When Muslims suddenly ‘discover’ freedom of speech

APRIL 17 — As a friend pointed out following opposition to Dr Zakir Naik’s one-week tour here, the Indian Muslim preacher has already taught his Malaysian audience at least one useful lesson: crying for freedom of speech.

To Naik’s supporters, the Hindus, the rationalists, and pretty much everybody who saw through Naik’s hogwash were denying his rights and freedom by opposing the preacher.

However, his supporters failed to grasp that not only had Naik already been allowed into the country undeterred, but he has also found protection among the powers that be.

How was Naik’s freedom limited, compared to when his fellow Sunni scholar from Indonesia, Dr Ulil Abshar Abdalla was denied entry in October 2014, allegedly because he is a “deviant” for his liberal views?

Many other Muslim scholars, authors and speakers faced real threats to their freedom of expression in Malaysia — Iranian-American Reza Aslan and Ugandan-Canadian Irshad Manji, for example — unlike Naik.

And yet, the Indian televangelist was given the green light to speak about Hinduism, and then about women’s rights, before protests changed the topics — even when he is neither a Hindu nor a woman.

What are the chances that a Christian would be allowed to publicly speak about the similarities of Jesus and Isa, or a Baha’i about how Muhammad (pbuh) was one of their prophets, just like Buddha?

Muslim scholar Dr Zakir Naik’s religious talks have drawn criticisms due to his views in comparing Hinduism and Islam. — Bernama pic
Muslim scholar Dr Zakir Naik’s religious talks have drawn criticisms due to his views in comparing Hinduism and Islam. — Bernama pic

Would historians like Tom Holland be allowed to question whether Muhammad actually existed and if Mecca was really Islam’s birthplace? Can science author Robert Wright talk about how religion is just an evolutionary coping mechanism?

Alas, just in November 2014, a seminar on the different Islamic denominations and pluralism was cancelled due to pressure from the Negri Sembilan authorities — even when there were speakers from the respective sects.

Naik’s topic for his Klang Valley rally is “Is Quran the Word of God?” Although it sounds like a question, is there any doubt that the answer would be a resounding “yes”?

Because even suggesting “no” would result in bodily harm, and even death to critics of Islam.

How’s this for freedom of speech? Penang DAP leader P. Ramasamy’s service centre was fire-bombed after he labelled Naik “Satan.”  Ramasamy was lucky he was left unhurt.

Even when offered a debate, the organisers replied that Ramasamy must go through Naik’s four protegés in Malaysia first before he can reach Naik — just like a video game boss.

And what of Naik himself? Praising political rivals Umno and PAS for defending him, Naik had in a Malay daily nonchalantly and impudently branded his critics “enemies of Islam” who managed to bring Muslims together.

Ramasamy has since apologised and taken back his remark, but this did not stop Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria from calling for him to be kicked out of the country for “not understanding the Federal Constitution.”

Because that is all freedom of speech means to these Muslims: the freedom for Muslims to speak, and the freedom of the others to shut up, listen, and do nothing — stemming from a twisted interpretation of the position of Islam in the Constitution.

In the end, Naik’s rabid defenders do so simply because the argument was framed into Naik — a so-called champion of Islam — versus his detractors, ergo, Islam versus the rest of the world. And in such a false dichotomy, Muslims would blindly side with fellow Muslims, regardless of little else.

You can place a goat in an argument, and if the goat is Muslim, chances are Muslims would still root for the goat.

And this blind deference comes even when his defenders remain unaware of Naik’s controversial remark and stance.

Worse still, some Muslims would even stand behind Naik knowing his hate remarks and reported support of terrorism. “Let’s not his few failings mask the bulk of his good” and “He says bad things but he is a good Muslim” were just some of the defences I have heard since my column warning against him last week.

Such is the low bar placed on Muslim evangelists, and we still wonder why young Muslims fall into radicalism?

Naik’s arrival has spurred the Indian groups to life — from MIC to Hindraf, to NewGen Party, to Malaysian Indians Progressive Association — and they were eager to grab their 15 minutes to make themselves relevant.

Their vigilance against Naik, just because he is an Indian national, should not absolve them of their failing to speak up when the same hate speech is delivered by Malay-Muslim preachers here.

Where were they when Malaysians were probed left and right for “insulting Islam”?

Would MIC even dare bark in front of their Barisan Nasional counterparts that not only sponsored and ferried Naik in, but offered him islands to open a branch of his Islamic Research Foundation right smack in the middle of this country?

In response, Naik’s defenders have asked, why is he being scrutinised here when even India itself allows Naik to speak there? Well food for thought: India does not have Islam as its religion of the state.

Whereas we are a nanny state empowered by Islam, where the Home Ministry and police dictate how its citizens can speak on religion.

Where a minister took it upon himself to facilitate the dealings of a mufti with the same leanings as his. And this same minister then used his federal ministerial power to grease the wheels for Naik, another who shares his inclinations.

These authorities are arguably aided by the regressive left — so-called “liberals” who sold their principles and support shutting down discourse and conversations, hiding behind platitudes of “racial harmony” and “respect among religions.”

Naik’s supporters should just face it: in Malaysia, freedom of speech and expression when it comes to religion is scarce, and deteriorating by the minute.

In the midst of the protests, many liberals have consistently defended Naik’s right to speak — yours truly included. Would Muslim conservatives defend the right of those who offend them to speak too, or is hypocrisy the name of their game?

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.