Training the Next Generation of Interfaith Leaders: An Interview with Eboo Patel
By Kip Richardson | October 22, 2012
Even over the phone, Eboo Patel projects a youthful energy. This may come from his many hours spent talking to college students at universities around the country. As the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization that seeks to engage college students of different faith traditions in community and global service projects, Patel brings an enthusiastic and entrepreneurial style to the frequently academic world of interfaith dialogue. Moreover, he is not content with merely theorizing about how to cooperate across religious lines. He wants American college students to actually do this work, and he expects results.
Born in India to an Ismaili Muslim family and raised in the suburbs of Chicago where Christians and Jews far outnumbered Muslims, Patel has lots of experience negotiating the challenges of communicating across racial, cultural, and religious lines. In his first book, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (2007), Patel described how he came to interfaith work after years of learning to appreciate the richness of his own Indian Muslim heritage, as well as the diverse religious cultures of his adopted country. As he became involved in the interfaith movement, he grew dissatisfied with the amount of time and resources most interfaith leaders spent writing position papers and posing for pictures. “Where was the concrete commitment to social action,” he wrote in Acts of Faith. “And where were the young people?” While pursuing a doctorate in the sociology of religion as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Patel put his convictions and ideas into practice, officially launching IFYC in 2002. A decade later, he has become one of the leading figures in the interfaith movement. In 2009, he was named to President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. He also serves on the National Advisory Board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.
His most recent book, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America, examines the long history of religious prejudice in the United States, and the ongoing challenges such prejudice poses to contemporary interfaith leaders.
R&P caught up with Patel between interfaith events in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. –K.R.
R&P: As a leader in the interfaith movement, you were invited to join President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. What were the goals of this council?
EP: When we first talked with President Obama in the Oval Office in March of 2009, he was very clear about wanting four things from the faith council: First, he wanted faith communities to be involved in service and community development in more intense ways, especially given the economic crisis. Second, he wanted faith communities to be doing that work together as a cooperative endeavor. Third, he thought that the example should be inspiring to the world, especially at a time when religious prejudice and conflict are making the news every night. And finally, he thought that young people should be in positions of leadership.
This was perfect because those ideas represent the same currents guiding IFYC. Jim Wallis [CEO of the progressive Christian organization, Sojourners], one of my friends and mentors, actually elbowed me in the Oval Office and said to me, “that sounds like what you’re doing in the IFYC.”
R&P: Has IFYC been able to help implement those goals?
EP: A recommendation was put into the faith council report about the importance of starting interfaith programs on college campuses. As a result of that, we now have a partnership with the White House called the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. To get it started, President Obama invited college presidents with a personal letter to get their campuses involved in high-profile, large-scale interfaith programs, which we at IFYC have helped design and facilitate.
Our theory of change is that we need to make interfaith cooperation a social norm. That’s our goal for the next generation. That’s only going to be accomplished if we can nurture a critical mass of interfaith leaders who can model what interreligious cooperation looks like, and we believe that the best place to do that is college campuses. We also want to advance a narrative about how important interfaith cooperation is, how important it’s been in America over the course of our history, and how important it is to write the next chapter in that narrative.
R&P: The title of your new book, Sacred Ground, evokes the controversy surrounding the proposed construction of Cordoba House, the Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, and its progenitor, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. What do you think that episode tells us about the nature of religious prejudice in this country?
EP: I think it tells us, first of all, that there is a small group of people who are interested in and able to whip up a fury of bigoted sentiment. I call this the “industry of Islamophobia,” which includes people like Pam Geller, Robert Spencer, and the like. One of the stunning things to me about the Cordoba House episode is that if there’s one person who has been advancing an alternative Islam centered on mercy and pluralism over the past ten years, it’s Imam Feisal. The idea that he is in association with terrorists is laughable. It’s like the Twilight Zone.
Nevertheless, I think that the controversy also tells us that Americans have a lot of questions about who Muslims are. And if people don’t know a lot about a community, they’re more willing to believe bigoted lies about it, which, of course, tells us an awful lot about how to build religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation in America. We need to provide people with an appreciative knowledge of different religions and personal relationships with people from different religious communities.
R&P: Did you believe that some of the opposition to Cordoba House was based on principle rather than ignorance or religious prejudice?
EP: Absolutely. Were all the people who opposed Cordoba House bigots? Of course not. A reasonable, national conversation about what ought to go near a site where 3,000 people, mostly Americans, were killed, is a perfectly rational conversation. Certainly, I think that people who were saying Imam Feisal was a radical imam and that Cordoba House was a terrorist command center are just straight-up bigots, but a good part of the sentiment around Cordoba House had to do with concerns about what was happening around Ground Zero. And I know some of those opponents of the project and they’re the furthest thing from bigots.
R&P: Were their voices just being drowned out?
EP: Yes, their sentiments were not particularly well articulated in the media at the time. It was basically a food fight between people who were saying Cordoba House was a terrorist command center and people waving the flag of religious liberty. I’d like to think that in my book I wave the flag of something else—not that religious liberty isn’t important—but simply the idea that American history has been shaped by institutions from different religious communities, which has served the common good.
R&P: Speaking of American history, you also argue in Sacred Ground that you can’t narrate the history of religion in the United States as a gradual progression from intolerance to tolerance. Why is that?
EP: The way I view American religious history is that in every era there are forces of prejudice working against forces of pluralism. And the groups who are at stake are different groups across time. Seventy years ago, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism were rampant in America. So the fact that Catholics and Jews are today the most favorably viewed religious groups in America is stunning. But that’s the result of the forces of pluralism at that time standing up for the inclusion of and partnership with Jews and Catholics. Now, it’s Mormons and Muslims. Will it be a different group in the future? I think the answer is yes.
