- Executive director, Interfaith Youth Core
- Council on Foreign Relations Religious Advisory Committee
Eboo Patel says America’s history makes it uniquely suited to deal with the dual challenges of religious extremism and intolerance. A frequent commentator on religious pluralism in national media, Patel founded Interfaith Youth Core, which promotes respect and understanding among people of many faith traditions.
“There’s this beautiful line in the Holy Quran that says God gave us different communities so we can get to know one another,” Patel said. “As a Muslim, whose parents immigrated here from India, I believe that America is humanity’s best chance at getting it right.”
Patel talked about a letter written by President George Washington to a Rhode Island Hebrew congregation in 1790. “Washington wrote that ‘my government will give bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance,’” Patel noted. “This nation is so precious and so unique – the first country to give rise to the notion that people from the four corners of the earth, that people from every faith background, can come together to build a nation.”
Patel said when he encounters hate and prejudice because of his Muslim faith, he remembers that America always “gets it right.
“The path that I follow, the path of Islam, the path of the prophets, the path of America is a path of trying to show magnanimity in the face of intolerance.”
What inspired you to form Interfaith Youth Core?
Something really simple, actually. My best friends in high school included a Lutheran, a Mormon, a Catholic, a South Indian Hindu, a Cuban Jew and a Nigerian Evangelical. We did everything together. We studied for math tests, we played ball together, we talked about and dreamed about what colleges we might go to. That’s what religious diversity was to me when I was growing up. But every time I turned on the television, especially from say the mid-1990s forward, whenever religious diversity was presented on TV, it was always somebody killing somebody else to the soundtrack of prayer. And it just got into my head at some point, “Why can’t the world, why can’t the evening news feel and look more like my high school lunch table? Why can’t we have a world in which people from different religious backgrounds are interacting in ways that are about respect, that are about relationships and are about cooperation?”
How did you move from this high school experience to where you are right now?
As movements of religious extremism and as the dynamic of religious violence became more apparent in the public imagination in the mid to late 1990s, I realized something. The people on front lines of those movements were frequently young people. Think about it, every time we read in the paper about a suicide bomber here or a terrible attack there, it’s always someone who is 19 or 22 or 26. I started reading into the history of some of my faith heroes and I recognized something. So many of my faith heroes, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day… they had started their work when they were very young. Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 years old in Montgomery, Alabama, leading the bus boycott. That’s remarkable.
So a question occurred to me: is the next chapter in the history of religion, which is really the history of national and world affairs, is it going to belong to the young people or the foot soldiers of religious extremism? Or is it going to belong to the young people who are the architects of interfaith cooperation? At some point when you ask that question to yourself enough, and when you take your faith tradition as seriously as I do, you make the decision that you have to try to help answer that question. The Interfaith Youth Core is my answer to that question.
Elon University is building a multi-faith center because we think universities have a role to play in fostering a multi-faith dialogue. What are some of the best practices on college and university campuses today in this regard?
First of all, I’m so thrilled to hear about that and I’m thrilled to finally meet Pastor Phil and I’ve known about his leadership here. I’ve known about the work that’s gone on here for some time because we had one of your terrific students as an intern at Interfaith Youth Core, Zack Jordan. What a wonderful young man! What we know about college campuses in the United States of America is they set civic priorities. They advance a knowledge base behind those priorities, they model what good looks like and they train our society’s next generation of leaders. What could be a higher civic priority right now than making sure America’s religious diversity moves toward cooperation and not conflict? Making sure that George Washington’s great line to the Touro Synagogue in the New England area, “that this country will give bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance,” that we make that real in the 21st century, just as Washington sought to make it real in the 18th century. We think that college campuses have to be the leader in setting interfaith cooperation as a civic priority, advancing the knowledge base of interfaith literacy and showing what good looks like and in training the next generations’ leaders.
Tell me about the work that the White House Office on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is doing today.
When the President’s faith council met with him for the first time in the Oval Office, he got down to business right away and set four priorities. He said religious groups have to be involved in service in America. They have to be doing it together and use that opportunity as a basis for understanding and dialogue. Third, we have to hold up this model for the world and fourth, we young people have to be involved. Listening to that in the Oval Office, I thought to myself, “WOW, I feel like President Obama is describing the mission of the interfaith youth movement that we are privileged to be a part of.” I actually raised my hand, scared as I was, and I said that to the President. I said, “I promise you Mr. President, if you call us, young people are willing and ready to lead on this.”
Very recently, the President did just that with the President’s Interfaith Campus Challenge. He said, “I want college campuses in America to model interfaith cooperation by creating a strategic plan for a year’s worth of interfaith service efforts. That’s one of the major initiatives in this office right now, is to call college campuses, to really put into practice the effort of interfaith service.” I’ve talked to some folks at Elon and I understand that you are excited to get involved in that and you have so much of the groundwork laid with the interfaith leaders you have and the multi-faith center you’re building.
Are you optimistic about the America your future grandchildren will inherit?
I am so optimistic about it, because in every generation of America’s past, people have risen up to meet the challenge of the time. There is a beautiful thing that President Clinton said during his presidency: “There’s nothing that’s wrong with America that what’s right with America can’t fix.” What’s right with America is the energy and the good will and the idealism of her citizens. I get to experience that every day because I’m on college campuses so often. I watch these young people literally thirsting for leadership opportunities. I think to myself, “WOW, Elon University, with a forum like this, is giving them exactly what they want, which is saying “Hey, listen, this is the next era of challenges in American life and you are going to be the architects of the solutions.”
Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an institution that builds mutual respect and pluralism among young people from different religious traditions. Author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Patel is also a regular contributor to The Washington Post, National Public Radio, USA Today and CNN. An American Muslim of Indian heritage, Patel serves on the Religious Advisory Committee of the Council on Foreign Relations and served on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during 2009-10. Patel holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. He has spoken at the TED Conference, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, and universities around the world. Along with IFYC, Patel was honored with the Roosevelt Institute’s Freedom of Worship Medal in 2009.