Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, sat down for an interview with me on Wednesday afternoon at Oklahoma City University. Later that evening , Patel (pictured below), a Muslim, gave a much-anticipated public lecture at OCU as part of the university’s Distinguished Speakers Series.
I was very familiar with Patel’s books, particularly “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.” Prior to his visit to the metro, numerous people in the Oklahoma City area met in study groups to talk about the themes found in the book.
Here are excerpts of my interview with Patel. I used this interview and comments Patel made during his lecture to write my story in today’s Oklahoman, but I thought it might be interesting, particularly to those who have been involved in interfaith activities in the Oklahoma City area and the interfaith movement in general, to read what else he had to say:
Q: What would you say is the status of the interfaith movement in America?
Eboo Patel: I would say it is growing and we ought to be proud of that and we ought to help grow it faster. I have been very inspired by what’s happening here at Oklahoma City University, where, if you look at their religious studies offering, it’s really impressive. There’s not that many campuses that can boast a chair of Islamic studies and here this Methodist college in central Oklahoma has one. It’s something that I will tell my friends on the coast, that they ought to get busy following the lead of Oklahoma City University. I’m very encouraged by the growth of interfaith cooperation nationwide.
Q: What is the greatest challenge to the interfaith movement?
Eboo Patel: I think it is communicating with people that this is not about diluting their faith, it’s about strengthening their faith because a huge part of all religious traditions is about the holiness of cooperating with people who are different and serving everybody. And those are the dimensions that we are trying to lift up and we are not at all trying to de-emphasize the dimensions of disagreement or particularity or difference — we think both are important.
Q: Have there been any surprises for you along the way?
Eboo Patel: Most of the surprises have been really happy surprises, I would say. I wasn’t smart enough to know that Oklahoma City University has this rich (religious studies and interfaith) program and really high ambitions around interfaith cooperation. I would say one of the great joys of my job is coming to places like this that are leading the way and providing what I call both a laboratory of interfaith cooperation and a launching pad for interfaith leaders. It’s a really nice surprise.
Q: How did your own experiences as a young person shape your decision to create the Interfaith Youth Core?
Eboo Patel: I tell some of these stories in “Acts of Faith.” One was seeing the ugly side of religion, both in the form of religious prejudice which I witnessed at my high school. A Jewish friend of mine went through some ugly periods of prejudice. Also during the 1990s, there was a lot religious violence at a time when I was coming of age. It was clear to me that religion was powerful and in some ways that power was used destructively. And then it was also how inspiring religion can be, in the form of Martin Luther King Jr., in the form of Gandhi or in the form of Dorothy Day or in the form of Rumi. It was clear to me as I was coming of age that religion is a powerful force — which way is it going to be mobilized? And there’s are a lot of people making faith a bomb of destruction and I was moved to make faith a bridge of cooperation.
Q: How have people responded to your interfaith message over the years?
Eboo Patel: I would say its twofold. One is how can we be a part of it? And it’s not just my message. I am one of many people, but it’s clear to me that the choir is gathered and they are eager to learn the song and to sing it. I use the preaching to the choir metaphor positively there. And I would say the second way that people respond is to seek clarity. I think there’s confusion that interfaith cooperation is about diluting faith or it’s only about liberal theology, that it’s only about liberal politics. Interfaith cooperation is fundamentally about the holiness of building relationships between people who have different views on religion.
Q: People are moved and touched by what you say. Why do you think you have struck such a chord with many Americans?
Eboo Patel: There are many people who do that, right? I am fortunate that I am one of those people. I think interfaith cooperation is really inspiring and I would have to work at making it boring, so my job is to try to make interfaith cooperation as inspiring as it inherently is. It is very comforting to me that there is a set of people who are very happy to be in the circle as a result of that.
Q: You wrote about young people being influenced by religion throughout “Acts of Faith.” In one passage you wrote “How does one ordinary young person’s commitment to a religion turn into a suicide mission and another ordinary young person’s commitment to that to that same faith become an organization devoted to pluralism? The answer, I believe, lies in the influences young people have, the programs and people who shape their religious identities.” Can you expound on this theme?
Eboo Patel: One of the things that I do in this book is I profile very different kinds of religious people. Religious extremists, on the one hand, and what I call interfaith heroes or leaders on the other hand. I go back and I say how did Osama bin Laden become Osama Bin Laden? He wasn’t born a religious extremist. When he was a young student (at a school) in Saudi Arabia, a religious extremist was the soccer coach there and basically caught him up in his web so when young Osama was 15-16- 17 years old, he came under the spell of this particular soccer coach. Well, when Martin Luther King Jr. was young, he came under the spell of Benjamin Mays, who was the president of Morehouse College and who was a great admirer of Gandhi and he came under the spell of Mordecai Johnson who was the president of Howard University and who was a great admirer of Gandhi.
So Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t born an interfaith leader, people influenced him in formative stages. That’s what we’re saying. That’s why we work really exclusively on college campuses. We think college campuses are places that have profound influence over the identities of young people and college campuses can encourage young people to view themselves as interfaith leaders and get practice doing that work. First of all, get an education doing that and then practice doing it within the college campus. You might see a larger group of people in America we call interfaith leaders.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Eboo Patel: I really do think it’s unique and powerful that this 3,000-student Methodist university has a rich religious studies program that involves the study of other religions and is encouraging students to become interfaith leaders. That’s where the greatest hope of our interfaith cooperation in America is — it’s the campuses who are making decisions that this is going to be a priority area.
(Photo by Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman)