On 18 June, the extremist Indian preacher, Zakir Naik, was banned from entering the UK by the Home Secretary. This has drawn criticism from the usual circles: former senior member of the Muslim Council of Britain, Inayat Bunglawala bemoaned the impending decisions to ban both Naik and Salafi preacher Bilal Philips, saying:
Neither speaker has said anything that has got them in trouble with the law, so why not just uphold our existing laws rather than seek to pre-emptively ban them? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the exclusion order policy is yet another government PR gimmick designed to show that it is getting tough on those it regards as being extremists
It is interesting to note here that Bunglawala, and others who agree with him, do not think it necessary to clarify what their own views are on Naik’s many questionable statements. Here is his inside scoop on how things are run in America::
Today America is controlled by the Jews. Whether it be the banks, whether it be the money, whether it be the power.
No one can become a president of the USA without walking [sic] the Star of David. Though the Jews are a minority, less than 5% in America, but they are controlling the economy, they are controlling America
Surely, though, he must be unequivocal in his condemnation of Osama bin Laden? Not quite:
You heard the Muslims saying Osama Bin Laden is right or wrong. I reject them … We don’t know. But if you ask my view, if this is the truth, if he is fighting the enemies of Islam, I am for him. I don’t know what he’s doing. I’m not in touch with him. I don’t know him personally. I read the newspaper. If he is terrorising the terrorists, if he is terrorising America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him … The thing is, if he’s terrorising a terrorist, he’s following Islam.
Bunglawala does have a point however, and that is the problem: Islamists and their sympathisers feed off of decisions like this, stirring up sectarian tensions by claiming they are part of a growing anti-Muslim sentiment within government and society as a whole.
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, claims that Naik has been banned because:
Numerous comments made by Dr Naik are evidence to me of his unacceptable behaviour. Coming to the UK is a privilege, not a right and I am not willing to allow those who might not be conducive to the public good to enter the UK.
Exclusion powers are very serious and no decision is taken lightly or as a method of stopping open debate on issues.
In reality, these types of decisions are made for reasons of political expediency, rather than a desire to follow the letter of the law. Dozens of preachers like Naik come to this country every year unnoticed by the government and media, and there are even more just like him who reside in this country and remain untouched by the many incitement and hatred laws they have broken.
Before going any further, I should mention that in the past I have been involved in calling for the banning of another extremist from this country. In March 2009, I worked for the the Centre for Social Cohesion when they convinced the government to ban Ibrahim al-Moussawi, one of the senior figures in Hezbollah’s media wing and head of their official television channel, al-Manaar. Unlike Moussawi however, Naik is not a member of a terrorist organisation and nor is he hugely popular or well known among British Muslims. The latter point is particularly relevant: in a report released by the government’s Research Information and Communications Unit (RICU) earlier this year (hard copy in my possession but no longer available online), based on qualitatative surveys of British Muslims, Zakir Naik was found to be among the most popular, respected and credible public figures among respondents (along with George Galloway and Yvonne Ridley). There are many reasons for this, and perhaps it reflects a failure of our society to provide alternatives to men like Naik, but whether we like it or not, his perceived in-depth knowledge of Islam has gained him respect all around the world and banning him will not mitigate this.
Regardless of the clear differences between Moussawi and Naik, my views on banning speakers from this country have changed over the last few months and in Naik’s case it is difficult to see what will be achieved by barring him entry into Britain. Current trends in radicalisation show us that so-called ‘hate preachers’ and jihadists increasingly recruit followers via the internet and other media, and the case of Zakir Naik is no different. He has a substantial online British following, and respondents to the RICU study knew of him primarily through the internet, rather than having personally attended his talks.
It is virtually impossible to stop his message, but it is easier to counter it than many may think. Britain is home to more than enough anti-extremist Muslims who, if given the opportunity, can debate him on various issues relating to Islamic extremism and win. In doing so, these emerging alternative voices can begin to establish themselves on a global scale in the way that Naik has managed to do over the years.
The case of Zakir Naik represents a much bigger issue: we can no longer ignore or gag extremists – it has made little impact on their ability to spread their message and gain popularity. Alternative responses to this problem must now be explored.