Eboo Patel Addresses Faith-Based Tensions

It is Eboo Patel's job, as a member of the president's Faith Advisory Council, to promote understanding between Muslims and people of other religions. After the shooting at Ft. Hood and the ban of new minarets in Switzerland, his job has become much more complicated.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Earlier this year, President Obama appointed Eboo Patel as a member of his administration's new Faith Advisory Council. Patel's works stems back to his creation of his Interfaith Youth Core. But events such as the murders at Fort Hood, the arrest of a Pakistani American on charges connected to the attacks in Mumbai and the vote to ban minarets in Switzerland only make his job harder.

Tell us how faith based tensions have changed where you live over the past few weeks and months. How do you deal with them? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, why the number seven can help keep you sane. But first, Eboo Patel joins. He's the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, the recent recipient of the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in religion. Congratulations.

Mr. EBOO PATEL (Interfaith Youth Core): Thanks, Neal. Great to be back.

CONAN: Eboo Patel is with us from a studio in Chicago. And I have to - well, first of all, thanks for making it through the snow, but I wonder when you first heard about the attack in Fort Hood, was there a moment when you said to yourself, boy, I hope this wasn't a Muslim who did that?

Mr. PATEL: Well, the first thing that I did was say a prayer for those who had fallen and those who are suffering because they were close to those who have fallen. That was where my heart and my soul and my mind was at the moment. And then I thought to myself, gosh, I really hope that the murderer did not have a Muslim name or claim Islam as some sort, gruesomely, of an inspiration for this. And of course it turned out that that's exactly what happened.

CONAN: And how does that - how does that changed things?

Mr. PATEL: Well, it continues to put into the public imagination the notion that Muslims are people who will destroy pluralism. And pluralism is an American ideal that we all believe in, this notion of a society where people from different backgrounds can live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty, and that Islam is somehow opposed to that. And of course there's all of this conversation about to what extent Islam inspired this person, et cetera. And the way I view it is the proper title for Nadal Hasan is simple. He is a murderer. That is the only title that a man deserves when he kills a dozen-plus of his compatriots in the military service. And I don't think he deserves the honor of a religious label at all.

CONAN: He may claim it, he may not. That will emerge, I guess, at his court-martial when that takes place and we don't know what kind of defense he's going to be taking. And we don't know the degree to which he is going to be citing his faith is as a representative. But in fact many people have taken this as a matter of fact, that indeed - well, some people are now calling, as you know, that the armed forces should screen Muslims to exclude extremists as they -well - as they might exclude members of the Aryan Brotherhood.

Mr. PATEL: Well, I think - I think it makes perfect sense to seek to exclude extremists from the armed forces. I just don't think it's a question of the religion that the person holds. My concern is that the way that these stories are played out, and too much of our media affirms this notion Christian versus Muslim world, or a Jewish versus Hindu world, it's the clash of civilizations that Sam Huntington would talk about. I think that we need to have a different framework going into the 21st century. It's a pluralism versus extremism framework. There are Muslims who believe in pluralism. There are Jews who believe in pluralism. There humanists and Hindus and Buddhist and Baihais who believe in pluralism, and anybody who seeks to destroy pluralism deserves one label only and that label is extremist. And we should not honor them with the label of American or Muslim or Jewish, et cetera. We should just call them extremists and we should treat them as such.

CONAN: Our guest is Eboo Patel, who sits on the president's advisory council at the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. We want you to call us and tell us how things have changed since Fort Hood in the last weeks and months - 800-989-8255. Email us - talk at npr.org, and we'll start with Kelly. Kelly calling us from Myrtle Beach in South Carolina.

KELLY (Caller): Hi. I actually work for (unintelligible) of Best Buy and on November 22nd through 26th ad we published - and I apologize because I can't pronounce the name of the holiday, a Muslim greeting for the holiday that was passing during that week.

CONAN: Yeah, the Eid. I think it's called Eid, yeah.

Mr. PATEL: Eid.

CONAN: Eid, okay, I got it wrong too.

KELLY: Well, thank you for correcting me. In any case, we published that greeting because that was the actual appropriate time to publish that greeting and we received anti-Muslim and racist phone calls at the store, you know, accusing us of terrorism and everything else, but we actually celebrate all religious holidays. We publish Christmas in Christmas time and Hanukah during the appropriate times as well.

CONAN: And so did this surprise you, Kelly?

