November 2002. It was an unusual audience at the Music Academy in Chennai, drawn there by an unusually eloquent speaker. The giant hoardings in the city calling attention to a ‘Communal Harmony Meet’ had drawn my attention too, having just returned from Gujarat after listening to painful personal stories from the victims of the ‘riots.’ I had dropped everything else that day to attend Dr. Zakir Naik’s ‘Ultimate Dialogue,’ which I assumed would be about how we can all get along peacefully.
Was I naïve!
As I looked around the huge auditorium that morning, I realized that I was one of a handful of non-Muslims there, who were all being treated with great deference by the organizers. It didn’t take me long to understand why: The meeting was a thinly-disguised but well-packaged proselytizing meeting, and we the ‘others’ were there to bear witness to Dr. Naik’s genius. If his lecture was interspersed liberally with quotes from other religious scriptures, it wasn’t to drive home any points about our common humanity, but was designed to impress his faithful flock and to make a skillful case for how, at the end of the day, other religious traditions were flawed in comparison to his own faith.
To his credit, Dr. Naik made no direct derogatory remarks about other religions that day, unlike some of his Christian Evangelist brothers who make no effort to hide their bigotry, and unlike RSS/VHP leaders who were spewing communal hate after presiding over the worst anti-Muslim pogroms in India’s history. But I do remember how Dr. Naik couldn’t resist a palpably mischievous dig at vegetarians: “Why would God have given us canine teeth if he wanted us to be vegetarians?” I had wondered how such remarks squared with the idea of promoting harmony and what kind of reception he might have received had the audience been the usual Music Academy crowd of Carnatic Music lovers!
I challenged Dr. Naik during Q&A as to why if it was indeed a meeting about communal harmony, there were no other religious traditions represented on the stage (see photograph above). His cocky reply, which sticks in my mind to this date: He would be glad to engage any Hindu religious leader worthy of debating him! (Apparently, Sri Sri Ravishankar joined him on stage some months later.)
As I walked out, I was livid that the organizers had gotten away with billing a partisan religious sermon as a communal harmony meet. But, I told myself, it was Dr. Naik’s right in a secular society to ‘sell’ his faith in whatever way he chose to package it, as long as he was not peddling hate. It was my fault that I had fallen for his slick marketing campaign and had wasted my day.
I have no idea what Dr. Naik’s sermons are like these days and whether he may have inspired terrorists in Bangladesh. But it is interesting to note that anti-Naik views are coming in equal measure by the Hindu Right and Left as well as from mainstream Muslim organizations. All I can say is that if Dr. Zakir Naik is to be censured or indicted for peddling hate, I hope that our media will have the courage to present his views side by side with those of Dr. Subramanya Swamy, Togadia, Yogi Adityanath, and other RSS/VHP/BJP luminaries and let the people decide for themselves who is inciting communal hate on a regular basis.
Raju Rajagopal is a San Francisco Bay Area and Bangalore-based social activist, writer, and a retired health care entrepreneur