The founder of an interfaith youth organization said both a reviled terrorist and a beloved American civil rights leader were influenced by religion — one for destruction and another for social change.
Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Chicago-based nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core, said Osama bin Laden, the terrorist behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was influenced at a young age by a soccer coach who was an Islamic extremist. Patel said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., by contrast, drew heavily from his Baptist upbringing and the influences of two prominent university presidents who spoke often of the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi, for the themes of peaceful resistance that undergirded the U.S. civil rights movement King led.
Wednesday, during an interview with The Oklahoman, Patel said these are examples of what happens when people use faith as “bombs of destruction” while others build “bridges of cooperation.”
“It was clear to me that religion was powerful and in some ways that power was used destructively,” Patel said during his visit to Oklahoma City University, 2501 N Blackwelder. “And then, I found how inspiring religion can be, in the form of Martin Luther King Jr., in the form of Gandhi, in the form of Dorothy Day or in the form of Rumi.”
Patel, a Muslim, drew a crowd of about 800 people to OCU's Freede Center. The noted author of the books “Acts of Faith” and “Sacred Ground,” gave his presentation as part of the United Methodist-affiliated school's Distinguished Speaker Series. His visit was sponsored by OCU and the Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma.
Patel said there is an “ugly side of religion” and also an inspirational side that serves as a catalyst for good. He said his interest in encouraging young people to create meaningful interfaith relationships and cooperation was spurred to combat that ugliness and nurture the inspirational aspect.
Wednesday, Patel said he was encouraged to see that OCU leaders make interfaith awareness a priority on campus. He lauded the college for having an Islamic Studies program and for its activities designed to nurture interfaith dialogue and interfaith leaders among students.
He spoke to the audience about the power of pluralism in both the tradition of America and the tradition of Islam.
Patel said the notion that people from a range of faith traditions should respect the different faith traditions of others dates back to the nation's Founding Fathers — Washington, Jefferson — among them. He said over the years, religious pluralism has been championed by many others in America such as President James Madison, a Holocaust survivor who marched with King, President George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and President Barack Obama in the present day.
By the same token, he said religious pluralism has a long and exalted history in the tradition of Islam and other faith traditions as well.
“There is a tradition, a theology of interfaith cooperation, in a sense that partnering with people who are different from us is not just a civic good — it is a sacred good,” Patel said.
He shared the example of the Christian parable of the good Samaritan chronicled in the Bible. He said the Samaritans were people who prayed in a different temple than the Jewish community of Jesus and yet Jesus told people to pattern themselves after the good Samaritan's model of offering aid to someone who is different.
He said there is often confusion that interfaith cooperation is about “diluting faith or it's only about liberal theology, liberal politics, but interfaith cooperation is fundamentally about the holiness of building relationships between people who have different views on religion.”
Patel is a member of President Barack Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership and was named one of America's Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Reports. In anticipation of his visit, OCU and the Interfaith Alliance helped nurture several interfaith book study groups around the metro area to encourage people to read his book “Acts of Faith” together.