Authorities are investigating a Mumbai-based televangelist whose radical sermons are believed to have influenced at least one of the men who killed hostages in a Bangladesh cafe this month.
Bangladesh on Sunday suspended the satellite television channel owned by Zakir Naik, a controversial preacher who has justified terrorism against the United States and the killing of Muslims who convert to other religions.
Officials in India said they would take action against private channels airing Naik’s speeches from Peace TV, his Dubai-based television channel, which is not licensed to broadcast in India. And the Home Affairs Ministry has ordered an investigation into Naik’s Mumbai-based charity, the Islamic Research Foundation, over allegations that it was financing radicalism, according to multiple reports.
Naik overcame a childhood stutter to become a widely popular orator with 14 million Facebook followers and an audience of tens of millions more on Peace TV. He claims to have a medical degree and has modeled himself on Western televangelists, addressing audiences in English and usually wearing a suit, skullcap and gentle smile.
Intelligence officials in Bangladesh are investigating reports that Rohan Imtiaz — one of the gunmen who stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka on July 1 and methodically killed nearly two dozen patrons and staff, most of them foreigners — made reference to one of Naik’s speeches in a Facebook post last year.
Naik has come under scrutiny before for his extremist teachings. He has been banned from Britain and Canada.
Indian investigators also believe that Naik inspired Mohammed Ibrahim Yazdani, who was arrested last month in the southern city of Hyderabad, accused of plotting to carry out attacks on behalf of Islamic State. Yazdani told interrogators that he had traveled to Mumbai to attend a Naik congregation and followed his speeches on YouTube, the Times of India reported.
In a series of videos transmitted from Saudi Arabia over the weekend, Naik rejected accusations that he had inspired terrorism.
“I’ve been giving lectures for 25 years,” he said. “There is not a single talk of mine where I have ever encouraged any human being to kill any other innocent human being, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.”
Naik has criticized Islamic State — the Iraq- and Syria-based militant organization — as “anti-Islamic.” But many experts say his speeches teach hatred against the West and espouse a hard-line Salafi interpretation of Sunni Islam, which regards Shiites and members of other Muslim sects as apostates.
He frequently travels to Saudi Arabia, which last year awarded him the King Faisal International Prize for “services to Islam.”
His use of English and social media — and his interactions with young audiences — have helped him reach middle-class audiences, drawing comparisons to Anwar Awlaki, the American cleric who is believed to have inspired several terrorist attacks and was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
Several of the Dhaka attackers were from comfortable backgrounds; Imtiaz was the son of a mid-level official in the governing Awami League party.
“Naik is clearly problematic,” said S. Irfan Habib, an Indian historian. “There is a huge section in Islam as well Hinduism which is afflicted by victimhood. Naik is exploiting it.”
It was not immediately clear what legal action India could take against Naik if he was not found to have directly incited violence. India has cracked down in recent months against nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funds, although critics say most of the groups have been targeted for opposing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic policies.
In one of his videos, Naik voices support for Osama bin Laden, saying, “If he is terrorizing America, the biggest terrorist, then I am with him.” He goes on to call the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks an “inside job,” saying, “Even a fool would know this.”
America is a frequent target of his lectures; he has said Americans engage in wife swapping because they eat pigs, which also swap sexual partners. He has claimed that that 50% of women who attend American universities are raped because the institutions practice intermingling of the sexes.
Naik’s followers say the quotes are taken out of context. In an apartment building in the south Mumbai neighborhood of Mazgaon, where Naik grew up on the ninth floor, Qamar Qazi, a friend of Naik’s family, dismissed the scrutiny as “a media trial.”
“He is putting Islam into perspective,” said Qazi’s daughter, Reshma Chouguley, 40. “He is correcting people through his wisdom.”
Neighbors said Naik grew up in a predominantly Christian neighborhood, where he observed Christmas and played sports. His sister would paint henna on Chouguley’s hands, she recalled. He now lives in an apartment across the street from his aging parents and was reportedly planning to return to Mumbai within days.
Chouguley was covered from head to toe with only her face and wrists visible, in accordance with Naik’s teachings. She said he also instructed men to lower their gaze when it comes to women.
“A girl not dressed in proper attire is like not having a lock on your door,” said her 17-year old son, Jibran.
Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.
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