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India-Malaysia ties cannot be coloured by 'dangerous' preachers

Both India and Malaysia cannot afford to let a dangerous irritant like Dr. Zakir Naik challenge diplomatic arrangements because there is a larger, more critical ‘bigger picture’ which needs constant tweaking, writes Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas for South Asia Monitor.

Apr 27, 2017
By Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas
 
On April 1, 2017, the Times of India ran a story on Malaysia’s bilateral trade with India and how Malaysia wants it to touch $15 billion by 2020. This, among other agreements, was discussed during Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s six-day official visit to India during March 30-April 4, 2017.
 
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee said the two countries have taken their strategic partnership forward, particularly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Malaysia in November 2015. Both sides agreed that there is considerable potential for India-Malaysia collaboration in defence production as well. What is most significant is Mukherjee’s statement that relations between India and Malaysia are centuries old and are “the best ever so far”.
 
Amidst all this goodwill and reciprocating sentiments of collaboration, we cannot and must not overlook the potentially disrupting and dangerous pontification of Indian Muslim preacher Dr. Zakir Naik. Naik is seen by the Indian government as controversial, and by many in Malaysia as a trouble maker who is intent on driving a rift between the different races and religions in Malaysia.
 
Naik is a wanted fugitive in India, and banned in several countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom and Bangladesh. Yet, he has found refuge in Malaysia, enjoying Permanent Residence status for the last five years. Several civil society groups in Malaysia as well as many members of parliament and opposition-party officials have expressed their embarrassment and caution that a serious diplomatic backlash is in the pipeline.
 
If Malaysia continues to sanction official support for Dr. Zakir Naik, India would have no choice but to re-evaluate her diplomatic relationship with Malaysia, especially in the wake of the most recent exchange of MOUs and investment plans on the part of both nations. 
 
The Indian government has put Naik on the wanted list because the Indian counter-terrorism body, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), is probing money laundering charges that involve the Mumbai-based Islamic Research Foundation, founded by Naik.
 
On the one hand, the Home Minister of Malaysia, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, said that Malaysia will cooperate with India and provide assistance to the relevant Indian authorities if there was a request for “mutual legal assistance”. No doubt, this sounds very ambiguous, but was necessary to state for the sake of preserving diplomatic ties and keeping the diplomatic channels open.
 
On the other hand, reality suggests that Malaysia has provided refuge for Naik, despite India (the NIA) asking for a Red Notice from Interpol to force Naik to stand trial in India. The Red Notice is the closest instrument to an international warrant of arrest.
 
When Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar was asked if the Malaysian police would arrest Naik under the Red Notice cloak, he said “let them apply first”. An ambiguous answer, again, as Malaysia keeps treading on eggshells, precariously trying to maintain diplomacy amidst a highly emotionally-charged situation.
 
Even while India’s request to bring Dr. Zakir Naik back to India for trial amidst charges of money laundering remains in process, his sermons are considered a serious threat to internal security. A widely-publicised quote of his has gone viral: “How can we allow this (building of churches or temples in an Islamic state) when their religion is wrong and when their worshipping is wrong?” 
 
Naik has been called many names, including a lunatic. Many of his speeches incite communal uproar that would either unite or divide a society, as well as drive a potential wedge between two friendly nations, both with a sizeable population of Muslims.
 
The terrorist attacks at a café in Dhaka on July 1, 2016, were inspired by Naik’s notions of Islam and peace. For instance, he talks of comparative religions, but with one goal in mind -- to promote Islam as the ultimate end-all of religions, the philosophy of peace that has reached the highest form of concentration, overtaking Hinduism because Islam does not allow for the worship of idols.
 
Earlier this month, during Najib Abdul Razak’s visit to India, the two Prime Ministers acknowledged the contribution made by Malaysia and India in promoting growth, economic development and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as recognised each other’s responsibility in the promotion of peace, development and security of the region, “based on a convergence of political and socio-economic interests and aspirations”. 
 
At best, the two countries take diplomacy and their diplomatic relations very seriously, maintaining a vanguard of friendly relations, and sheen of diplomatic commitment amidst the larger geopolitical architecture which sees China as a looming threat from many angles.
 
Both India and Malaysia cannot afford to let a dangerous irritant like Dr. Zakir Naik challenge diplomatic arrangements because there is a larger, more critical ‘bigger picture’ which needs constant tweaking.
 
India and Malaysia are aware that they have to co-exist with the respective polemicist inter-religious engagement within each of their societies, while maintaining strong bilateral ties between the two nations. The bottom line is that maintaining firm diplomatic ties is coloured by the powerful Chinese component that even post-9/11 religious resurgence in India and Malaysia cannot subjugate.       
 
(The author is Senior Lecturer in Strategic Studies and International Relations in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at National University of Malaysia, Selangor. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to editor@spsindia.in)

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