Religion on TV: Opiates of the masses

Dr Zakir Naik ... myths understood

The local cable company in Kabul carries Peace TV, a noble effort to spread the word of Islam and correct misunderstandings about the religion. I find it seductive viewing, but like Fox News or porn, you can only watch about 15 minutes before you start channel surfing. A bit of Internet “research” shows that it was founded by Zakir Naik, an Indian who trained as a medical doctor but has spent much of his adult life as an Islamic preacher, following in the tradition of his hero, the South African da’wa exponent Ahmed Deedat.

There is no doubt he attracts huge crowds; his Islamic Research Foundation, the front for all his activities, has become big business on the sub-continent, in the Middle East and beyond the Islamic world to Europe and North America. He comes across no differently to the scores of oily televangelists that saturate American airwaves, with an ego that requires a personal TV channel to feed it.

In fairness he is not the only “preacher” to feature on Peace TV. There many others — including converts from Britain and the United States — but he is the one doing the continuity breaks between programs, striking stern poses to a backdrop of significant international events and helpfully quoting Koranic verses that he says means if viewers send him money, Allah will consider it “zakat”, a tithe that forms one of the five pillars of Islam.

Naik is considered by his fans to be a brilliant debater — and there is no doubt he knows his Koran, Bible and Torah inside out — but many of the programs are repeats of lectures on comparative religions he has given over the years. He is frequently introduced by his brother and preceded by some Koranic readings from his son (it is a family affair, after all…) and then he drones on, quoting chapter and verse from the relevant holy book, to argue why Islam is the one true religion of which both Judaism and Christianity foretold — if only you look closely enough.

For a dyed-in-the-wool atheist like yours truly, it is like listening to someone debate whether Batman, Spiderman or Superman is the greatest superhero, so the petty point-scoring over which particular fairytale is the most believable comes across as very immature — the sort of thing we were doing for a mental challenge at high school. He also has a shocking lisp and for some time I thought he was saying “myths understood” when in fact he meant “misunderstood”.

I was slightly inspired to write this by a friend who recently started an exciting magazine in southeast Asia called Aquila that is aimed at modern Muslim women and the challenges they face.

Don't judge a burqa by its cover

She, a thoroughly modern Muslim woman herself, posted a link to a great story that got a lot of international play about a Malaysian “American Idol”-style show to find the next star young imam — someone who might have a better connection with the younger generation, but who can pass on the message in a modern way without compromising values. The show provides both the message and the means to deliver it in a manner that embraces the global craze for reality-style TV .

The magazine and TV show are doing the same thing, in their own ways, but I was struck by how different their approach was to that of Peace TV, which remains conservative in both message and medium.

Aquila would horrify Dr Zakir Naik. If he had his way, entertainment would consist only of programming that had a religious or moral message. Entertainment is a distraction — much like women are — and have no place in an Islamic world.

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About FoxFromZim

I am a journalist from Zimbabwe, currently based in Singapore. I report chiefly on international affairs, specialising in politics, war and natural disasters when not playing golf badly.
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