Talk is cheap

The British Home Office denied a visa to self-styled "Islamic scholar" Zakir Naik, who runs the Mumbai-based Islamic Research Foundation and Peace TV, calling his behaviour "unacceptable". Wielding an exclusion order, British Home Secretary Theresa May added that "coming to the UK is a privilege not a right, and I am not willing to allow those who might not be conducive to the public good to enter." However, by disallowing Naik from delivering his lecture in Birmingham, Britain has simply made him a cause and handed him a megaphone, ensuring that his voice is amplified on blogs, social networks and other forums where disenfranchised and angry Muslims gather.

This is not to say that Zakir Naik's televangelism is not entirely free of objectionable or sometimes plain ridiculous content. Indeed, many have joined issue with his analysis of 9/11 and the roots of terrorism, as too his view of gender rights. But this is exactly what makes the British invocation of a provision to secure public order mystifying. Naik is simply one corner in a larger field, and his ideas have been debated, endorsed or demolished, as the case may be, on very public platforms. In fact, he has been solidly and eloquently taken on in these very pages by liberals like Javed Anand. Islamic authorities, including the Darul Uloom Deoband, have issued fatwas against his preachings. And it must be noted that Naik himself has energetically participated in this back-and-forth on panels along with figures like Shah Rukh Khan, on television.

Words must be fought with words alone, not clumsy state action. Such provocation is inevitable in the complex, variegated democracies we live in in both India and Britain, we could bump up against people whose positions worry us, and we are free to debate, mercilessly mock, or ignore that opinion. But to declare it unsayable is highly dangerous. Salman Rushdie, who has himself been singed by such logic, has warned Britain of the danger of walling off religious matters, saying that "the defence of free speech begins at the point when people say something you can't stand." Zakir Naik talks of ideas that some might abhor, but some others take all too seriously. Not permitting open discourse is to constrict the free play of disagreeement and disputation.

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