EBOO PATEL was raised in a Chicago suburb, the son of Muslim immigrants from India. Like many young first- and second-generation Americans, Patel’s adolescence involved balancing multiple identities, which at times led him to feel deeply alienated and like an American “other.” But he didn’t take the path of violence that, in 2006, led seven “al Qaeda- inspired” young men to plot to destroy Chicago’s Sears Tower.
Instead, Patel found the radical peace work of James Baldwin, Dorothy Day, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and the Dalai Lama, which set the course of his life. In 2002, Patel received his doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship and has been pioneering the religious pluralism movement ever since.
In 2003, Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core (www. ifyc.org) to encourage youth to clarify their own religious identities by pairing interfaith dialogue with community service. In 2007, he published Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. Eboo Patel visited Sojourners in June 2008 and talked with associate editor Rose Marie Berger.
ROSE MARIE BERGER: Tell us about your introduction to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.
EBOO PATEL: It is impossible for me to overstate the impact of Dorothy Day and Christian social justice work, because it came at such a fragile and flammable time of my life. Basically, and this happens to a lot of people, you come to consciousness and realize that everything you were taught was wrong—about fairness, about equality, about Christopher Columbus, about Thomas Jefferson. At 17 or 18 years old, I raged. I felt like that was the only thing I knew how to do, and, to an extent, that was what was encouraged in the kind of identity politics/social justice crowds that were around.
But I knew pretty quickly that this is not who I wanted to be, and what the Catholic Worker movement gave me was a way to have a radical view of the world—radical equality, radical peace, radical possibility—that is love-based, not anger-based. I met Catholic Workers who were real people; they weren’t purists, they swore, they made mistakes, whatever else. I’m grateful for the heat I felt during those years, but I’m aware that heat can sometimes explode.
In your book, Acts of Faith, you call al Qaeda one of the “most effective youth organizations in the world today.” You’ve got a chapter called “The Youth Programs of Religious Totalitarians.” Why?
PATEL: In the 1990s, every time I turned on the television I felt like I saw a young person killing someone to the soundtrack of prayer. Yigal Amir, who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, was 25 years old. People involved in the emerging al Qaeda movement in the 1990s were young people. Benjamin Smith, a white supremacist who went on a rampage through the Midwest killing Jews, African Americans, and Asians, was 21. But everybody’s heroes—Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day—they all started young. They were all people of faith, and they did the opposite. Their movements were not only for social justice, they were interfaith movements for social justice.
That’s how religious extremists organize. Young people are what they’re after! The Taliban—“tali” means “student.” The Taliban are graduates of a certain set of schools in the Pak-Afghan area. Then you start thinking to yourself, “Why is it that every time I go to an interfaith conference, I see a group of senior theologians talking?” If religious extremism is a movement of young people acting, and interfaith cooperation is a movement of senior theologians talking—then we lose. Knowing that we inherit a legacy of young people of faith starting interfaith movements for justice, how do we extend and expand that legacy? That’s the Interfaith Youth Core.
What organizing principles do you use with the Interfaith Youth Core?
PATEL: We try to put the idea of interfaith cooperation into the culture. I call it the “preaching to the choir” approach. Step one: You recognize the noise that already exists in the world. The noise about religion and religious diversity is dominated by the voices of aggressive atheists who hate religion, religious extremists who hate people, and religious bigots who hate Islam.
Step two: Teach a different song. So we sing the song of interfaith cooperation, the song of religious pluralism, the song of King learning from Gandhi, the song of King marching with Heschel, the song of the South African liberation movement being a multifaith movement.
Step three: Teach that song to the choir and make sure they sing it. Now you’ve added your voice to the noise, and hopefully you’re singing a different song in the world. Instead of just the voices of religious extremists, religious bigots, and aggressive atheists, there’s now the voice and song of religious pluralists.
The fourth piece: Teach your choir members to start their own choirs. We’re training young people in the framework, the knowledge base, and the skill set to run their own interfaith projects, and we’re going to network them with other people who are doing the same thing. We’re a movement-building organization—we don’t seek to grow exponentially as an organization; we seek to tell the story, inspire young people to tell it themselves, and then act on it.
We are creating a new category in American and global life, which is the category of interfaith cooperation. Right now, people need to see a progressive Muslim. They need to see young people who are full-time interfaith cooperation staff people. They need to see the preacher, which is why we invest so much time in training people to go out and speak.
What are examples of the peace tradition within Islam?
PATEL: I’ll give you two recent examples that people don’t know—even Muslims don’t know. In the Rwandan genocide, three-quarters of a million people were killed in 100 days. Probably the only organized group of people who intervened was Muslims. I learned this when I spoke at the Centennial of the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C., a couple years ago. A young Rwandan woman said to me, “Why are you here?” I said, “I’m a Muslim, and I think they want to talk about interfaith engagements, so I’m doing that.” She started to tear up and said, “My family is alive because of your people.” Muslims went into Rwanda because they felt compelled by their faith. They put their lives on the line to protect the weakest.
The second thing is that the South African liberation movement had a huge contingent of Muslims involved. In fact, some of the most important scholars in the world today were at the forefront of that movement: Ebrahim Moosa, Ebrahim Rasool, Rashid Omar, Farid Esack. They effectively articulated what some people call a Muslim liberation theology, a Quranic liberation theology. These people were appointed to important roles in Nelson Mandela’s government. Probably the highest elected official outside of the Muslim world is Ebrahim Rasool, who is premier of the Western Cape Province in South Africa.
What do you want Christians to know about Islam?
PATEL: The three things I would want people to know about Islam is that first of all, the core tenet of Islam is mercy. The most common Muslim prayer is Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim—“In the name of God, the all merciful, the ever merciful.” The first lesson that classical Muslim scholars teach their students is this: If you are merciful to those on earth, the one who is in heaven will be merciful to you; a direct link between human action of mercy and God’s bounty of mercy.
Number two is that diversity and pluralism is a revered value in Islam. One of my favorite lines in the Holy Quran is from Surah 49: “God made you different nations and tribes that you may come to know one another.”
The third thing I want people to know about Islam is that it is a tradition that has inspired the jazz and poetry, and love and life of a fifth of humanity for well over a millennia. It’s a remarkably diverse collection of people, and you cannot think simple things about a group of people that big for that huge of a period of time.