Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit working to build mutual respect and pluralism among religiously diverse young people. He received his doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. Patel is the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation and regularly appears on Chicago Public Radio and the Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” blog. Additionally, he has been featured on CNN Sunday Morning, NPR’s Morning Edition, and other mainstream media outlets. He serves on boards of the National YMCA and Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, and is also an active member of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Religious Advisory Committee and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ task force on Muslims and American Foreign Policy. He has spoken at the Clinton Global Initiative, the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, and at universities around the world. Patel was recently appointed by President Barack Obama to the advisory council of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The Humanist: As an American Muslim, did you have any experiences that influenced your decision to become an advocate of interfaith? What led you to start an organization like the Interfaith Youth Core?
Eboo Patel: When I was a young Muslim growing up in the Western suburbs of Chicago, I had friends from all different backgrounds sitting at my lunch table. There was a Nigerian Evangelical, a Cuban Jew, a South Indian Hindu, a Lutheran, a Mormon, and a Catholic. This experience contrasted with the news I saw throughout the 1990s, which was full of religious violence. I didn’t understand why, though we all got along at the lunch table, I saw a different story in the media―the story of religious violence, in which young people are often at the front lines. I also recognized that so many of my heroes, like Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Thich Nah Han, were young people of faith who started movements for interfaith cooperation. I asked myself: What would it take to start a movement that would make the kind of positive relationships at my lunch table and these great chapters in world history a reality in the twenty-first century? The inspiration for the Interfaith Youth Core was born of this question.
The Humanist: What sort of activities do you pursue at the IFYC?
Patel: We have three main goals: To spread the message of religious pluralism in the public square; to train, nurture, and provide resources for young people to engage in interfaith service and dialogue; and to help these young leaders to build the movement. The IFYC is what we consider its hub, and we work to catalyze interfaith youth action, as well as introduce the idea into the policy and government worlds. All sectors of society can play a role in this movement, and it is one of our tasks to find a way for everyone to contribute.
The Humanist: Do IFYC members share and discuss their religious beliefs and is there any focus on religious education through the IFYC?
Patel: At the Interfaith Youth Core, we focus on storytelling. We think that everyone is the scholar of their own experience and that the best way to relate to one another is through our personal narratives. In this sense, we encourage individuals to share and discuss their faith story with one another to improve understanding across lines of faith.
The Humanist: What is your opinion of the current state of religious tolerance and pluralism in the United States today?
Patel: The United States is the most religiously diverse country in history and the most religiously devout nation in the West. It is ripe with potential for realizing a true state of religious pluralism. However, we haven’t yet achieved this reality. It’s clear from the backlash against Muslim-Americans during the 2008 presidential campaign that we have to keep working to create a religiously tolerant nation. I have a young son and I don’t want his big American dreams to feel confined because he prays in Arabic.
The Humanist: President Barack Obama has said, “The difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and proselytize.” Being that those involved in interfaith groups are essentially brought together by the diversity of their religious (or nonreligious) beliefs, do you encounter any problems with proselytizing amongst members? If so, how do you address them?
Patel: We understand that the call to evangelize is a part of many people’s religious tradition. While respecting this, we make the distinction that an interfaith dialogue is neither the time nor the place to follow this call. Therefore, we set a safe space where participants acknowledge that we might have different ideas of heaven and how to get there, but that on earth we can work together, and to do so we must respect each other’s religious traditions.
The Humanist: Some commentators on your blog feel that secular humanists and other nontheists don’t have a place in interfaith groups or discussions. I know of some humanists being excluded outright from their local interfaith groups. What is your perspective on the involvement of secular humanists in the interfaith movement?
Patel: My friend Greg Epstein is the secular humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and a huge supporter of interfaith. We welcome humanists as advocates and allies in the interfaith movement, and believe that there is a place for all. Last fall on my Washington Post blog I wrote a call to include the nonreligious in our work.
