Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia's King Salman awarded a prestigious prize to Zakir Naik, a televangelist and religious scholar from India, heralding him as "one of the most renowned non-Arabic-speaking promulgators of Islam." Naik, a trained doctor, founded the Peace TV channel, which supposedly reaches an audience of 100 million English-speaking Muslims. His popular YouTube stream includes videos titled "Who is deceived by the Satan, Christians or Muslims?" and "Does eating non-vegetarian food have any effect on the mind?"
Naik's creed is an expansive one. "Islam is the only religion that can bring peace to the whole of humanity," he said in a video biography aired at the ceremony.
The preacher is not short of controversy. His orthodox, Wahhabist views — affiliated closely with the Saudi state — are polarizing in India, which is home to a diverse set of Muslim traditions and sects. His conservatism has led him to make statements endorsing the use of female sex slaves and allegedly expressing sympathy for terrorists.
Earlier this year, hundreds of Sufi Muslims picketed a New Delhi event where Naik was speaking, demanding his arrest and accusing him of propagating a divisive, dangerous brand of Islam.
In a 2008 video, he claimed President George W. Bush was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. "Even a fool will know that this was an inside job," Naik said. Years before, he appeared to offer tacit backing to terrorist masterminds such as Osama bin Laden.
"If [Bin Laden] is terrorizing America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him," he said in one video. "Every Muslim should be a terrorist."
In a video in 2007, he talked about how "Jews are controlling America."
In 2010, Britain's government barred his entry into the country on grounds of "unacceptable behavior."
Naik's supporters argue that his comments are taken out of context, and point to the religious diversity of those in attendance at his mass public events.
Speaking to the New York Times earlier this week, he condemned the violence of militants like those from the Islamic State, but not without a caveat. "I am absolutely against Muslims who kill, but what is the U.S. doing?” Naik said, citing civilian casualties amid U.S. campaigns in the Muslim world. "Is the U.S. really bothered about human rights? No!"
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia late Wednesday to consult with Salman on the status of negotiations with Iran, a Saudi foe. The United States' close relationship with Saudi Arabia endures despite the kingdom's horrific human rights record and its conspicuous role in helping spread the views preached by Islamic supremacists such as Naik.
Naik, who has also been feted in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, reportedly received a 24-karat gold medal from the Saudi king and a check for $200,000.