The Humanist Interview with Eboo Patel

Article excerpt

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.

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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. …