrong. I reject them ... We don't know. But if you ask my view, if this is the truth, if he is fighting the enemies of Islam, I am for him. I don't know what he's doing. I'm not in touch with him. I don't know him personally. I read the newspaper. If he is terrorising the terrorists, if he is terrorising America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him ... The thing is, if he's terrorising a terrorist, he's following Islam." Other incendiary remarks include: "Muslims in India would prefer the Islamic criminal law to be implemented on all Indians since it is the most practical", "The Jews, by nature as a whole, will be against Muslims", (Western Mail, 16 August 2006) plus an assertion that western women make themselves more susceptible to sexual assault by wearing revealing clothing.
While it is evident that most of Naik's views are out of step with the values of any 21st-century liberal democracy, this in itself does not provide sufficient justification to exclude him from the UK. As Lord Justice Sedley stated in the notable high court judgment Redmond-Bate vs Director of Public Prosecutions : "Free speech includes not only the inoffensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, providing it does not intend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having." Incitement to violence is a crucial caveat of this fundamental principle, and forms the basis of the Home Office's "unacceptable behaviour" policy. Proscribed actions on the list include the glorification of terrorism, provoking others to commit terrorist or criminal acts, and fostering hatred which might lead to inter-community violence within the UK. Therefore, the most problematic of Naik's statements are the ones that appear to condone violence: "If a Muslim becomes a non-Muslim and propagates his/her new religion then, it is as good as treason. There is a 'death penalty' in Islam for such a person." Naik's supporters have cited his freedom of speech as a reason for overturning this exclusion order, but would he take a similar stance if a famous ex-Muslim chose to convene a speaking tour in Pakistan, for example? Further, Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested in September 2009 for planning suicide attacks on the New York subway, is said to have become "enchanted" with Zakir Naik before planning his attack.
My organisation, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, supports rigorous application of the exclusion policy to any international speaker who incites hatred or violence. However, it is also vital that the Home Office is consistent in its application of a tool as powerful – and potentially controversial – as exclusion. To its credit, the Home Office made a statement on Geert Wilders clarifying its position, after the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal overturned the ban on his entry to the UK in October 2009. Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn't the Home Office but the tribunal that allowed Wilders into the country.
Supporters of Naik have jumped to his defence by claiming that his more controversial statements, like "Every Muslim should be a terrorist", should be viewed in their proper context: "Every Muslim should be a terrorist. A terrorist is a person who causes terror. The moment a robber sees a policeman he is terrified. A policeman is a terrorist for the robber. Similarly every Muslim should be a terrorist for the antisocial elements of society, such as thieves, dacoits and rapists. Whenever such an antisocial element sees a Muslim, he should be terrified. It is true that the word 'terrorist' is generally used for a person who causes terror among the common people. But a true Muslim should only be a terrorist to selective people ie antisocial elements, and not to the common innocent people. In fact, a Muslim should be a source of peace for innocent people."
This semi-clarification of "antisocial elements" is all well and good, but what Naik fails to elucidate is exactly who the "common innocent people" are. One would imagine that based on his other pronouncements, they don't include apostates or gay people. In any case, such defences of Naik entirely miss the point. As a medical doctor and speaker whose lectures on Peace TV are broadcast to millions of Muslims across the world, he is in an incredibly powerful position. Therefore, he must bear total responsibility for every single word that leaves his lips (or his keyboard). Not only should Naik and other religious leaders be extremely careful with the terminology they use (as per the Qur'anic injunction, "Invite (all) to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious"), they should be prepared for any criticism that comes their way if certain individuals cite them as "inspirations" and take their more controversial statements too literally. Many of Naik's supporters point to his remarks condemning 9/11 and 7/7, but nothing less than a clear and consistent repudiation of the quotes mentioned in this article will do.
Tehmina Kazi is director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, an organisation which aims to raise awareness of the benefits of democracy and its contribution to a shared vision of citizenship