A few weeks ago, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak made an official six-day visit to India, during which several avenues for cooperation were discussed. While the focus was on the close bilateral political and economic ties, both sides also agreed that there is considerable potential for collaboration as well, for instance in defence production.
Such is the goodwill between the two nations, that President Pranab Mukherjee described the “centuries old relations” as “the best ever so far”. But amidst this bonhomie, we cannot and must not overlook the potentially disrupting and dangerous pontification of Indian Muslim preacher Zakir Naik.
Naik, extremely controversial in India, is seen by many in Malaysia as a troublemaker intent on driving a rift between the different races and religions in that country. Naik is a wanted fugitive in India and banned in several countries, including Canada, the UK and Bangladesh. Yet, he has found refuge in Malaysia, enjoying permanent residence status for the last five years. Several civil society groups in Malaysia, as well as many members of parliament and opposition-party officials, have expressed their embarrassment and caution that a serious diplomatic backlash is in the pipeline. However, business is as usual – India and Malaysia have managed to avoid a diplomatic quagmire.
The Indian government has put Naik on its wanted list because the the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is probing money laundering charges involving the Mumbai-based Islamic Research Foundation, founded by Naik. Malaysia’s home minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has said that his country will cooperate with India and provide assistance to the relevant authorities if there was a request for “mutual legal assistance”. No doubt this sounds very ambiguous, but was necessary to state for the sake of preserving ties and keeping the diplomatic channels open. But reality suggests that Malaysia has allowed Naik to stay despite India seeking a Red Notice from the Interpol to force him to stand trial in India.
The Red Notice is the closest instrument to an international arrest warrant. When Malaysia’s inspector general of police, Khalid Abu Bakar, was asked if the his force would arrest Naik under the Red Notice, he said “let them apply first”. An ambiguous answer, again, as Malaysia keeps treading on eggshells, precariously trying to maintain diplomacy amidst a highly emotionally-charged situation. Even though India has requested to bring Naik back for trial amidst charges of money laundering, his sermons are considered a serious threat to internal security. For instance, he once asked: “How can we allow this [building of churches or temples in an Islamic state] when their religion is wrong and when their worshipping is wrong?”
Naik’s speeches incite communal uproar. He talks of comparative religions, but with one goal in mind – to promote Islam as the ultimate end-all of religions, the philosophy of peace that has reached the highest form of concentration, overtaking Hinduism because Islam does not allow for the worship of idols.
During Razak’s visit, the two prime ministers acknowledged each other’s contributions to the economic development and stability of the Indo-Pacific region, and recognised each other’s responsibility in the promotion of peace, development and security in the region, “based on a convergence of political and socio-economic interests and aspirations”.
Enter Naik. Neither India nor Malaysia has made official statements as to how the situation will, or has, impacted bilateral relations. In Malaysia, the political and religious climate is divisive and intolerant. Things are getting worse in terms of race relations and religion, but we must not overlook the fact that the next general elections, due by August 2018, is dictating how domestic and bilateral forces are grooming the overall political climate. If viewed through this prism, one can understand why both India and Malaysia are still upholding the veneer of friendly relations, despite the issue of Naik being asked to stand trial in India for various crimes. Malaysians also appear to be tolerating others – Naik – telling them how to divide, dehumanise and demoralise each other by commenting on which political parties should govern the nation. Naik has said that the best political solution for Malaysia would be a coalition of Barisan Nasional, Malaysia’s current ruling coalition, and PAS, the Islamic opposition party.
What is unfolding is the impact of domestic politics on international relations, or rather, how religious and racial politics in Malaysia is being used by federal and state governments, and opposition and civil society groups, to undermine contending sections of society ahead of the general elections. It is important to understand how domestic factors in Malaysia are influencing its foreign policy choices. Thus, the politicisation of Naik’s religious message, his political role in Malaysia, and India and Malaysia’s lack of an official stand on his legal position reveals what is the most plausible explanation for bilateral relations remain intact.
Sharifah Munirah Alatas is a senior lecturer, Strategic Studies and International Relations Cluster, National University of Malaysia.