A force of unity against factories of extremism

By Tania Mann

“Interfaith cooperation isn’t just about trying to find harmonies between Islam and Christianity… it’s about building real relationships between Christians and Muslims”, says Eboo Patel, the founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization building a global movement to empower young people of all faiths to work together in service. Named by US News and World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Patel has emerged as one of the most prominent mainstream voices — in print, TV and radio — for interfaith dialogue and action worldwide. Last year, he was appointed by President Obama as a member of the newly established Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Patel was born in India but grew up in Chicago, where the IFYC is based today. He attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship — receiving a doctorate in the sociology of religion — and is the author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation . In the following telephone interview with L’Osservatore Romano, Patel speaks on the roots of his passion for interfaith action and on how youth can fight in favor of unity and against the distorted depictions of religion so rampant today.

Eboo Patel (Photo courtesy of IFYC)

What led to your founding of the IFYC?

It was my introduction to the Catholic Worker movement, where my experience showed me that the heart of religion is about serving others, and about bringing creation in line with the intention of the Creator. And that, I believe, is about people from different backgrounds living together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty.

There, I saw Catholics taking the social dimension of their faith so seriously that they were truly living it. My Catholic Worker time shaped how I understood the relationship between faith and service. That is what led to me founding this organization. I later discovered that same drive and impulse in my own religion, and I realized that so much of how religion is portrayed on the evening news is just the opposite. It is depicted as a barrier of division instead of a bridge of cooperation. I figure that, if so many young people can be involved in these factories of extremism — these forces of intolerance where religion serves as a barrier or a bomb — then young people could be equally mobilized while working to form a bridge. Because so many of those changes happened for me in college, I happen to think that college is a very special space and a really powerful time in a young person’s life when they make certain value commitments. They commit to the ethics that they are going to carry into the world.

How did the organization itself come about?

When I was a grad student at Oxford, I would leave for one or two months at a time to run interfaith youth service projects around the world — in South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and across Europe. I was convinced by the young participants in these projects that there was a critical mass of young people inspired by faith to work with people of different religions, and to apply that shared value to the way they could affect other people’s lives. The evidence was there and it was inspiring.

By the time my PhD was finished, I had developed a methodology, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I was tired of the factories of extremism and forces of intolerance being so strong. I thought: “Why can’t we build a movement for interfaith cooperation that is stronger?”

The U.S. has recently seen heightened tensions between Muslims and those of other faith traditions. What do you think lies at the root of these tensions? How can they be overcome?

In my view, at various times in American history, forces of intolerance have targeted different groups. Earlier, it was Catholics, but these forces have also targeted Jews and African Americans, among others. Now its Muslims. But the good thing is that every time these forces have gone into action, they have been defeated by the forces of unity. It is our time to be the forces of unity. In the previous generation we had leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr but those leaders are no longer around, so now we have to do that.

Can you explain a bit about President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — its function, your role, and how you came to be involved?

One day, I received a phone call and was told: “Congratulations! The President has selected you for his Advisory Council”. That is a special phone call to get! Our initial meeting was in February of 2009, during which the President said: “I want this council to focus on four things: 1) Faith communities have to be involved in service, especially in this time of recession, 2) members of those communities ought to view service as a shared value that they can build better understanding upon, 3) we ought to show the world that this is what America is about: that we can work together and be a model of cooperation and harmony, and 4) young people should be the leaders in this”.

Well, my jaw about hit the floor when I heard that! So I got up the gumption to stand up and thank the President, and to add that: “The vision that you just laid out is exactly our vision at the Interfaith Youth Core”. He looked at me, smiled, and said: “We will be following up with you about that”. It was very inspiring to me to learn how close to the President’s heart this vision is. My formal term on the Council is over now [council members serve one-year terms] but as a part of it I helped make progress concerning the importance of interfaith movements on college campuses. The White House also hosted an interfaith summit in June, and will be kicking off two interfaith leadership training institutes with hundreds of students in late October.

How have your studies in the sociology of religion affected the way you think about religious interactions?

One of my main influences is Wilfred Cantwell Smith. He was very focused on the notion that interfaith cooperation isn’t just about trying to find harmonies between Islam and Christianity, for example, but it’s about building real relationships between Christians and Muslims. It’s not just in how you learn things about other traditions; it’s in the way you interact with them. Just because you can identify the commonalities among certain faiths doesn’t mean you have the skills to do something with that knowledge.

At Interfaith Youth Core, we believe that just as college campuses have been models and beacons for promoting environmental and multicultural causes, they can do the same for interfaith cooperation. That’s why we are training college students to run an interfaith action campaign called “Better Together” on their campuses. The goal is to teach college students to be interfaith leaders; to lead a concrete campaign, to mobilize large groups of people to participate in interfaith service projects, and to speak compellingly about the importance of interfaith cooperation.

Over 100 campuses are participating this fall, many of which are Catholic schools, and that doesn’t surprise me at all. My parents went to Catholic schools in India, the reason I came to this country was because of my father’s studies at Notre Dame, and my son goes to Catholic school now. Catholic institutions take very seriously the values of learning, diversity, faith and service. Today there is a need to lift up these shared values as a priority and integrate them into the way we live our lives. That’s what the Interfaith Youth Core seeks to do through our programs.

Interview conducted 10/1/2010. © L’Osservatore Romano English edition 2/23/2011.