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
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
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. …