The subject line of the e-mail read: “Ten reasons Muslims can’t be Americans.” The young Christian woman, who had received the chain message from a fellow member of a church committee, knew the content of the e-mail was full of lies. She chose to respond—kindly, respectfully—with the truth. As she typed her reply she drew on her experience working at the Interfaith Youth Core. As an intern with the organization she collaborated with Muslims on a daily basis, befriended Muslims, and participated in dialogue and service with them. She clicked “send” and hoped for the best.
The response from her fellow committee members was not as kind, however. Many were angered by her response and told her so. The young woman now attends a different church, but she doesn’t regret her actions.
The courage and commitment to truth displayed by the young woman is the kind Eboo Patel hoped to foster when he co-founded the Interfaith Youth Core in 1998, at the age of 22. The Core—spelled this way to represent its place at the center of a larger movement—works to provide the tools and support college students need to become leaders in interreligious dialogue. These leaders, Patel says, are young men and women “who have the framework, the knowledge base and the skill set to bring people from different religions together to build understanding and cooperation.” In light of the ongoing and much-publicized controversy surrounding Park51, the proposed Islamic center a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York City, as well as the anti-Islam protests popping up in cities across the country, these skills are especially needed today.
“The Park51 controversy, in a way, exposed the levels of anti-Islam sentiment and Islamophobia in America,” said Patel. “The part of it that I find so disturbing is that it’s what I call an educated bigotry, which means that people have sought information that confirms their worst fears about Muslims and Islam.”
Patel says that while being interviewed on National Public Radio he’s heard from callers who use words like sharia, dawa and taqiyya, but few of the callers truly understand the meaning or implication of these terms. Patel credits the “industry of Islamophobia” for this, which he describes as those “peddling a distorted image of Islam and Muslims and advancing the line that all Muslims want to dominate.” These individuals have books, Web sites and speaking tours and use the terms as “a kind of anti-Islam propaganda,” he said.
This propaganda feeds into the worst fears of many Americans. “People see acts of violence committed in the name of Islam and then they hear somebody say, ‘This is what Muslims are called to do,’” said Patel. “What these anti-Muslim bigots do is effectively confirm that narrative and say, ‘Yes, the narrative of Osama bin Laden is the true Islam.’”
But this information isn’t coming only from the fringes. Patel says that the mainstream media sometimes plays a part—albeit a less deliberate one—as well. Osama bin Laden videotapes beheadings because he knows that the American media will show the footage, said Patel. “For Bin Laden the videotape is even more important than the beheading because the videotape poisons the image of Islam in the world,” he said. “It creates an us-versus-them scenario: that Muslims are opposed to the world. If all you know about Islam is that videotape, that's your image of Muslims.”
But the distinction between Islam and terrorist organizations is key to understanding the situation at Park51 and to rebutting claims that the center is insensitive to the families of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Patel says when the difference is made clear, so is the fact that the center poses no threats to America or to the memory of those who died at Ground Zero. “How is it insensitive for a group of Americans in a mixed neighborhood—one that includes strip clubs, off-track betting parlors and restaurants—to start an interfaith center in the neighborhood that they have been present in for two decades?” Patel asked.
A look at the history of American Catholics, and the prejudice they’ve faced, can offer some perspective, Patel says. “One hundred years ago, the line against Catholics was that Catholics were the ‘alien Roman,’ that they were Papists, that their fidelity to the Vatican meant that they could never be loyal Americans. You literally hear the exact same charges leveled against Muslims: Their fidelity to the Quran means they can never be loyal Americans. Muslims are Islamists. It's the alien Muslim.”
Patel hopes that the Interfaith Youth Core will help young adults gain confidence in their ability to express their faith to others, so that these misconceptions can be broken down and those working toward inclusion might be able to offer an organized and respectful response to all prejudice.
“A good bit of this anti-Muslim hatred is being sacralized,” said Patel. “It's being articulated in the logical terms. The guy leading the Quran burning in Florida says, ‘This is what Jesus would do.’ The people who are in favor of burning the Quran in the name of Jesus preach from the pulpit about that message every Sunday…. Those of us who believe in embracing our neighbors of different backgrounds [have to ask ourselves]: Are we as loud? Are we as forthright? Are we as compelling? Are we as cogent?”
