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The odd man out

Dr. Zakir Naik Photo V. Sreenivasa Murthy.   | Photo Credit: V Sreenivasa Murthy

In the world of tele-evangelists, there has been nobody like Peace TV’s Dr Zakir Naik, a qualified medical practitioner whose studies include Shrutis and Smritis, the Bible and the Quran. An English-speaking man who dresses in three-piece suits with a tie, Naik defies all stereotypes of maulanas in a skull cap and ill-fitting kurta-pyjamas. Not the most polished of speakers, he is not blessed with the best voice modulation skills. Naik’s knowledge of Urdu is limited; the language considered mandatory to strike up a conversation with Muslims in North India. He whips up no magic on television. He preaches no meditation. He offers no quick-fix solutions to modern-day life problems. Yet he has struck a chord. Not just with bored housewives or men long retired but even with youngsters, who otherwise, would have been seen moving from one multiplex to another. Often Naik has been at the receiving end of the ire of both traditional maulanas and Right Wing activists. The maulanas, unable to fathom his huge popularity, often take recourse to shallow criticism. The Hindutva proponents, similarly unable to counter him from an intellectual platform, accuse him of causing disaffection in society. Yet nobody has thought it fit to study the inscrutable man, his behaviour, his popularity. Now Tabassum Ruhi Khan, a U.S.-based academic, has tried to fill the vacuum, at least partially. Her book “Beyond Hybridity and Fundamentalism”, based on research of Muslims living near Jamia Millia Islamia, has a significant take on Naik.

Tabassum writes in a conversational style which lends an easy feel to an otherwise meticulously researched book. About Naik, she writes, “My first encounter with Dr. Zakir Naik’s resonance in the Muslim youth’s lives was over a rather meandering conversation with a group of Jamia Millia Islamia students and alumni about their ambitions, dreams, desires and their favourite celebrities and television programmes. And it was when we were discussing Sania Mirza in the context of the disquiet created by her rather short tennis skirt and her aggressive volleying style among orthodox Muslim clerics, that Faizan, a history, Spanish and travel and tourism diploma student suddenly asked me, ‘Aap ne Zakir Naik ko suna hai?’ And when I replied that I had not really watched his programme on television, he added, as if to persuade me to do so, ‘Bahut sahi bolta hai’. However, in the context of our earlier conversations about what young people liked, what they wanted to do with their lives, who were their role models…what Faizan really meant to say was that Dr Naik’s ideas, or he, or both effectively addressed their experiences and problems.”

As Tabassum learnt more about the youth, she learnt more about Naik too. It set her wondering, “At first I was baffled as to why would the Muslim youth, who profess to be avid viewers of MTV and who admire competitive and assertive Muslims like Sania Mirza, so value his counsel?....Therefore, to understand the tele-evangelist, I tuned into Peace TV, which till late 2008, was still available on our cable network before the Indian government banned the channel and came down heavily on the cable operators, threatening to close down their businesses if they did not heed the injunctions. However…I found nothing in the channel’s offerings that was particularly threatening or revolutionary. To begin with, Dr Zakir Naik did not address the very inflammatory subject of internal debate within Islam, and nor did he openly critique the dominant powers arrayed against Islam. He is muted in his critique of politics….Considering his defence of orthodoxy, his popularity continued to puzzle me.”

It is then that Tabassum understood what makes Naik tick! There are other evangelists on television, including the likes of Dr A.R. Greene, or earlier Dr Israr Ahmed. But Naik’s appeal transcends theirs. “The fact that impressed upon me is his situatedness within the same globalized, interconnected, and interlinked milieus that the Muslim youth were grappling with and his ability to speak to them from within the same contradictory conditions. An integral aspect of his appeal is constructed by Peace TV’s positioning on global satellite platforms, whence Islamic discourses are juxtaposed with MTV, and exist alongside multiple other modernizing and globalizing ideologies. Reflecting initiative, entrepreneurial as well as organizational skills, Peace TV represents a pertinent effort to position Islamic ethos in the face of the Western media’s domination and the rising right-wing nationalism of indigenous media.”

Arguing that his biggest achievement is that he has made it possible to speak about Islam, Tabassum feels he owes his popularity to successfully addressing the Muslim youth’s most implicit need to reconcile Islam to new values and ways of being, including resurgent consumerism. “Dr Naik’s efforts to prove Islam’s explicit edge by employing his formidable knowledge in fluent English, the language of modernity as well as a modern argumentative style, resonates deeply with the Muslim youth.”

He is able to defy the binaries of the East and the West; his sartorial style, the use of English and the medium of debate and discussion speak of convoluted modernities. He uses modern methods to articulate alternative worldview. Of course, there is much more to “Beyond Hybridity and Fundamentalism: Emerging Muslim Identity in Globalized India”, an Oxford publication. But to me her biggest achievement is her ability to decode Zakir Naik. Whether the majority agrees with his logic or argument is another matter.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 2:37:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Ziya_Us_Salam/the-odd-man-out/article8228764.ece

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