Eboo Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core as a way for young people to better understand and defend religious diversity.
Eboo Patel begins a speech to high-schoolers by recalling his own diverse group of high school friends, which included a south Indian Hindu, a Cuban Jew, a Nigerian Evangelical, a Mormon, a Lutheran, a Roman Catholic, and Mr. Patel himself, a Muslim.
But rather than being a story about the power of diversity, the anecdote is one about missed opportunities: Patel and his friends never broached the subject of their different faiths with one another, and when his Jewish friend became the target of school bullies, Patel remained silent. "I aided and abetted by my silence," he tells several hundred students at Chicago's prestigious Francis Parker School.
His message is clear: It's not enough to be tolerant and accepting. Religious pluralism - which Patel sees as the key diversity issue of the 21st century, the equivalent of the racial questions that shaped the 20th century - demands that people push back against intolerance and stand up as leaders.
That's the philosophy of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), the group that Patel founded a decade ago in an effort to increase awareness of interfaith issues and to empower young people in particular to be leaders in the field. (The name uses "core" not "corps" to indicate it's at the center of a larger movement.)
The alternative, he believes, is to cede the pulpit - and the influence - to extremists.
"My theory is that 99 percent of the world inclines toward tolerance and cooperation," Patel says. "The problem is that 99 percent of that 99 percent aren't leading in that direction. And too many of the 1 percent who are opposed to pluralism are leaders.... We're happy to be accused of preaching to the choir, if part of what we do is get the choir to sing."
And people are listening. The IFYC has grown from a scrappy operation run out of a Chicago basement at a time when few young people were a part of the interfaith movement, to a major organization that last year worked with students on about 60 college campuses, sponsored 50 interfaith fellows in the United States and abroad, and hosted its sixth interfaith youth conference at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Patel is a member of President Obama's 25-member faith advisory council, and IFYC is partnering with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in London to sponsor 30 international fellows. In December, Patel won the 2010 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his autobiography, "Acts of Faith."
"We used to have to do a lot of telling people why this issue is important," Patel says. "We have to do zero convincing about that now."
Part of that, of course, comes from the growing awareness of religious-based conflict and violence around the world.
"He's saying, 'The way in which we understand our civilization is at risk.' The fact that the extremists are the only ones in this conversation means that the moderates have lost, because they're not even participating," says Adam Goodman, director of the Center for Leadership at Northwestern.
Mr. Goodman, who works with student leaders on a variety of issues, says that part of what grabs students' attention is that Patel approaches diversity - a subject they've grown up with in a racial context - in a fresh way.
"They think it was easier in the '60s because racial discrimination was so obvious, how can we top that?" Goodman says. "Eboo arrives with this message that we're just starting. …