What those seeking inclusion need now, Patel says, is a renewed sense of urgency, and a renewed commitment to dialogue and deliberate collaborative action. “It's not about saying all religions are the same; it's not even about saying all religions are equal,” he said. “It's about saying that people from different faith backgrounds ought to come together in ways that build understanding and cooperation. We consider intolerance and bigotry a severe threat to pluralism.” Patel envisions congregational partnerships between churches and mosques, which might include religious leaders giving speeches at the other’s house of worship and religious groups working together on interfaith service projects.
The idea of service is key to a successful dialogue and is particularly effective in a college campus setting, since college students often have the resources, infrastructure and enthusiasm to organize effective and far-reaching projects, Patel said. Interreligious service projects allow students to relate not only to those of other faiths, but they can easily include those students who don’t subscribe to a particular faith or who may have given up on the idea of God altogether. Individuals of all backgrounds are able to draw upon common values or influences. “What we really put at the center of the table is the shared values of service, mercy and compassion,” said Patel. “And then we invite people to speak to how their tradition inspires them to apply that shared value.”
Patel’s own religious experience has been influenced by a diverse group of spiritual men and women, all of whom have helped him to strengthen his own Muslim faith. His interest in the life of Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, led him to embark on a tour of Catholic Worker houses along the East Coast during college.
College is a formative time for many young adults, and Patel believes that Catholic colleges and universities have a special ability—responsibility even—to foster interfaith dialogue on campus. “I really think that the Catholic universities have a leg up on many other universities because they have taken volunteerism seriously for many, many years,” Patel said. “They naturally connect faith to volunteering. So many Catholic universities have diverse student populations or exist in areas in which diversity is around them. Catholic universities, because they take their own faith seriously, have appreciative understanding of other people’s faiths…. I think every college campus ought to consider itself a model of interfaith cooperation.” Colleges can effectively live that model by offering courses, lectures and training and service projects with an eye to religious diversity and dialogue, he said.
The Core worked on more than 150 campuses across the nation, including more than 30 Catholic universities, including many Catholic universities like Chicago’s DePaul University, Loyola University of Chicago, Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, Loyola University of Maryland, Saint Mary's College near San Francisco and Xavier University in Cincinnati. As the organization grows, Patel hopes the dialogue will grow with it.
As a 22-year old interested in his faith—and the faith of others—Patel noticed that most of the individuals interested in interreligious dialogue weren’t exactly his peers. Many actively participating in dialogue were decades older, while many young adults seemed to spend time with others like themselves or even to favor more fundamentalist views. The Core came from Patel’s desire to challenge his peers to enter into conversation with one another. In the 21st century, most people view religion in one of four ways, said Patel: “It can be a bubble of isolation, it can be a barrier of division, it can be a bomb of destruction, it can be bridge of cooperation. And what those four things have in common is they are an answer to the question, ‘How do I respond to diversity?’”
While negative influences encourage some to respond with barriers or bombs, the major faith traditions do not urge such action. “There are resources within our faith communities and a call from the divine to build a bridge to diversity—a bridge of cooperation using the raw materials of the theology of your faith—and to walk across that bridge to serve others,” he said. “There are really fruitful dialogues to have on shared values—mercy, service, compassion.”
However, Patel said that the way these values manifest themselves can differ. “Just because Muslims believe in mercy and Catholics believe in mercy doesn't mean we believe we walk the same path towards mercy,” he said. “So the interesting dimension of that dialogue is, ‘What is it in your tradition of Catholicism that inspires you to act in mercy?’ You get these very rich stories from Catholics about the works of Jesus, about a scripture from the Bible, and you get these rich stories from Muslims about Muslim prayers about mercy and about stories relating to Mohammed.”
In sharing these stories, individuals of faith must recall, retell and reflect on them once again, which often gives participants new perspective on their own faith. “The way we frame our question—‘How does your tradition inspire you to serve others?’—is constantly referring young people back to a tradition,” Patel said. “Our process helps reconnect young people with traditions that they might have felt, for whatever reason, estranged from or they have gone astray from. I hear with some frequency young people saying the process of interfaith service compelled me to go back to church because I saw, in explaining it, how my religion inspired me to serve others.”
Listen to Kerry Weber's interview with Eboo Patel.