Malaysian authorities are under pressure to act against Zakir Naik, a fugitive Islamic televangelist wanted in India on radicalization and money laundering charges who recently suggested that Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese minority community should be expelled.

Speaking at an event in Kelantan state on August 8, Zakir claimed that Malaysia’s minority Hindus have “100 times more rights” than Muslim minorities in India but are more supportive of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi than Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Naik then mentioned Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese community, which represents around 21% of the national population as he addressed rising calls for him to leave Malaysia, where he now holds permanent residency despite India’s calls for his extradition.

“You know, someone called me a guest. So, I said, before me, the Chinese were the guests. If you want the new guest to go first, ask the old guest to go back,” he said. “The Chinese aren’t born here, most of them. Maybe the new generations, yes,” Naik added.

The controversial 53-year-old preacher later claimed his statements were misquoted despite verbatim recordings of the remarks and has threatened to bring defamation suits against his critics.

Police have since banned the Indian national from delivering public talks on grounds of national security and preserving racial harmony, and are probing whether his remarks violated local laws on insults that provoke “a breach of the peace”, a criminal offense that carries possible two year jail penalties.

Zakir Naik delivers a speech ahead of a conference titled ‘Islamophobia’ in Istanbul, Turkey, March 23, 2017. Photo: AFP Forum via Andalou Agency/Salih Zeki Fazlioglu

Discussion of race and religion is sensitive in multi-ethnic Malaysia and the fugitive preacher’s comments were widely seen as intended to stir racial discord. The furor has focused attention on how Mahathir will handle an issue that right-wing opposition parties could use to claim his multi-ethnic government has not sufficiently defended Islam.

“Religious teachers can preach, but he was not doing that. He was talking about sending Chinese back to China and Indians back to India. That’s politics,” Mahathir said at a press conference on August 18. “What he said is bad. People here are trying their best not to say those things. Even I would not dare say those things.”

The 94-year-old premier, who on prior occasions has said Naik may remain in the country as long as he abides by local laws, previously suggested the Muslim cleric could be killed if he is returned to his home country. Putrajaya has refused to deport the Indian national despite requests for his extradition from New Delhi on grounds that he would not receive a fair trial there.

Religious intolerance and hate crimes against minorities, Muslims in particular, have risen in India under the rule of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), according to reports. Naik has sought without success a written guarantee from Indian authorities that he would not be detained while he stands trial.

On August 20, the cleric issued an apology for any hurt caused to non-Muslims by his speeches and denied accusations of racism, describing himself as being on a “mission to spread peace throughout the world.” Analysts and observers, however, believe authorities are angling to take action against him following the widespread outrage caused by his remarks.

“There appears to be a change in the stance of the prime minister from previously,” said lawyer Syahredzan Johan. “Within Cabinet, the voices against him, supporters of sending him back or asking him to leave the country, are growing. I think the tide is slowly turning against Zakir Naik.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivers a speech outside Kuala Lumpur on January 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivers a speech outside Kuala Lumpur on January 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Syahredzan, an aide to Democratic Action Party (DAP) veteran politician Lim Kit Siang, told Asia Times he received a death threat for suggesting that Naik’s permanent residency be revoked. Police have since apprehended a 28-year-old man in connection with the threat, who is now reportedly in custody and under investigation for criminal intimidation.

“In terms of talking about the issue, I am not going to be deterred from speaking my mind,” he said. “There are concerns that Zakir will not get a fair trial in India. I’m not saying he won’t be able to get a fair trial there, but we don’t want a situation where the government is sending him to a place that is a threat to his well-being.

“In order to avoid that, I have suggested that perhaps what we can do is to revoke his permanent residency status and let him decide where he would want to go and find another country that is willing to shelter him,” Syahredzan said. A chorus of government officials have since echoed similar calls for Naik’s status to be reviewed.

His English language sermons reach over 17 million followers on Facebook and are popular among Muslims in Malaysia. Critics and observers in academia and civil society say the Indian preacher propagates an exclusivist interpretation of Islam, known as Salafism, that is reputedly at odds with traditional Malaysian practices of Islam.

Naik is accused of promoting negative views of non-Muslims and advocates capital punishment for homosexuals and Muslims who leave the faith, among other fundamentalist positions. At a sermon in 2006, he claimed that if now-deceased al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden “is terrorizing America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him,” and, in that context, added: “every Muslim should be a terrorist.”

While he has denounced the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, news reports claim that a militant involved in an IS-claimed lethal attack on a bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2016 that killed mainly expatriates was a follower of the televangelist.  Cable TV operators in Sri Lanka also removed a channel founded by Naik, known as Peace TV, in the wake of deadly Easter Sunday bombings claimed by IS earlier this year.

Granted permanent residency by the former Najib Razak administration in 2015, Naik’s presence in Malaysia was seen by many as a sign of hardening political Islam under the then-incumbent leadership.

While the local Indian community, representing about 5.7% of the population, opposed his presence, the cleric was embraced by top Malaysian officials and influential religious scholars. Najib personally met with Naik, while members of his then-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party publicly signaled their support for the preacher.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak gestures as he speaks during a rally against US President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in Putrajaya, Malaysia December 22, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin
Malaysia’s then-prime minister Najib Razak speaks during a rally against US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, December 22, 2017. Photo: Twitter

Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), a hardline Islamist party that seeks to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state, has emerged as his most vocal champion. Both political parties are now in a loose opposition alliance that has claimed Mahathir’s administration has failed to protect Malay Muslim rights and defend Islam.

“The government wants to handle the situation as delicately as possible because they know that this man has a huge following and there is a political dimension to this,” said Syahredzan. “The more they are seen to do things and have negative sentiments toward Zakir, the more PAS and UMNO will use it as proof that Islam is under threat.

“PAS and UMNO are using Zakir Naik not so much because they believe in what he says, but as a symbol,” he claimed. “If his permanent residency is revoked, I definitely foresee that this will be used by opposition parties and ethnic Malay Muslim NGOs as a sort of rallying point for their narratives against the government. There will definitely be pushback.”

Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Institute of South Asian Studies, believes the government will tread carefully in dealing with the fugitive preacher. While there are mixed views on Naik’s predicament, he believes the final decision on his possible expulsion will ultimately come down to the prime minister.

“The buck stops with Mahathir and so Zakir Naik’s future in Malaysia is in Mahathir’s hands. It is not surprising that Naik has backpedaled and apologized to save his skin, as he prefers to stay on in Malaysia with his permanent residency intact. It has become a case of him overstaying his welcome in Malaysia,” he said.

Members of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) listen to a speech by Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak during its general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
UMNO members listen to a speech by Malaysia’s then Prime Minister Najib Razak during its general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, December 7, 2017. Photo: Facebook

“If it is politically expedient to keep Naik, the Pakatan Harapan-led government will not take a hardline approach.” Should the government decide the fugitive preacher has exhausted his political utility, “he will be compelled to leave Malaysia, or at the very least, have his permanent residency revoked,” Mustafa believes.

That may or may not jeopardize the controversial preacher. Naik was reportedly granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia in 2017 and has so far successfully evaded Indian authorities since they started investigating him and his non-profit Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) for alleged terror propaganda in 2016.

Interpol has yet to issue a red notice against Naik despite New Delhi’s attempts to have him designated as an international fugitive, and therefore would be able to travel freely if he leaves Malaysia or has his permanent residency revoked.