Eboo Patel: Look to young people for leadership in interfaith cooperation

As in every successful social movement, young people have a vital role to play in interfaith cooperation and understanding, says the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core.

Until recently, people in the United States didn’t talk or think about religious diversity. But 10 years after 9/11, Americans are finally gaining a sense of urgency about the need for interfaith conversation and cooperation, said Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core.

“We are recognizing that if we don’t engage religious diversity, if we don’t bring people from different faiths together, if we don’t acquire positive knowledge and appreciative knowledge of other people’s traditions, then we forfeit the territory to people who are happy to build barriers and spread lies,” he said.

Eboo PatelPeople of all ages need to be involved in interfaith work, but young people have a particularly important role to play, Patel said. Years before he started the Interfaith Youth Core, Patel noticed that most interfaith efforts were led by senior religious leaders, while religious violence was invariably committed by young people.

“And I thought, ‘Well, if religious extremism is a movement of young people taking action and interfaith cooperation is a movement of senior religious leaders talking, we’re going to lose.’”

If you don’t think young people play a powerful role in social movements, consider this, he adds: Osama bin Laden was a teenager when he was recruited into Muslim extremism.

“I just don’t think you can leave young people out and expect to have a successful movement,” he said.

The Interfaith Youth Core is a Chicago-based nonprofit that works on college campuses to foster interfaith dialogue around the globe. Patel founded the organization in 2002 with a grant from the Ford Foundation and serves as its executive director. He is the author of “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim” and has a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership about the Interfaith Youth Core and the interfaith movement. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Ten years after 9/11, what’s the state of interfaith relations in the U.S.?

I’m glad that people feel a sense of urgency. A big part of what the 21st century will be about is whether religion is a bubble of isolation, a barrier of division, a bomb of destruction or a bridge of cooperation. Lots of leaders and movements have been pushing for the bubble, the barrier and the bomb, and I think now you’re starting to see a critical mass of participants and leaders building bridges.

Q: Are things better?

I think they are. They’re at the beginning of getting better, meaning that for a long time, we didn’t think about religious diversity in this country. We’ve had a robust multicultural conversation for at least a generation, but it was almost always about race or gender or ethnicity. Now we are recognizing that if we don’t engage religious diversity, if we don’t bring people from different faiths together, if we don’t acquire positive knowledge and appreciative knowledge of other people’s traditions, then we forfeit the territory to people who are happy to build barriers and spread lies.

Q: What does interfaith leadership look like?

An interfaith leader knows how to create spaces for people from different religious backgrounds to come together to build understanding and cooperation. You need three basic things to be an interfaith leader. One is a vision -- the idea that people from different religions ought to come together to build cooperation. That’s not to be taken for granted. A lot of people who believe in the clash of civilizations believe that different religious identities are inherently opposed to each other. So the first thing you need to be an interfaith leader is a framework that understanding and cooperation is possible.

The second thing you need is a knowledge base. You need to have an appreciative understanding of other traditions. You need to be able to identify shared values across traditions. How does Islam speak to mercy? How does Christianity speak to mercy? How do Jews speak to mercy? You can do the same with hospitality or service or compassion. These are what the Interfaith Youth Core calls shared values.

Part of a knowledge base, for a religious person at least, is what we call a theology of interfaith cooperation. You ought to be able to tell somebody in your own faith why you, as a Christian or as a Muslim or as a Jew, engage in interfaith cooperation.

You also need to know the history of interfaith cooperation. You hear people say all the time, “Well, Muslims and Jews are fighting now because they’ve always fought,” and that’s just false. But if you don’t know about the history of cooperation between Muslims and Jews, in Andalucía or the Ottoman Empire, then that lie of Muslims and Jews always fighting stands.

And the third thing you need is a skill set. Are you able to tell your story of interfaith enrichment compellingly? Are you able to speak with people from different religions in a way that they can trust you? Are you able to organize activities that bring them together?

So vision, knowledge base and skill set -- all towards the end of creating spaces where people from different faith backgrounds come together to build understanding and to cooperate.

Q: Why youth? Why is it the Interfaith Youth Core and not the Interfaith Core?

A couple of reasons. One, when we started 13 or 14 years ago, there were a number of organizations that did interfaith cooperation that mostly involved senior religious leaders or senior theologians. It was important, but there was clearly a gap. I was 22, and it seemed that every time I turned on the television, not only would I see religious violence, but the people committing that violence were young people. And I thought, “Well, if religious extremism is a movement of young people taking action and interfaith cooperation is a movement of senior religious leaders talking, we’re going to lose.”

Two, a lot of our faith heroes -- Gandhi, King, the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day -- began their work when they were quite young. It’s inspiring to young people to know that King was 26 in Montgomery and Gandhi was 23 or 24 in South Africa when he began his movement. Certainly, everybody ought to be engaged, but we have a particular niche and an interest in young people. I just don’t think you can leave young people out and expect to have a successful movement.

Q: You’ve pointed out elsewhere that for good or ill, every social movement -- from the anti-apartheid movement to the rise of the Nazi party -- was powered by young people.

I mean, look, Osama bin Laden was recruited into Muslim extremism as a 16-year-old -- I think maybe as a 14-year-old, when he was a student in Al-Thager School in Saudi Arabia.

Q: What institutions are doing interfaith conversations well?