R&P: But you also argue that pluralism and tolerance will always defeat the forces of prejudice and intolerance. What makes you so confident about that?
EP: I think the arc of the story, that the forces of pluralism always win, is important. It doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable. At IFYC, we say that none of this is ordained. The forces of prejudice have won many battles. But they have never won the whole war or a whole generation because the forces of pluralism have defeated them. That doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels, but it does mean that we can call upon the ghosts of American heroes like George Washington and Jane Addams and say we are writing the next chapter in the narrative of this country.
R&P: You write in Sacred Ground about strategies for cultivating interfaith work, especially the importance of building relationships and friendships between people of different faiths. Isn’t this a lot easier to do on college campuses, since these are places that are already intentional about cultivating their diversity?
EP: College campuses are fertile environments, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are a million competing priorities on college campuses and so our goal is to make interfaith work a high priority. College campuses can also be centers of hostility toward religion. Not necessarily the campus as a whole, but there are certainly some who think that religion poisons everything. A lot of them find very congenial homes on college campuses. So the fact that college campuses are fertile territory doesn’t mean the work is easy.
The second thing is that we know what drives improvements in this area. What we need is a critical mass of people with the knowledge base and skill set to create interfaith spaces. So our theory of change is that if you can inspire a critical mass of college students to do this, if they can learn interfaith literacy and the theology of interfaith cooperation on campus, then the chances of them being interfaith leaders throughout their lives, whether they go into college chaplaincy or medicine, is much higher. What we hope to see is a critical mass of interfaith leaders goes into the public square over the course of the next thirty years. And America’s not getting any less diverse. If there’s not a mosque in your town right now, in ten or fifteen years, there’s a good chance there will be.
R&P: One critique that’s often made about interfaith dialogue is that it’s not very good at making room at the table for people who disagree. Do you have a strategy for training leaders in how to reach out to people who simply reject the aims of pluralism?
EP: There are currently three dominant rooms in the house of religious pluralism: liberal politics, liberal theologies, and spiritual enrichment. These are not bad rooms. I don’t want to be dismissive or derisive towards them, but there are plenty of people who don’t fit into those rooms, who have conservative theology and conservative politics and whose search for spiritual enrichment comes only from their own tradition and they actually consider that part of their commitment to that tradition. The work of interfaith cooperation is to build relationships between people who orient around religion differently, who would not otherwise be in relationship with people of other traditions. Our work is about bringing people from different political, theological, and spiritual orientations together.
R&P: And how do you do that?
EP: You do that through civic activities, the kind of activities that the vast majority of people can agree upon. Habitat for Humanity is a terrific example of this. One of the founding purposes of Habitat was not just to go about building houses, but about bringing Pentecostals and Presbyterians together. It was a civic activity that people who had different orientations around Christianity could agree upon.
R&P: Still, the same people who might dislike the aims of pluralism are the same people who might think that the search for “common ground” between religions in generic values like compassion or mercy or justice constitutes a watering down of their faith. Does interfaith dialogue require people to leave behind what makes their faith unique?
EP: First, no one is saying that interfaith cooperation means not going to church. Continue to partake of the banquet of your religious tradition. But all of our traditions have what I call a “theology of interfaith cooperation.” So it’s not just an American thing to be involved in interfaith cooperation. It’s also a very Christian thing to do. One of the wonderful things about religion is that it’s wide, it contains multitudes, including seeming contradictions. As my evangelicals like to say, within the Christian tradition there is both the “Great Commission,” as well as the “Great Cooperation.” In the Sacred Ground, I write about Bob Roberts [evangelical pastor of NorthWood Church], who’s very happy to remind me that he wants to convert me, but he’s also very happy to run big events in Dallas with IFYC methodology.
R&P: Are there forms of interfaith dialogue that you think are unhelpful?
EP: I think where interfaith work goes wrong is when we suggest that believing in the “Great Cooperation” means that the “Great Commission” no longer counts. I’m saying that both of them count and I don’t think we need to force people to choose. Now I think that different spaces have different ground rules about evangelizing. Evangelical and Catholic organizations, both of which hope to proselytize, are actually very good at this. They have a set of ethics that say, when we’re running a healthcare service, it’s not right to use that as a proselytizing tool. So I think that religious organizations already in effect do engage in both the “Great Commission” and the “Great Cooperation.” We just need to articulate that way of being religious that can both seek to convert and seek to be partners.
R&P: We’re on the eve of a big presidential election. What do you hope the next administration, whether Democratic or Republican, will accomplish?
EP: I hope three things. First, I hope that everybody in America recognizes that Barack Obama is a Christian, that he is part of one important strain of Christianity, which seeks justice and finds faith a sustaining force in that endeavor. Second, I hope that Mitt Romney’s ubiquitous presence normalizes Mormonism and that Mormons don’t have to feel nervous about saying they’re Mormon. They should be welcomed fully into the American fold.
And finally, I hope that we can continue to support religious groups around the world to get along with one another, whether it’s Christians and Muslims in Egypt or Sunnis and Shias in Bahrain, because America has a pretty inspiring history of the forces of pluralism defeating the forces of prejudice and conflict. I hope that we can be proud of that history and hold it up as a possibility, though other nations will find their own models. The very reality of such a religiously diverse nation as America can indicate to people that the clash of civilizations is a lie and that religious diversity can actually lead to a strengthened social fabric.
Kip Richardson is a PhD candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard University.
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