KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 19 — Analysts said even if controversial Islamic preacher Dr Zakir Naik were told to leave Malaysia, this will not resolve issues which have been festering in the country for decades.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's Prof Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid said Dr Zakir's approach in discussing comparative studies on religions is too bold for a country like Malaysia.

“His knowledge is far too in-depth and too critical for other religions to consider, and his departure may tone down the religious tension in the country,” she told Malay Mail.

Kartini, however, pointed out that Dr Zakir is not known to enforce his beliefs upon other people.

“If people decided to convert, it was done voluntarily. If a thing is done voluntarily, which part is forced?

“Preaching or dakwah in Islam is permitted by the Constitution, and Zakir’s preaching is permitted in the name of freedom of speech,” she said.

However, she said the main issue is when the act and manner of free speech is determined by others as being disturbing.

“The government is still investigating the issues on Zakir, as he has claimed that he was quoted selectively, thus leading to misunderstanding,” Kartini said.

To alleviate the tensions in Malaysia, she said a mediation unit ought to be set up to bargain and negotiate the limit of space for public discourse or preaching to all.

“As unity is still a struggle for Malaysians, cohesion is the narrative… reconciliation is needed and invented frequently.

“For reconciliation regarding interfaith religion, the unit must provide a procedure for interfaith dialogue to be held in a civilised manner,” Kartini said. 

She added that if speakers like Dr Zakir are thought to be insulting by others, then the unit must be able to outline the definition of what constitutes insulting, and which context comparative religion discourse would be deemed acceptable.

Universiti Sains Malaysia's Prof Sivamurugan Pandian said even if action is taken to resolve the issues surrounding Dr Zakir, only its outcome will determine if things wind down or instead accelerate other issues.

“His presence has allowed us to understand the value of ethnic relations, religiosity and social cohesion in Malaysia. We are divided, and we must deal with it in a more rational manner beyond politics.

“Many other issues surfacing lately needs a ‘sense of leadership’ to solve them. In the month of the 62nd anniversary of Merdeka, we are facing one of the crucial moments in Malaysia’s ethnic relations where moments of unity are forgotten when issues which create cracks among the ethnic groups emerge today,” he said.

Recalling how a Communities Liaison Committee was established in 1949 to oversee such issues and find solutions in closed-door meetings, Sivamurugan said with social media becoming the main platform to deliver them, there is a great need for an instrument to immediately find ways to stop it from spreading nationwide.

“Diversity should be celebrated as an asset and not seen as liability. That is the message we must deliver with sincerity and backbone.

“Maybe it is time to once again to bring back the Ministry of Unity, after years of absence from the executive branch. In addition, an Ethnic Relations Act is a must to be considered by the ruling authorities,” he said.

Sivamurugan also suggested that dialogue, outreach programmes, and human-based activities from all bodies should focus on educating rationalisation, rather than being emotionally-driven.

“If understanding, respect and acceptance can be infused among Malaysians fully, I believe we can overcome any issues related to ethnicity, racism and religiosity,” he said.

In contrast, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak's Prof Jeniri Amir was much less forgiving of Dr Zakir's statements accusing Malaysian Hindus of being more loyal to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and referring to Malaysian Chinese as “new guests.”

“It may be too late, but it’s better late than never because they need to look into this issue seriously. I for one, have been wondering why Zakir Naik has to provoke or make provocative statements, fully knowing that Malaysia is a multiracial country,” he said.

Whatever action is taken by the authorities, Jeniri said it should be carried out in a manner which does not aggravate racial tensions in the country.

“He is already stoking existing disturbances and tensions. It is already there but he made it worse.

“Even without Zakir Naik in Malaysia, racial issues are already there... Zakir Naik is like a thorn in the flesh,” he said.

Jeniri added that it was important to handle issues such as race reconciliation without becoming too emotional.

“We should not play with fire. That is very important. We should not offend other races or other religions, and we should have mutual respect,” he said.