Somewhere around 2004 or 2005, a family friend came to our house and told us to find “Q-tv” on cable and watch it at 7 pm. This zabardast speaker, Zakir Naik, is demolishing misconceptions about Islam using logic and science, we were told. We did, and there he was, saying the media is “picking a few black sheep” and “projecting as if Islam is asking them to do unlawful activities”. He would tell Muslims to keep a step-by-step answer ready in case friends, colleagues or security guards chide them about Muslims’ association with terrorism: Which madrasa did Hitler pass from? Of the many Muslims in the world how many are terrorists? Islam is a religion of peace, he insisted. He taught responses to questions Muslims were constantly hounded to answer: Why polygamy? Isn’t the burqa repressive?
Naik rose to fame by helping Muslims frame a response in a post 9/11 world, to insistent questions linking Islam and violence, and where the Muslim herself had come to doubt her identity and religion. Many Muslims found solace in Naik’s attempt at de-demonising Islam. However, Naik used the momentum gained from proving that Islam has been wrongly demonised, to fish the other end — that not only is Islam not the worst, it’s actually the best.
The irony seems to be that Naik has been convincing Muslims that they are not terrorists while seemingly inspiring some of them to be terrorists.
Everyone has been trying to find Naik’s dangers in singular utterances — that he supports Osama if he is terrorising “the terrorist America”, that suicide bombing may be allowed as a last resort, attacks on other religions, and several misogynist explanations of sexual violence.
Little attempt has been made to understand the dynamic of what happens in Naik’s two-hour-long lectures. Naik’s real danger, in which we all are implicated, is in the larger structure through which he has gained legitimacy, and within which the definitiveness of truth and justified violence have been sold to an audience who think of themselves as modern, liberal and hold scientific truths in high esteem.
Most attempts to understand Naik churn out the age-old rant of religion vs modernity: That Naik and his followers lack modern ways of thought and are blinded by religious passion. The incongruity between Naik’s constant invocation of “logic” and “peace”, and his inability to see beyond his rigid truth is understood by a simplistic relation — of hypocrisy. However, Naik’s following has not come despite modernity and reason, but through it. Naik has gained legitimacy from eschewing traditional religious authority, incorporating religious unbelief as a valid option and staging the illusion of choice. What counts as logic and rational argument in Naik’s speeches could be contested for authenticity, but in using the form, Naik is already within the public sphere.
Naik has been justifying his interpretations of controversial tenets in the Quran not by invoking any “special Islamic thought” but by borrowing logical premises from institutions in the secular world. Consider his reply to how can god be so egoistical as to punish people who do not believe in him. “Suppose tomorrow there is a student studying with you, he writes wrong answers. and teacher says both get first class first. Will you be happy with the teacher?” “No” says the respondent. “Because you believe in justice”
Naik plays this trick with examples across topics, on why polygamy is allowed because the female zygote is stronger and “statistically” there are more women in the world; violence can be justified in select cases because in a war an American officer would kill Vietnam’s soldiers.
Each of Naik’s “logical” arguments can be contested easily. But the question to cross-check is not if there are more women in the world, but how Naik and his followers are treating god as operating within the constraints of the natural world; a god who devises polygamy to correct the consequences of the female zygote being stronger. What does it mean that people who value reason think of Naik’s explanations as rational? Does it say anything about the sensibilities of the modern world: What is being scientific outside the lab or rational outside textbooks?
Naik’s case shows that the lack of aptitude to reason is not the mark of religious fundamentalism. It demonstrates how flimsily reason and logic have been conceptualised in the public sphere and how easy it is to justify religious violence from everyday examples of the secular world. The idea of the rational has been conceptualised entirely as a boisterous negation of what is religious. To appropriate the rhetoric of reason is easy, as has been done by modern states for patriotic wars and “growth”, overriding pain, environmental damage, inequality. How is Naik especially different? Is Naik a fundamentalist because he is sure of his rigid truth, or because he says violence can be justified on some occasions?
The purpose is not to defend the hateful Naik, but to simultaneously incriminate the structures through which he is able to convince people. Naik’s version of religion, far from being primitive, is an embarrassingly evolved version of how a rational religion was conceived post-Enlightenment, which has no interest in divinity and only in “belief” modelled on positivist truth. Naik’s legitimacy has come from being able to mimic structures deemed rational. His audience is one which has internalised both the good and true of the modern world and the humiliation meted out to Islam in it. To think of fundamentalism as an island with no relation to the structures in which we live is to miss the real danger.