KRUBONG, Sept 7 — Around 2,000 people turned up to pray alongside controversial preacher Dr Zakir Naik at the iconic Chinese Mosque here in Melaka, where he has been officially barred from making public speeches.
Dr Zakir, dressed in a simple blue shirt, black pants and a kupiah, arrived with a fairly large entourage at around 7.20pm greeted enthusiastically by avid supporters, who rushed to shake his hand and take photos.
“I’m from Penang but have a friend who lives here so I came to pray and see him,” said one young attendee in his early 20s.
“The number of those turning up shows he still has strong support.”
Still, supporters turn up in moderate numbers when compared to the monster crowd the evangelist typically attracts at his talk, just nearly enough to fill the 2,000 capacity mosque.
Just outside its main entrance, prayer mats lined up outward leading to the road were mostly half empty, although scores of people were sparsely seated along the curbs and pavements east and west of the building, where two screens were erected.
On the screen, a live feed broadcast Dr Zakir praying next to some of his closest allies in a row just before the imam, space often reserved for Sultans and top government leaders.
Supporters — a mixture of old, women and youths — that were unable to join the prayers from inside the mosque watched as he perform the Maghrib and Isyak prayers in awe.
This was Dr Zakir’s first public appearance since he gave a controversial talk before a massive crowd in Kelantan last month, where he reportedly questioned the loyalty of ethnic Indians.
His action sparked strong backlash from minority communities and calls for the Pakatan Harapan administration to deport the Indian national. Dr Zakir is wanted by the Indian government on terrorism and money laundering charges.
But for many conservative Malay Muslims, the episode lent credence to claims that “anti-Islam” elements are gaining a foothold in a liberal government headed by Chinese and Indian politicians who have long hated Dr Zakir.
“He is oppressed,” said the supporter from Penang.
“Even so, he is still very popular. I don’t think the mosque would be this full if not for Dr Zakir.”
Tonight’s event, said to be organised by the Melaka Chinese Mosque committee, were attended by state assemblymen from all sides of the political divide, testament Dr Zakir’s clout among Muslim voters.
Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia politician and Melaka state government executive councillor Datuk Mohd Rafiq Naizamohideen, however, was said to have helped ensure the prayers took place amid protest from a fellow PH colleague.
Bersatu leaders, including Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had initially supported calls for the preacher to be deported but appeared to have made a turnabout shortly after, likely over concerns of alienating its Malay base.
“Thank you for your willingness and time to attend this event called Malam Islam Bersatu,” Mohd Rafiq said in speech delivered after the final prayers.
“I am grateful that this event is a success in light of the forces that tried to prevent this from happening.”
Mohd Rafiq stopped short of naming the quarters he alleged had wanted tonight’s event stopped.
It is believed the leader had referred to Ayer Keroh assemblyman from the DAP, Kerk Chee Yee, who reportedly questioned the organisers’ motive.
“Have we ever asked any priests from attending a temple or a church?” Mohd Rafiq asked at a press conference held just after Dr Zakir left the mosque.
“So I hope our non-Muslim peers can understand...we respect their right to religious freedom, respect ours.”
Dr Zakir, barred from speaking in all PH-controlled states including Melaka, did not address the crowd.