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.