KELLY: It really did surprised me because even though I'm located in the South, you know, I didn't expect people to be as disrespectful as that. We actually do have a few Muslim employees in our store, you know, a few women that wear hijabs and whatnot, and we've never really too much of an issue in the store. But I was surprised at the audacity of people and how much they were going focus on such a small thing.

CONAN: And was this the first time to your knowledge that the Best Buy had published this kind of greeting?

KELLY: No. In fact, I've worked there for years and we've always published greetings that are friendly to all religious and non-religious holidays. So it seems like this got caught by the right wing media and that's how it got spread and that's how we start to getting the disrespectful phone call.

CONAN: Oh, I see, all right. Kelly, thanks very much, and as far as you know, is Best Buy can continue this practice?

KELLY: Yes. As far as I know they are going to publishing most holidays or all holidays that they recognize - you know, Halloween and otherwise. So as far as I know it's going to continue in the future.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much for the call.

KELLY: No problem.

CONAN: And I wonder, does that encourage you, Eboo, or discourage? Or maybe little bit of both.

Mr. PATEL: I think the first thing to recognize is America has become the most religiously diverse nation in human history, and we're the most religiously devout nation in the West at a time of global religious conflict. So the groups who are at each others throat somewhere else in the world live here cheek by jowl, oftentimes. And we have a decision to make. are we going to fall prey to the same patterns of conflict which define so many interfaith relations elsewhere - in Baghdad, in Belfast, in Bombay - or are we going to create a new model of how people from different religious backgrounds interact right here in America?

Let's call it the Boston model, and will that model in Boston inspire a positive pattern of interaction between people from different religious backgrounds - in Baghdad, in Bombay, in Belfast? And so the recognition of America's new religious diversity set up against the American ideal of a nation where people from different corners of the Earth come together to build collectively a country, is one of the question I think we should be asking in a very salient and profound way. I think that this is one of the charges that President Obama took up right from the moment he entered office. And it's something that I deeply appreciate his embracing.

CONAN: Let see if we can get another on the line. And let's go to David. David with us from Scottsdale.

DAVID (Caller): Hi there. I'm an expat from the U.K. currently living in the States. I've been here about 15 years. And what I've seen over the last few years - I lived in New York for about 13 years - on the street corners there used to be the Nation of Islam. I don't know if you've seen on them on 42nd Street during the �80s and the �90s. They were pretty much a cartoon with their weapons and they were handing out leaflets and stuff like that, and I guess for the majority of New Yorkers they were considered a bit of a joke and people would walk by.

What I'm seeing now is very different, and it's scary, especially in like London and stuff like that. The speech from these people is more direct and is more hate-driven, and it's something I don't like. And by the way, I totally agree with your guest. I'm not - you know, I'm an open-minded individual. I suck everything in, what the media do. But again, being open-minded, I know the media can tweak things and edit things to their advantage. But I just want to put out to you - what's being spewed out now is not good.

CONAN: By people who were previously, well, less direct, and now you're hearing a much more extreme version of their views?

DAVID: Exactly. I was recently over the U.K., and I can understand where these racist political groups like the BNP�

CONAN: The British National Party, yes.

DAVID: Yes, can gain momentum. Basically, it's not good all around.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, BNP, the British National Party, a fascist group, basically, elected two members to the European Parliament recently. And Eboo Patel, there's extremism on all sides.

Mr. PATEL: I think that's exactly right, and what we can't fall prey to is having extremists who call themselves Muslim create this fiction that all Muslims are taking up arms against the West, and extremists who call themselves European, in the case of the British National Party, create the fiction that all Anglo-Saxon Brits hate Muslims.

Those people want to create the framework of a West-versus-Islam world, and we need to fight back and say, actually, extremists who call themselves Muslims, and extremists who seek to destroy pluralism in the name of the British National Party, have far more in common with each other. although they might pray in different languages, and they might go different places on Friday nights, we consider them part of the same political category, which is the category that seeks to destroy pluralism.

They're trying to play a smoke-and-mirrors game. The goal of the Osama bin Ladens of the world is to create images on the evening news about Islam so that people who watch the evening news think that all Muslims are engaged in the heinous act of beheadings and suicide bombings.

We can't believe them. We need to reject the way that they portray their own tradition.

CONAN: Is that more difficult, though, when you look at 9/11? At least you could say they were from over there, they were not Americans. Nadal Hasan was an American.

Mr. PATEL: Well, I think that there's a couple of parts of responsibility here. I try to go back to first principles, and I think Michael Walzer, the great political philosopher, articulated a very important first principle in a book called "What It Means to Be an American." He said that the challenge of the diverse society is to embrace its differences while maintaining a common life. Part of that means having a recognition, an understanding, of the various traditions that are present in your society.

