The preaching of Zakir Naik: When journalists turn the term 'evangelist' into an insult

Let's walk through this one slowly, since it's a bit complicated. The big question here: Is there such a thing as a Muslim evangelist?

The bottom line: The word "evangelist" has deep roots in Christian tradition -- period. If you dig deep enough into the early church you find the Greek word "euangelion," which means "good news" or the Gospel, and that evolved into the Latin "evangelium."

Click your mouse a few times and you can find the word "evangel," which means, "The Christian Gospel" or "any of the four Gospels of the New Testament." Once again, the Greek and Latin roots are clear. "Evangel" evolved into "evangelist." If you look that up you find a variety of definitions, the most generic of which will be something like, "One who promulgates or promotes something enthusiastically." The main choices will resemble:

* Protestant minister or layperson who serves as an itinerant or special preacher, especially a revivalist.
* A preacher of the Gospel.
* Any of the writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) of the four Gospels.
* A person who first brought the gospel to a city or region.

During the evangelical and Pentecostal scandals of the 1980s, centering on the work of TV preachers such as Jim "PTL" Bakker and Jimmy "I have sinned" Swaggart, this term was stretched into "televangelist" -- even though most members of that tribe were not doing evangelism.

This brings us to a recent story in The Los Angeles Times that starts like this:

Authorities are investigating a Mumbai-based televangelist whose radical sermons are believed to have influenced at least one of the men who killed hostages in a Bangladesh cafe this month.
Bangladesh on Sunday suspended the satellite television channel owned by Zakir Naik, a controversial preacher who has justified terrorism against the United States and the killing of Muslims who convert to other religions.
Officials in India said they would take action against private channels airing Naik’s speeches from Peace TV, his Dubai-based television channel, which is not licensed to broadcast in India. And the Home Affairs Ministry has ordered an investigation into Naik’s Mumbai-based charity, the Islamic Research Foundation, over allegations that it was financing radicalism, according to multiple reports.

Why call this man an "evangelist," other than the fact that he is a preacher and is viewed by authorities as dangerous? Here's the very next paragraph:

Naik overcame a childhood stutter to become a widely popular orator with 14 million Facebook followers and an audience of tens of millions more on Peace TV. He claims to have a medical degree and has modeled himself on Western televangelists, addressing audiences in English and usually wearing a suit, skullcap and gentle smile.

Again, why take a leap of logic and call this man an "evangelist"? I assumed that some authority, somewhere in this report, had been quoted applying this term to Naik. Thus, that established the connection and the Los Angeles Times team used this loaded term for the sake of consistency.

This does not, however, appear to be the case. The "televangelist" label -- with all of its history intact -- appears to have been assigned to Naik by a few western journalists, alone. It appears to me that this term is being used as an insult.

But wait: Is it possible to say that this man's primary goal is to convert non-Muslims to his faith? Even though the historic Christian term "evangelist" does not apply, is it possible to argue that he is practicing a kind of Islamic evangelism? The story tells us this:

Naik has criticized Islamic State -- the Iraq- and Syria-based militant organization -- as “anti-Islamic.” But many experts say his speeches teach hatred against the West and espouse a hard-line Salafi interpretation of Sunni Islam, which regards Shiites and members of other Muslim sects as apostates. He frequently travels to Saudi Arabia, which last year awarded him the King Faisal International Prize for “services to Islam.”
His use of English and social media -- and his interactions with young audiences -- have helped him reach middle-class audiences, drawing comparisons to Anwar Awlaki, the American cleric who is believed to have inspired several terrorist attacks and was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. ...
In one of his videos, Naik voices support for Osama bin Laden, saying, “If he is terrorizing America, the biggest terrorist, then I am with him.” He goes on to call the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks an “inside job,” saying, “Even a fool would know this.” 

As best I can tell, Naik is merely attempting to convert other Muslims to his own radicalized version of Islam, one built on the Saudi Arabian model of Sunni. So is he an "evangelist" in any sense other than the most generic use of the word? The answer is "no." Most reporters are referring to him as an "Islamic preacher" or even a "hate preacher."

In conclusion, I wish I could say that the bible of journalism, the Associated Press Stylebook, provided us with clear guidance on this point. Its "evangelist" reference states:

evangelist -- Capitalize only in reference to the men credited with writing the Gospels: The four Evangelists were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In lowercase, it means a preacher who makes a profession of seeking conversions.

That's a mixed signal -- very specific on a Christian use and then, in terms of wider faith content, a very vague reference. However, the "conversion" link is clear.

My journalism professors and editors always used to say that, when in doubt, look a term up in the dictionary and be as clear as possible.

If that is the case, then journalists need to stop using "evangelist" as an insult, which appears to be what is happening here with Naik, a radical Muslim preacher or apologist.

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