Why exposing Zakir Naik might be a better idea than banning him

The problem with hate speech laws is they aren’t designed to fight hate, but to make the expression of hateful opinion illegal.

 |  3-minute read |   09-07-2016
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As per recent revelations, at least two of the seven terrorists, who hacked 20 people to death in Dhaka, were followers of Dr Zakir Naik.

Naik, a controversial Indian Islamic preacher, is extremely popular among a section of middle class urban Muslims. Indian media and the political establishment at large have been clamouring to have him banned and to prosecute him on grounds of hate speech.

I believe this would be a terrible move.

First things first, let me make it clear that I consider myself a free speech fundamentalist, but I’m not enamoured by romantic notions of free speech.

Also read - Don't go by what Arnab says, labelling Zakir Naik a 'terror mastermind' is ridiculous

I don’t underestimate the threat of radical Islamism and recognise the capacity of hate preachers to influence impressionable young men to commit heinous acts of violence in the name of religion.

The problem with banning someone like Naik is that it doesn’t really help in dealing with radicalisation.

Watch any of his lectures or debates on YouTube and you will see that not only does Naik draw in huge crowds at his events, but he also has a substantial online audience. His large fan base would seem to suggest that many of his abhorrent views are shared by huge swathes of people.

zakir-3-nody_070916114628.jpg The best way to counter the influence of people like Naik is to expose their ideas.

So, while we may be able to ban him from preaching, how would we deal with millions of his fans who hold similar beliefs? Do we ban them too?

We cannot because ideas cannot be made illegal.

The problem with having hate speech laws is that they aren’t designed to fight hate. They just make voicing a hateful opinion illegal.

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Just because people don’t say things out loud, doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t exist. Salman Rushdie once remarked: “If we give people the freedom to voice their hateful views, at least we can see where the hate is coming from and take it on directly.”

The best way to counter the influence of people like Naik is to expose their ideas, for the regressive, conservative and pre-medieval notions they are. Inviting him to debates on national television instead of banning him, would be a good place to start.

Even if you aren’t convinced by my idea and still think people who preach hate should be banned, Naik is hardly the guiltiest on this count.

In fact, if you look at his most controversial statements, as problematic as they are, they aren’t calls for violence. Zakir Naik is a hardcore fundamentalist and the only way to defeat religious fundamentalists is by critically scrutinising their ideology by pitting them against ideas based on reason.

We need to win over people's hearts and minds instead of alienating them for their false sense of right and wrong.

The only reason Naik is even in the limelight right now is because two of the Dhaka terrorists were his fans. Banning him with that as the reason would set a dangerous precedent.

It was revealed soon after Osama Bin Laden’s death that he was a fan of Noam Chomsky, among others.

Also read - Zakir Naik is full of rubbish, but doesn't spew hate

In fact, Chomsky’s critique of American foreign policy makes him a darling among Islamists. Would that be reason enough to ban Chomsky?

Naik’s views are regressive and extremely conservative.

However, Indian media has made him the sole scapegoat of a problem that nobody is willing to acknowledge the depth and severity of.

If we want to mitigate the problem of radicalism, we need to wage a battle of ideas.

Banning one preacher would hardly make a dent in the problem and is bound to create more ill will among the people we should be trying to win over.

Writer

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