So we should have some normative understanding of what Islam is, some sense of the holy books that are central to the tradition, the life of the prophet Muhammad, the ideals of the tradition, etcetera. As an American Muslim, I think that those ideals are very similar to American ideals.

The first time we think about Islam or think about Muslims shouldn't be on 9/11 when we watch planes crashing into buildings. In other words, we shouldn't be getting the majority of our information about Islam and Muslims from the evening news, which is inherently going to be the sensationalist dimensions of things.

At the same time, Muslims have a responsibility of articulating what Islam is and who Muslims are so that the evening news isn't the first bit of information most Americans have on this tradition.

CONAN: Our guest is Eboo Patel, who serves on the advisory council of the president's Office on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Have faith-based tensions increased since Fort Hood where you live? Tell us what's happening, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Our guest this hour, Eboo Patel. It's his job, as part of the president's Faith Advisory Council, to promote understanding between Muslims and people of other religions and vice versa, a job more difficult as a result of recent events, mostly the attack at Fort Hood.

Tell us how faith-based tensions have changed where you live over those past few weeks and months. How do you deal with them? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we have this email from Amjad: I'm a Muslim and I work with very well-educated people whom I greatly respect, as they do to me, but to be honest, these kinds of attacks, especially from people who are U.S. citizens, born and raised here, do affect our life in this great country. I strongly condemn these behaviors from radicals, terrorists, that they use Islam or any other religion, which has a great impact on us who live here. My question is: What has been done from NGOs and other big organizations, such as the American Muslim Council, in order to reflect the value of Islam in this great country?

Mr. PATEL: So I'm happy to tell you what we're doing at the Interfaith Youth Core, and we're an interfaith organization�

CONAN: And that's the only organization you can speak for.

Mr. PATEL: That's the only - that's right. It's the organization that I happen to have founded and lead. So our big goal at the Interfaith Youth Core is to make sure that religion in the 21st century is a bridge of cooperation and not a bomb of destruction.

And we believe that young people need to be the builders of those bridges of cooperation, and if you think about it, when you hear a story of somebody killing somebody else to the soundtrack of prayer, it's always a young person.

Religious extremists are very good at identifying, training and mobilizing young people to be the bombs of destruction. We want to create an alternative, more powerful youth movement of young people who are the bridges of cooperation.

We're calling this a movement of interfaith leaders. We would like there to - we would like to create a new identity category in the culture. Just like the identity category human rights activist or environmentalist or social entrepreneur, we think that there's a new category to be created called interfaith leader, and an interfaith leader is somebody who has the vision, the knowledge base and the skill set to change conversations about religion from negative to positive, to launch concrete interfaith service projects and to transform environments to more respectfully engage religious diversity.

That's what we do as an organization. Spreading the message of living in a world of pluralism versus extremism instead of a Christian-versus-Muslim world is central to what we do, and we have a lot of on-the-ground programs, speaking programs, training programs, resource guides, that you can check out at IFYC.org.

But I think that this is one of the central issues of the 21st century: Is religion going to be a bomb of destruction or a bridge of cooperation? And my organization, and many others, but IFYC is definitely on the path to making it a bridge of cooperation.

CONAN: Well then, moving ahead to your role on the White House council, let me ask you: Do you know what's being done at Fort Hood in the aftermath of the shooting there to deal with interfaith issues? Because there certainly have to be a lot of questions there.

Mr. PATEL: I don't know what specifically is being done at Fort Hood about that, but I can say that I had the occasion to have a lengthy conversation with General Colin Powell a couple of weeks ago. I had the great good fortune of being invited to the White House state dinner for the Indian prime minister, and General Powell happened to be behind me. And I turned around and I said, Thank you, General Powell, for the courageous statement that you made in the early fall of last year when there was this whisper campaign about Barack Obama's Muslim grandfather.

The campaign sought to effectively discredit Obama's presidential candidacy because of the faith of his grandfather, and Colin Powell went on a Sunday morning talk show and said, I believe America is a nation where a seven-year-old child, Muslim child, should dream of being president, and spoke of the brave Muslim soldiers he had known who had fought and some of whom had died in the U.S. Army.

And I said, You know, General Powell, what inspired you to do that? And he talked about the types of American Muslims that he knew through his military service, and he talked about the ideal of America as a place where people from different backgrounds lived together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty.

