The Common Good
May 2010

Building a Movement

by Eboo Patel | May 2010

Movements don't fall from the sky -- they're built by people.

Have you ever been to a college campus at 8 a.m.? It looks like a ghost town. And usually an invitation to come out at that hour is synonymous with pressing the snooze button. So what motivated a thousand people to stand together outside Stanford University’s Taube Hillel House that early on a Friday morning?

Westboro Baptist Church—an extremist group known for spouting hate speech—had posted on its Web site plans to march in front of Hillel House at Stanford. Making good on their promise that January morning, six members of the church stood holding signs with anti-Semitic and anti-gay slogans. They shouted hateful jeers at students and passers-by.
But a few feet away stood nearly 1,000 members of the Stanford community—students, faculty, and staff from more than 20 religious and cultural clubs on campus. They came together to celebrate their diversity in the face of those who would try to tear them apart. The power of the gathering wasn’t lost on anyone—partway through the event, a young man stumbled out of a nearby dorm, awakened by the noise of the group. A few minutes later, he re-emerged, playing a solo of “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes.
However good the cause, however ugly the provocation, a thousand people don’t naturally rise from their beds to promote a positive value. Somebody has to rouse them. Somebody has to be the alarm clock.
In this case, it was a group of student leaders, including two Interfaith Youth Core Fellows—Ansaf Kareem and Anand Venkatkrishnan, co-founders of the club F.A.I.T.H. (Faiths Acting in Togetherness and Hope). Anand, a Hindu, and Ansaf, a Muslim, were inspired by their faith to speak out against this attack on their community, because they know that freedom for one group depends on freedom for all. In an open letter to the campus community, they articulated this inspiration and asked other students to think of their own:
“As a Hindu and Muslim, we feel it goes to the heart of our respective traditions to stand in solidarity with others who are attacked on the basis of their identity. In other words, if we did not stand alongside Jews, gays and lesbians, or any other group who may be maligned this Friday, we would not be the Hindus and Muslims we strive to be … But we all have our own moral inspirations—a poem, an ethnic tradition, a passion for justice. Where will it urge you to be this Friday? Will you sing to its tune with us, or let the jangling discords of hate prevail?”
And besides being young men of integrity and excellence, I would also call Anand and Ansaf something else—interfaith leaders. At the Interfaith Youth Core, when we ask ourselves what it will take to make interfaith cooperation a social norm, we always come back to one point. The most transformative movements of the 20th century—environmentalism and civil rights—were built by individuals called environmentalists and civil rights leaders. Movements don’t fall from the sky or rise from the ocean—they’re built by people. If we’re going to have a movement of interfaith cooperation in the 21st century, it will be built the old-fashioned way—by leaders.
Following the event at Stanford, a Muslim student commented that when a well-known Islamophobe visited campus last year and spouted derogatory remarks about the Muslim community, she only had her fellow Muslims to turn to. Now that F.A.I.T.H. has been formed, and after seeing the turnout at the Hillel event, she knows that she is no longer alone. She knows that if something were to happen in the future, she would have the support of the community.
Imagine if every college student in America could say the same.

Eboo Patel is founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.
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