Mahathir Muhammad, who made a remarkable comeback to power in the recent Malaysian general election, is back to his old antics. He recently met the controversial Indian Islamic preacher and televangelist Zakir Naik.
Zakir Naik’s Dubious History
While it is Malaysia’s sovereign right to host Naik, there was no need for Mahathir to meet the fugitive. His meeting is a clear snub to India. As Prime Minister, Mahathir has signaled, via the meeting, that he is not particularly concerned about India’s sensitivities and, perhaps, his sympathies as a practicing Muslim, may lie with Naik. Mahathir told new agencies that Naik will not be deported since he has Permanent Residency [PR], as long as he does not create any problems.
The official reaction in New Delhi has been to fudge the issue by saying that India will seek Naik’s extradition, usually a long drawn out judicial process, as opposed to deportation, which is an executive decision.
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As a preacher whose Peace TV became the platform for his public discourses on Islam, Naik is on record, promoting the supremacy of Islam over all other faiths. Naik is also charged with making subtle suggestions that violent jihad against non-Muslims or Kafirs may be justified in certain circumstances. He has also justified Osama bin Laden’s acts of terrorism, supported the death penalty for homosexuals and for apostacy. Moreover, his organisation has reportedly employed people suspected of involvement in the 2006 Mumbai train bombings.
Naik became a popular figure in several Islamic countries, and Saudi Arabia even honoured him with state recognition.
In what has been called the worst terror strike in Bangladesh’s history, the 1 July 2016 siege of Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, which led to several deaths, the perpetrators had shockingly said on social media, that they were inspired by Naik’s teachings.
How Naik Won Malaysian Permanent Residency
Naik has obtained permanent residency [PR] in Malaysia, using one of many ways that Malaysia permits foreign nationals to acquire PR. The easiest route to PR is via the “High Net Worth Individuals”, perhaps, the most commonly used route by foreigners who have acquired wealth through dubious means. A foreign high net worth individual can obtain PR in Malaysia from the State Immigration Office by submitting an application along with evidence of having opened a fixed deposit account, with a minimum amount of USD 2 million, in any Malaysian bank.
This amount cannot be withdrawn for 5 years. An added advantage of this route to PR is that the applicant’s spouse and children below 18 years of age will become eligible for PR after 5 years stay in Malaysia.
Many foreigners who have acquired wealth illegally, use this route to park their ill-gotten wealth in Malaysia, and also flee their home countries to stay here permanently thereby avoiding legal proceedings.
Questions have been raised about whether Malaysia asks any questions about the source of such large funds from PR applicants. Instead of Swiss Banks, many foreigners now prefer the Malaysian option. The moot point is, where did Naik get access to such funds and how did he transfer such large funds in foreign exchange to Malaysia? The legal case in India, therefore, has inter alia, charged Naik with money-laundering. Naik has refused to return to India to face legal action, citing that he may be unfairly prosecuted.
Roots of Naik’s Ties With Malaysia
It would be fair to note that Naik’s activities in Malaysia began under the former government of PM Najib Razak who reportedly encouraged accommodation of “political Islam”, because of electoral reverses in 2013. Naik not only got PR but was also feted by Razak’s senior ministers and officials. Razak’s corrupt legacy has led to the electoral defeat of his party in the 2018 election by the Opposition, led by the 92-year old Mahathir, who returned to active politics, to deliver a stinging defeat to Razak.
The latter has now been jailed, pending investigation into his and his wife’s involvement in large-scale corruption.
Naik’s residency in Malaysia is an indicator of rising Muslim conservatism among the majority Malay Muslims, which Razak had hoped to exploit.
Malaysia, which has over 40 percent non-Muslim population, has been pandering to Islamist demands and has cancelled beer festivals and pop concerts, while imposing restrictions on dress.
India-Malaysia economic ties have blossomed, and strategic connectivity has been established under the rubric of India’s ‘Act East Policy’, which seeks to intensify outreach to the South East Asian countries. Under PM Rajak’s government, important milestones in bilateral ties were established – Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement [CECA] in 2010 and the Joint Statement on Enhanced Malaysia-India Strategic Partnership in 2015. India is today Malaysia’s 10th largest trading partner with bilateral trade at over USD 13 billion. It is also a significant investor in the infrastructure sector in India.
Malaysia’s closer engagement with India also helps mitigate criticism of excessive closeness with China, which is the largest investor in Malaysia.
With China’s expansionist posturing in the South China Sea and increasing shadow over maritime trade routes, Malaysia will seek to hedge its bets and cultivate geopolitical counterweights like USA and India. The 2017 visit of then PM Razak was considered a high point in bilateral ties.
PM Modi made it a point to go out of his way to swing by Kuala Lumpur on an unscheduled visit, to congratulate Mahathir for his electoral victory. At the last Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore, PM Modi and Mahathir met to discuss regional strategic issues.
Malaysia’s handling of the Zakir Naik issue may well be the lightning rod for some discord, particularly as India heads towards its general elections in 2019.
On Naik, Mahathir may be playing to his domestic Muslim audience, but he cannot go out on a limb and displease his non-Muslim Hindu, Christian and other minority voters. PM Modi too may also play hardball in an election year on the Naik issue.
With rising Hindutva sentiments in India and increasing Salafi tendencies among Malay Muslims, there could be pitfalls in India-Malaysia relations under PM Mahathir, whose previous stint as PM hadn’t evoked such tensions.
Mahathir had a jaundiced view of India as an economic non-performer. That view doesn’t hold any more with the Indian economy growing rapidly. But past prejudices are sometimes difficult to eradicate. It is unlikely that both countries will want to fritter away the gains made in the last decade in bilateral economic engagement. So public posturing apart, both countries are likely to maintain the momentum in bilateral ties, notwithstanding the sour note on Naik.
(The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and served as Deputy Chief of Mission in the Indian Embassy in Israel. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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