So I certainly hope that the military is tapping people like General Powell and offering advice about how the military can help be a model of that American ideal. And I have to say in large part, I think the military does an excellent job of being a model of an institution where people from different backgrounds work and live together as a part of the American ideal.

CONAN: Let's go next to James, James on the line with us from Fort Stewart in Georgia.

JAMES (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JAMES: I'm a soldier at Fort Stewart, and like your guest just said, I have not noticed any difference since this incident as far as the way Muslim soldiers are treated. I work with Muslim soldiers, and you know, they - I'll be very comfortable fighting beside them and them with me. You know, they're proud to be soldiers, and you know, the only difference that I've seen is like security at the gate maybe, but as far as the actual individual soldiers that are Muslim, they're just as much a part of the team as before.

CONAN: Was there any - James, was there any speeches, any training, anything like that after Fort Hood to say, you know, we have to be careful here?

JAMES: No, it was just, it was just - for me it was just a given. You know, that incident that happened was to me just this guy had issues, you know? He had something else going on, I'm not sure what, but you know, the guys that are Muslim that work with me, there was no change from before to after. They're still, you know, brothers in arms, and no one really treats them any differently.

CONAN: All right, James, thanks very much, appreciate it.

JAMES: All right, no problem.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Ryan, Ryan with us from Ithaca, New York.

Mr. PATEL: You know, Neal, I just want to say�

CONAN: Okay, Ryan, hold on just a second. Go ahead, Eboo Patel, I'm sorry.

Mr. PATEL: I just want to thank that soldier for his service and for fighting for the American ideal and representing it in that statement very well. It touched me very, very deeply, and I just want to say thank you to James in Fort Stewart for that.

CONAN: Okay, Ryan is now with us on the line from Ithaca. Go ahead, please.

RYAN (Caller): Actually, I just wanted to say it seems like there's a lot of ignorance when it comes to religion in our country right now. We may have of religions, but I'm actually a Mormon, or an LDS, and I was raised in the eastern part of the United States, where the religion's not quite as common, and I was told by my own teachers and by large numbers of people, honestly, growing up, that Mormons are polygamists and things like that. And I always argued with them and didn't understand why they said that, but as I've grown, I've come to see that we're identified by the fundamental - or they call themselves fundamentalists - the extreme members of our own group, and so I can see how that would be a problem among Muslims now too.

CONAN: And we certainly don't want to overlook the fact that indeed there are Mormons, members of the LDS church, certainly do have problems, Jews as well, other groups, but - and it's interesting Ryan would point that out. We sometimes in the - with so much emphasis on divisions with Muslims lately, Eboo Patel, we forget these other issues.

RYAN: Right, well�

Mr. PATEL: Well, I think that there's a broader principle here that this caller is very intelligently bringing to the surface, which is that some religious communities have the misfortune of having their public perception characterized by the worst people in their community.

RYAN: Thank you, exactly.

Mr. PATEL: Well, Ryan, you said it more eloquently than I did, and I think that we saw this played out in the previous presidential campaign. I was aghast at the way that people went after Obama because of his Muslim grandfather, but I was equally aghast at the way that people went after Sarah Palin because of her Pentecostal faith and went after Mitt Romney because of his Mormon faith.

In America there is no religious test for office, and in America bigotry or prejudice of any type should not be tolerated. We should be raising a generation of people, as Ryan just said, who have the knowledge base and the courage and the skill set to stand up against religious prejudice and say that's un-American.

That's precisely what Colin Powell did on the Sunday morning talk show, and I think an interesting measure of America's maturation around religious diversity issues is how we do in the next presidential campaign.

Let's say Sarah Palin, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney all run again. I would sure hope that we have a generation of interfaith leaders who will say stop when religious prejudice rears its ugly head around the Pentecostal, Mormon and Muslim heritage of those three candidates.

CONAN: Ryan, thanks very much for the call.

RYAN: No problem.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Colin, Colin with us from Oakland in California.

COLIN (Caller): Hello, yes, interesting show. I want to say that I have actually read the Quran, several times, and it is patent from what I have read and from the manifestation of Islamic culture around the world that secularism is not the ideal, that the ideal of the Quran and of Islam is theocracy, no separation between church and state.

This is a fundamental part of you, of Islam, and it has to be taken in mind when considering the interaction of West and East, and as far as I'm concerned, it's something that must be watched carefully, because we have a heritage that has been built up over, literally, thousands of years in the West, and we have reached this point, and we do not want to give this up to fundamentalists.

CONAN: We don't seem to be in any particular danger of that at this moment, nevertheless. Eboo Patel�

CULLEN: Nevertheless, there is difference, a great difference.

