Eboo Patel on Park51, Catholic Colleges, and Educated Bigotry in America

Earlier this summer I spoke with Eboo Patel, co-founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, about the importance of interfaith dialogue at Catholic universities. The Core works to provide the tools and support college students need to become leaders in this dialogue and to work together to build connections among religious communities. Our conversation was serious, but relatively hopeful.

A few days ago, I spoke with Patel, who is Muslim, once again. Now, at a time when the controversy surrounding Park51 sometimes makes it seem like respectful dialogue--particularly between Muslims and non-Muslims--is a long way off, I asked him for his thoughts on the matter. In the resulting interview, which draw on both conversations, Patel speaks honestly and openly about the alarming rise of "educated bigotry" in America, why interfaith service projects can help break down prejudice, and the need for the renewed sense of urgency among supporters of religious pluralism. An excerpt:


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.”...

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.”

Read the rest here.

Kerry Weber

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William Lindsey
8 years 6 months ago
I see very strong parallels between what Eboo Patel is saying, and the recent America thread about liberation theology.

As I noted in my own contribution to the latter thread, it seems obvious to me that many of those attacking liberation theology are attacking a world of thought and discourse about which they have almost no understanding.  They haven't actually read liberation theologians.  What they claim to know about liberation theology has been fed to them in soundbytes by news sources like FOX news.

And so the Catholic church in the U.S. has in front of it a very serious educational challenge, since, increasingly, many of those in the church who claim to be most ardently orthodox are taking their theological cues from sources like Glenn Beck and FOX.  There is a tremendous amount of ''educated bigotry'' within the church itself, and it uncritcally imports into its theological understanding of the world concepts that are subtly or overtly racist or discriminatory in other respects.

Read the thread on liberation theology, for instance, and I don't see how you can avoid wondering whether those expounding on ''black liberation theology'' have any real knowledge of that topic. Or any real, ongoing communication with Americans affected by the racist legacy of our nation.

Read that thread, as someone outside our parochial Catholic conversations, and you are likely to wonder-with significant reasons for doing so-if the Catholic church in the U.S. is, to a great respect, impervious to the challenges faced by African Americans in our society.  You're also likely to wonder if many of us are simply impervious to the challenge of the gospels to understand and live in solidarity with the poor-and if we aren't in danger of creating a mutation of the gospel that has little or nothing to do with our own tradition of teaching social justice and defending human rights.

We do, indeed, have a very serious educational challenge confronting us in American Catholicism.  And it does, indeed, have much to do with the challenge to confront bigotry.
Tom Maher
8 years 6 months ago
Thank goodness for the internet.  Ideas critical and different from the politically correct views of information providing institutions such as churchs. colleges, media and entertainment establisment can and do get expressed and heard.   From the new information platform provided by the internet people can come to different conclusions than from the information and views feed to them by older traditonal media and education sources. 

America does not lack from alternate sources of information and opinion.  Look again before you assume ignorance..   Opinions expressed in America are likely to be well informed but may not be approved of by everyone. .

It is unfortunate this article ignores free speech and its importance while it has great regard for the rights of religious institutions.   A better balance of rights and respect for individuals and their freedoms is missing.

America has a deep traitdition of individual free speech rights especially in the area of making greivances known.    If there is any educating to be done it is on the icentral mportance of free speech in America and especially political speech.  People and institutions who think that political expression is easily dismissed  by perswonal attack or name calling opponents vastly underestimate the role and importance of free speech in America.  If you have a difference of opinion you might better spend your time leaning how to debate your opponent than attempt to defame your opponents.  Playing on the public symthpathy only goes so far.  At the end of the day you have to argue your case with facts on an equal basis with your opponents.   The idea that you can pre-judge an issue based on who you are without arguements and declare one siide as bigots and the other worthy without basis is very mistaken and false,   And of course any ideas that you can suppress alternate points of view in America is not at all likely.  If you live in America you had better get use to the idea of free speech and the idea that individuals are free to express their concerns no matter who doen't like it.  

 This article reasons if you hold certain alternate views you must be a bigot.   Your views and concerns are less worthy than the views of others and you should not be allowed to freely express your view without being denigrated and otherwise personally attack or disadvantaged.   People thoughs are "dark".    Their expressions are sinister and their words are potentially dangerous.  This is a very unfortunante analysis of what America is about.    

The article badly lacks a healthy respect and appreciation for what free speech is about and how everyone benefits by free speech and open expression of ideas without censorship, penalty or control.

This article does a disservice in ignoring the free speech rights of citizens and the positive advatage to society from the free speech rights of citizens to make known what their grievances and concerns are.     
8 years 6 months ago
A fine post and while free speech is a right, it's exercise (especialy if an excuse for ignorace or worse) is not the right thing


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