We work almost exclusively with college campuses. Part of the reason for that is that organizations have to focus somewhere. When you focus your energy, you can have an accumulated impact in one sector. The reason we focus on college campuses is because colleges played a huge role in the multicultural movement, helping create a pattern of multiculturalism on their campuses.

In the past 25 years, colleges have decided that they’re going to take issues of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality seriously. They’re going to advance that conversation on those campuses. They’re going to teach courses in it. They’re going to have student affairs centers in it. They’re going to recruit racially and ethnically diverse students. It is going to be a campus value.

Part of what happens is that you then have a generation of students who acquire that value, who learn that knowledge base, who build that skill set, and they go out in the world and apply it. And that’s what we see happening with college campuses in interfaith cooperation.

College campuses ought to view interfaith cooperation as high a value as multiculturalism. In other words, a college president, when he or she shakes the hand of a graduating senior, should look that senior in the eye and know, “You are exiting my campus with a reasonable degree of multicultural literacy, opportunities in multicultural community and experiences of multicultural leadership.” The same thing goes for interfaith cooperation. On a college campus, you should acquire interfaith literacy, you should have opportunities in interfaith community, and you should have experiences of interfaith leadership.

Colleges have a tremendous opportunity. They have all the ingredients to do this. They have religious diversity, they value student leadership, and they have the ethos to do this.

Q: What other institutions are doing interfaith work well?

I find your question very interesting, because there are very few people who ask, “Are we doing this well?” Where we are currently in the interfaith cooperation movement is, “Are you doing something?”

Now, that’s better than where we were 15 years ago, which was, “Who cares whether you’re doing something?” But I think that in the next three or four years, the question is going to be, “Are you doing it well?” Of course, then you have to have a definition of “well,” and that definition is going to probably have to come from social science data. You’re going to have to start having metrics.

That’s something the Interfaith Youth Core takes very seriously. When I go see a college president, I say, “When you shake the hand of a graduating senior, you should feel confident that that senior has interfaith literacy, experiences of interfaith community, opportunities for interfaith leadership. You should measure that. You should survey at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year.”

We’ve developed instruments to help do that. We have a survey we launched last year; probably 10 campuses have used it, and another 10 or 15 more are planning to use it this year. It basically asks, “What do you know about other religions? What are your relationships with people from other religions? What are your attitudes towards other religions? How do you feel like your campus values interfaith cooperation?”

Q: What’s the role of interfaith literacy? How important is it to interfaith cooperation?

Everybody in America should know appreciative things about the religions of their neighbors. I have a 4-year-old son, and he gets to watch one or two television shows before he goes to bed, and I’m struck. Out of the corner of my eye, I’m watching these Nickelodeon Jr. shows -- “Dora the Explorer,” “Diego,” “Little Bill” -- and multicultural themes are all throughout them.

My son is acquiring multicultural literacy at age 4 watching television, because we have decided that it’s of value in America that we have positive perspectives of the different racial and ethnic communities in this country. Why shouldn’t we have positive perspectives of the different religious communities in this country? That’s interfaith literacy.

Q: Is scriptural literacy a part of that, reading and understanding each other’s scripture together, as the Scriptural Reasoning project does?

What we do is a little different from that. For us, interfaith literacy would not just include, “Can you quote an ayah from the Quran?” It’s also, “Can you point out that Muhammad Ali, one of America’s great sports icons, is a Muslim?” In other words, it’s not just about a religious tradition. It’s also about a religious community and its contributions to the society.

Q: Is it possible to have interfaith conversation without a sort of “dumbing down” that leaves the specifics of faith unaddressed?

That’s an important question, but it’s simple to answer. You put at the center of the table a shared value, like mercy, and you tell the people around the table that their job is to tell you and the others what from their tradition inspires or even commands them to engage in that value. So what you’ve done there is you have highlighted something in common, but you have created the requirement to articulate particularity. The Muslim approach to mercy is different from the Christian approach and the Jewish approach.

You can tell kindergarten-level stories and you can tell graduate school-level stories on that -- on how, as a Muslim, mercy is an important part of your faith or how, as a Christian, it’s an important part of your faith. You can literally do it at every level. You can do it with fifth-graders, and they can say, “Well, my pastor says that we should be kind to people, and that’s mercy.” And you can say, “Of the 99 names of God, Mercy is one, but there are these others, and here’s why Mercy is the most important.”

The other thing is you can apply that value. In other words, it’s not just talk. It’s now, how do we apply mercy together? And that’s when it gets really exciting.

Q: How would you want committed Christians to do interfaith work, especially in places where there may not be many Muslims?

I would want them to invoke positive stories of the religious other even if there isn’t a Muslim or a Jew for 100 miles. If you tap the shoulder of anybody in any town in America and you say the word “Muslim,” they’ll have an image. And there’s a reasonable chance it’s not a particularly flattering image. So one of the things that I think all of us can do is to invoke other images, tell other stories.

Studies have shown that Americans say that their knowledge of Islam and Buddhism is about the same. But their attitudes towards Buddhism are far more positive than their attitudes towards Islam, even though they report the same level of knowledge.

Why is that? I think the answer is simple: Because when people think of Buddhism, the face that comes to mind is the Dalai Lama. And when people think of Islam, the face that comes to mind is Osama bin Laden.

So I think what we can do if we are in a place where there is not that much religious diversity is create new images, tell other stories. That’s what I would want.