CONAN: Well, Eboo Patel, people - some people read the Quran and say wait a minute, this represents values that are very different from ours.

Mr. PATEL: Well, you know, the great Muslim theologian Khaled Abou El Fadl has this line that says the way somebody interprets the Holy Quran tells you more about that person's heart than tells you about the actual text, because there are interpretations of the Quran which take very seriously its message of mercy. And there's interpretations of the Quran which clip out some of the most intolerant verses and say that the whole religion stands for this.

I fear in your previous caller - I hear the framework of Islam versus the West. I disagree with that framework. I think it's dangerous and destructive.

CULLEN: I think that the introduction of sharia law that various Islam communities around the world have agitated for over and over again is the indication of the defensiveness that we - the defensive posture that we must take as a practical measure to guard Western values. I'm not saying that they all would do that. I actually have Muslims friends who don't agree with sharia law and want to keep a separation. I'm saying for those people, those Muslims who are agitating for improvisation of sharia law and the elimination of the secularism, that must be a trend that we must watch carefully.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Mr. PATEL: I will just say that Muslim totalitarians, those who would seek to impose a narrow interpretation of Islam on all those around them are my enemies equally as they are your enemies. There are a variety of interpretations of sharia law. And there are a variety of types of Muslim democracy. Turkey is one form. Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world, is another form. I would say we need to keep our eyes on who the enemies are.

The great Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu once said that if you do not know who you are and you do not know who your enemy is, you will lose every battle.

My fear is that we articulate the enemy as all, or many Muslims. I would prefer to articulate the enemy as those Muslims who are extremist in their approach, which is to say that they seek to dominate and want everyone else to suffocate.

I just want to make it clear that as a Muslim, they are my enemies if they had one bullet in their gun and you and I were both up against the wall, they wouldn't know who to shoot first. Let us not make the extremely grave mistake of letting them convince us that there are more of them than there actually are. And let us also not make the extremely grave mistake of allowing them the final interpretation of the ocean that is the Holy Quran.

CONAN: We're talking with Eboo Patel, who sits on the advisory council of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR New.

And we have been talking about Ft. Hood. We briefly mentioned the arrest and indictment of a man in Chicago for allegedly participating in the Mumbai terrorist incident, the Swiss vote to ban construction of minarets. How does the president's order to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan play into all of this?

Mr. PATEL: You know, I'm the furthest thing from a military expert. So I have no particular expertise on whether the surge is going to work or whether it's a great idea. I pray for those soldiers who are going over there. I pray for the Afghan civilians who are - whose lives are at stake, just as the soldiers' lives are. And I hope for the vanquishment of the Taliban. I believe they are antithetical to Islam. And most importantly, I think that they're destructive to any type of humane civilization. So the president has chosen a strategy, I simply hope that it means better lives for the Afghan people.

What struck me about the president speech was his - he never used the word Muslim extremist. He never used words like Islamo-fascist. He only talked about the defeat of extremists. And I think that that is a mature perspective. I think that's seeking to build a framework I've been talking about, a pluralism versus extremist framework. There is no sense that all or most Muslims fall into the extremist category. There's only a sense that there are extremists out there. Those extremists are our enemies, and we need to defeat those extremists in order to have the ideal of pluralism flourish.

CONAN: And we just have - excuse me, we just have a couple of minutes left, and I wanted to ask you: The president travels to Oslo, Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, and he's already accepted the idea that there's a certain irony of a wartime president who's just announced this dispatch of more troops to Afghanistan going to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. What would you hope to hear from him as he accepts that prize tomorrow?

Mr. PATEL: I hope that he - seeks to inspire a generation of bridge builders and peacemakers who will flourish and work alongside the soldiers who need to fight in these current wars. I hope that the wars end soon. I hope that they're successful and that they create space for democratic, participatory pluralistic societies to emerge. And if those societies are to flourish, we are going to need a generation of interfaith bridge builders to build those civil societies. And so I hope that the president gives inspiration to people who want to be interfaith leaders and peace builders and articulates a vision and a strategy for us to build a 21st century we can all be proud of.

CONAN: Eboo Patel, we want to thank you for taking the time today under difficult weather circumstances to be with us there in Chicago. We appreciate it.

Mr. PATEL: Thanks so much, Neal. Great to be with you.

CONAN: Eboo Patel sits on the Advisory Council at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, and joined us from our studio in Chicago, where his organization is based.

Coming up: The power of the number seven. In no small part, the power of the number seven to keep you sane, as an organizing tool.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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