The Humanist: Respect for a person’s religious beliefs is an integral part of the interfaith movement. However, do you think there is a point at which criticism of particular religious beliefs or practices is necessary when protecting the freedom and rights of individuals?
Patel: Our definition of pluralism has three parts: respect for religious identity, relationships between diverse groups, and common action for the common good. Respect for religious identity is the first component of religious pluralism, and is necessary to build meaningful relationships with people who have diverse beliefs. In part, this means finding the positive commonalities between traditions. These shared values serve as inspiration for those who do have differences in belief to come together and work towards bettering the world.
The Humanist: Often in your interviews, you passionately encourage tolerance, pluralism, religious freedom, and even secularism much in the same way many humanists do. Advocating this moderate outlook as a Muslim, are you criticized by other Muslims and, if so, how do you deal with that?
Patel: Too often, the voices of extremism drown out the voices of moderation. I speak in order to empower the vast majority of Americans who are drawn to the moderate middle, but have no outlet in the public square. We have to encourage these moderate voices, which include individuals of all faiths and no faith at all, to break through. I speak as an American who wants to put forth a different vision of religion, one of cooperation instead of conflict.
The Humanist: Through your involvement in the interfaith movement, what are some successes you have seen as a result? What are some challenges?
Patel: IFYC has seen some major successes. We currently run a Fellows Alliance with twenty fellows on different college campuses around the country doing interfaith organizing. In 2008 we reached 23,000 people, conducted recruitment and training at seventy-five college and university campuses, reached thirty new faith communities, and conducted 270 presentations, trainings, and workshops. The interfaith youth movement is also expanding internationally through our partnership with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and exchange and training initiatives throughout Western Europe.
The challenge for the interfaith youth movement is countering the messages constantly shown through the media. The television constantly shows religious people killing each other to the soundtrack of prayer, and movies like Religulous contribute to the depiction of very devout individuals as unreasonable. Our challenge is to counter this “clash of civilizations” narrative with our own story of religious cooperation.
The Humanist: Congratulations on your appointment to the advisory council of President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. How did you come to be involved in this new council?
Patel: In my work I have the privilege of encountering visionary leaders of religious communities, civic organizations, and policy-making institutions, and I’m honored to have been selected alongside some of these leaders for this White House council. I especially look forward to making interfaith action a priority. The fifteen of the twenty-five members of the advisory council selected thus far convened at the beginning of February with the president, and he made the point that this isn’t the time to argue between faith-based and secular, or Muslim and Christian. This is the time to find the common ground of compassion in all faiths and traditions, and put it into action where it is needed most.
The Humanist: Concerns have been raised regarding protecting church-state separation while federally funding religious groups. What are your thoughts on this issue and how should it be addressed?
Patel: Protecting the separation of church and state is a core commitment of the Obama administration. The Executive Director of the faith-based office, Joshua DuBois, has said: “This is not a religious office or a religious administration. We are going to try to find ways to work with faith-based and community organizations that are secular in nature, and don’t cross the boundaries between church and state. We understand it is a fine line. But it’s a line we’re comfortable walking.”
My question is, how can we have mosques and synagogues, secular humanist groups and atheists work together to make sure that in an economic crisis, people are getting what they need? Religious communities do seek to bring others into their fold, but the purpose of this council is not to advance those parochial religious interests. It is to advance the common good, and to advance religious institutions, as well as secular ones, that are often the first and best rooted responders. I know that careful attention will be paid to maintaining appropriate boundaries between church and state.
The Humanist: In what ways do you think the addition of the advisory council will help to serve faith-based initiatives?
Patel: The council includes prominent pastor Joel Hunter, faith-based social justice giant Rev. Jim Wallis, and the influential Rabbi David Saperstein. But it also includes people from secular service organizations, like Judith Vredenburgh of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. President Obama is sending a message with the membership: this council is about how faith and other inspirations make a difference in the world, not about how people worship in their church, or whether they worship at all. This group is bound to create fruitful partnerships that will bring communities together that have never before been united.