KUALA LUMPUR — The Malaysian Deputy Minister in charge of Islamic Affairs on Tuesday (April 19) defended the country’s decision to allow controversial Islamic scholar Zakir Naik (picture) to conduct his recent week-long lecture series on religion following an uproar from various quarters, including the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties, because Dr Zakir is a “voice of moderation” for Islam.
Analysts, however, told TODAY the Malaysian government’s endorsement of Dr Zakir — including a meeting between the preacher and Prime Minister Najib Razak — was aimed at appealing to the Malay voter base, marking another level at which the country’s main ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), is using religion to shore up its political position.
In an interview with business radio station BFM on Tuesday morning, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki said the India-born preacher was needed in Malaysia to counter the rising extremist voices in Islam. “Islam is a misunderstood religion, and there are many voices that are perceived as being extremist. We need a voice of moderation,” said Mr Asyraf . “He could represent a voice of moderation, not only among Muslims, but especially non-Muslims.” Mr Asyraf said Dr Zakir was capable of convincing non-
Muslims that Islam is a “religion of moderation”. “We are facing plenty of problems right now with extremist groups. This is why we need iconic personalities to change this perception,” he added.
Mr Asyraf was among those who lobbied for Dr Zakir to be allowed to speak in Malaysia, despite objections from BN’s senior partners, Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), as well as from numerous non-governmental organisations.
NGO Hindu Rights Action Force had accused Dr Zakir of encouraging discord by allegedly promoting terrorism and criticising the various faiths practised in Malaysia. The preacher is controversial for his views, among them his support for Al Qaeda jihadists and Osama bin Laden, after, in a 2006 lecture, he called for “every Muslim to be a terrorist”. However, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has defended the Islamic televangelist and even described the latter as a “very wise man”. During his week-long tour, Dr Zakir spoke in Kuala Lumpur, Terengganu and Malacca, after being given permission to do so by the police and the government.
Dr Lim Teck Ghee, director of the Centre for Policy Initiatives in Kuala Lumpur, told TODAY that the government’s move in greenlighting Dr Zakir’s speaking engagements was to appeal to the Malay-Muslim support base. “It is to make sure this audience continues to see the government as protecting Muslim and Malay dominance and hegemony,” said Dr Lim.
“The past two elections have shown that UMNO’s hold on power is precarious. Distracting the Malay Muslim audience with religious issues, which make it appear as if UMNO is the champion of Islam, is a straightforward and sure-to-win method to retain Malay votes; perhaps even a majority.”
Political analyst Wong Chin Huat noted the issue is about domestic positioning, to “lock in” Muslim voters who are eager to see Islam or Muslims emerging triumphant in any zero-sum game with other faiths or religious communities. “It’s a sign that the government is using the religious card to shore up its political position,” the head of political and social analysis at Penang Institute told TODAY.