(CNSNews.com) – In the Saudi capital on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry sidestepped an awkward question about his hosts’ awarding of a prestigious religious prize to a controversial Muslim cleric who has expressed support for Osama bin Laden and accused George W. Bush of being behind the 9/11 terror attacks.
“I really don’t know anything about the award, the process, the – I know, obviously, something of the individual, but let me find out more before I make any comment on it,” said Kerry during a joint press appearance with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal.
A reporter had asked him, “The King Faisal Foundation has just given a $200,000 award to a leading Islamic scholar from India who apparently called the 9/11 attacks in the United States an inside job, suggesting that the Bush administration was behind it. Could I have your reaction to that?”
At a high-profile ceremony early this week King Salman handed Indian cleric Zakir Naik a prize for “service to Islam” named for King Faisal – father of the man Kerry was standing with when asked the question.
“Dr. Naik has contributed to the conversion of about 34,000 Americans to Islam,” the kingdom’s Arab News reported, adding that many of his speeches have “focused on correcting misconceptions about Islam in the minds of Muslim youths.”
The award citation lauded Naik, president of the Mumbai-based Islamic Research Foundation, for “hundreds of public lectures and debates which explain the Islamic creed, defend its teachings and propagate its principles.”
It also praised him for his setting up religious schools for non-Arab students, and his work in comparative religious studies, in part through his television channel, Assalam (Peace), whose “programs are broadcast in English, Urdu and Bengali languages and viewers of the English channel are estimated to exceed 100 millions.”
Naik was awarded a gold medal, a certificate hand written in Arabic calligraphy, and an endowment of 750,000 riyals ($200,000). He said at the ceremony the money would go to his television channel.
The King Faisal International Prize is the kingdom’s most prestigious annual award. Established in 1979, it recognizes individuals in five categories – service to Islam, Islamic studies, Arabic language and literature, Medicine, and Science.
The selection process includes a thorough review of nominees “according to the highest standards,” evaluation by “international referees” and a final decision “based on merit and recommendations.”
Despite this rigorous procedure, this year’s “service to Islam’ award went to a man whose controversial statements are well-documented, and were alluded to by the British government when it banned Naik from visiting the country in 2010.
One YouTube video, apparently recorded in 2006, shows Naik praising bin Laden and calling the United States “the biggest terrorist.”
“If you ask my view, if he’s fighting the enemies of Islam, I’m for him,” he said of the then fugitive al-Qaeda leader.
“I’m not in touch with him. I don’t know him personally. I read the newspapers. If he’s terrorizing the terrorists, if he’s terrorizing America the terrorist – the biggest terrorist – I’m with him.
“Every Muslim should be a terrorist!” Naik continued. “The thing is that, if he’s terrorizing a terrorist, he’s following Islam. Whether he is or not, I don’t know. I’m with those people who are following the Qur’an. Even if the full world is against them, I’m with them.”
In a 2008 lecture, broadcast on his TV network, Naik reviewed various claims by 9/11 conspiracy theorists, then concluded, “the amount of ample evidence given there, even a fool will know this is an inside job.”
Citing 9/11 conspiracy documentaries, he added, “and if we see all this, it is a blatant, open secret that this attack on the Twin Towers was done by George Bush himself.”
King should set an ‘example of religious tolerance’
Ali Alyami, director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, criticized the award decision.
“To reward people like Dr. Zakir Naik for encouraging Muslims to reject and resent major religions (and their adherents) and call such incitements ‘service to Islam’ is indicative of the Saudi king’s support for religious extremists,” he said Thursday.
Alyami accused Naik of promoting “religious totalitarianism, enslavement and rape of women,” and said he “advocates against freedom of speech, expression, press, assembly …”
“As the ruler of the land where Islam was established and where Muslims’ holy shrines are located, King Salman, along with his ruling family and zealous religious establishment, shoulders a huge responsibility toward his muzzled population, the Arab people and other Muslims worldwide,” he said.
“Never in recent history have non-Muslims and increasing numbers of Muslims become more resentful of Islam and Muslims, in general, than they are now,” Alyami said.
“This trend is not likely to be reversed peacefully. The Saudi ruling dynasties can lead the way by setting a good example of religious tolerance and acceptance of ‘the other’ regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, beliefs and religious orientation.
“There is no better place to start than at home.”
Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, said Friday the decision to give the award to Naik was “an example of how U.S. policies have reinforced extremist policies, by its inability to confront the Saudi monarchy on its extremist polices.”
“This inability has cost the U.S. and the world a lot of blood and treasure.”