On Thursday, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) filed its first chargesheet against controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik, accusing him of acquiring some Rs 193 crore worth of criminal assets, of which, over Rs 50 crore was laundered through real estate. However, Naik categorically denies these claims.
It has also called into question, the donations he received as the president of Islamic Research Foundation (IRF). Questions are being raised about whether these funds were used to incite terror. These possibilities stem from Naik’s image as a preacher who lives in exile, and faces charges of propagating jihad and hate speech over the years through his broadcasting network.
In fact, a charge sheet was filed against Naik in October 2017, accusing him of propagating communal hatred between religious groups under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. This makes the latest chargesheet, the second prosecution complaint in the case, but the first implicating Naik directly.
Last year, he was reportedly seeking political asylum in Malaysia. This, in turn, saw renewed efforts by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to get him extradited.
What did the ED do, and why now?
The financial crimes investigation agency filed charges of money laundering against Naik in a special court in Mumbai on Thursday. They claimed to have identified assets worth millions of dollars as proceeds of crime. The chargesheet was made out under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.
Naik’s “inflammatory speeches and lectures have inspired and incited a number of Muslim youths in India to commit unlawful activities and terrorist acts”, prosecutors told the court, adding that he bought property in India valued at Rs 504,600 in the case so far, using funds from “dubious or suspicious sources.” The ED has requested immediate confiscation of these properties for involvement in money laundering
According to Pakistani daily Dawn, the attached properties include investments in mutual funds, the Islamic International School building in Chennai, 10 flats, three godowns, two buildings, and land in Pune and Mumbai, besides 10 bank accounts, according to India’s financial crime investigating agency. Additionally, the ED has also identified properties linked to the preacher in Dubai and London, The Hindu reported.
He also allegedly used these funds to finance events where he made “provocative speeches”. According to the ED report, the IRFI is presumed to have received Rs 648,600 between 2003 and 2017, “mostly from various dubious, suspicious or unknown sources. A large part of the funds was used for organising ‘PEACE’ conferences”.
Naik, however, insists he obtained the money through legitimate means.
The ED probe also revealed that Mumbai-based Harmony Media allegedly recorded the speeches and forwarded the edited versions to the Global Broadcasting Corporation (Dubai) and the UK-based Islamic Research Foundation International (IRFI) for further broadcast on Peace TV across the globe, The Hindu reported, adding that DVDs were also circulated.
Who is Dr. Zakir Naik?
Is he a preacher, a scholar, an Islamic rights activist, or simply a charismatic con man who is facing alleged charges of terror funding and money laundering?
These questions continue to baffle those who have been following Naik’s rise, from a doctor to a televangelist early in the 1990s, when India was witnessing a rise in far-right Hindu groups.
Naik, 53, claims that he is constitutionally entitled to proselytise for Islam and propagate a fundamentalist and radical form of his religion. However, the issue of conversion remains controversial in India, and Naik has been known to advocate terrorism on at least one count, although he has consistently denied the charge.
At a time when pop-philosophers like Jordan Peterson are on the rise, Naik is not far behind on the list. With 17 million likes on his Facebook page and 167,000 followers on Twitter, Naik has given more than 4,000 lectures on Islam across the world.
How he rose to infamy over the years
Many detained al-Qaeda followers have reported over the years, that he was a huge influence on them.
Naik fled India in the summer of 2016 after one of the terrorists behind a 2016 cafe attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh, claimed to be inspired by his speeches; 22 people died in the shooting.
Bangladesh responded by banning Peace TV, which Naik founded in 2006 and which broadcasts from Dubai and claims to reach 100 million people worldwide.
Naik not only denied supporting violence but also released a video statement saying, “killing innocent beings is the second major sin in Islam.”
Recently, Sri Lanka also banned the channel from its airwaves. In 2010, Naik had been banned from entering the UK for “unacceptable behaviour”, particularly because of his speeches, by then-home secretary (and now Prime Minister) Theresa May.
What India’s counter-terrorsim agency did next
The Indian government soon imposed a five-year ban on Mumbai-based non-profit Islamic IRF under anti-terror laws and declared its president Naik an absconder.
Awaiting compliance with an informal extradition request made to Malaysia, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) also charged Naik with indulging in unlawful activities and promoting religious hatred, accusing him of inciting youth to take up jihad.
The ED’s chargesheet is actually based on the first information report (FIR) registered by the NIA for Naik’s role in “unlawful activities, the use of provocative utterances, and for promoting enmity between different religious groups in India”, The Hindu stated.
In July 2017, his passport was revoked under the provisions of the Passport Act, 1967. Shortly after, he sought asylum there, although Malaysian deputy PM Ahmad Zahid Hamidi then agreed to fully cooperate with the Indian government in extraditing him if formal requests were sent under the “mutual legal assistance treaty”.
Why is Naik being made the only target?
According to Al Jazeera, this is another instance of unfairly and indiscriminately targeting Muslims when radical elements affiliated to other faiths are allowed to get off scot-free. “The Islamophobia has filtered down to a stage where all conservative Muslims are seen as possible terrorists; the distinction between conservatism and extremism has got blurred,” it quoted a scholar as saying in one of its 2017 reports on Naik.
Dr Maszlee Malik, Malaysia’s newly appointed education minister also wrote last year that although the Muslim Professionals Forum (MLF) did not agree with Zakir Naik’s combative approach in spreading Islam, they supported his right to give his views.
“The MPF has stood on the sidelines since Zakir Naik’s early presence in Malaysia because we do not subscribe to his dialectical and combative approach, overbearing Islam over others, conscious or unconsciously proselytising, oftentimes oblivious of the local context and demography,” reported the opinion piece.
The channels of financing and promulgating terror must be destroyed in order to counter global terror, and the chargesheet against Naik is undoubtedly the way forward to avoid increasing radicalisation of impressionable youth. But these efforts have to be kaleidoscopic and encompass all forms of terrorism without unilaterally equating terror with Islamic extremism. The Indian government’s zero tolerance for terrorism, for the moment at least, appears quite biased.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.
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