Eboo Patel On The Importance Of Religious Pluralism In this installment of the This American Moment series, Eboo Patel, director of the Interfaith Youth Core, discusses his efforts to promote religious pluralism among young people. Patel believes that this type of mutual respect and understanding is the "big idea of our time."
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Eboo Patel On The Importance Of Religious Pluralism

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is Talk of The Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Tomorrow, Ira Flatow will be here with Science Friday. This week, a commercial space transportation company made a successful orbital launch. Ira talks with the company founder about the flight and what comes next. Now, This American Moment. Since the Democratic and Republican conventions a few weeks ago, we've been asking politicians, journalists, writers, and thinkers to take a step back, to put this election and this campaign season in context. To tell us what's at stake, what this election means to them. In a few moments, we'll hear from author and activist Eboo Patel, a devoted Muslim. Patel cares passionately about working with young people to shape their leadership and nurture them toward an idea of religious pluralism, what Patel calls, the big idea of our time.

We also want to know what this American Moment means to you. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org and you may comment on our blog, it's at npr.org/blogofthenation. Eboo Patel is director of the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago and he joins us from the studios of Chicago Public Radio. Good to have you back on Talk of The Nation.

Mr. EBOO PATEL (Director, Interfaith Youth Core, Chicago): Great to be back, Lynn.

NEARY: Now, your blog is called The Faith Divide, and I wanted to know why it's called that and what do you mean by the divide?

Mr. PATEL: I think we're living at a time in which the clash of civilization seems to be acquiring the force of inevitability. I mean you look at the evening news or you check out the daily newspaper and what you seem to see is people from different religious backgrounds at each others' throats all the time. And what we do at the Interfaith Youth Core is to say that doesn't have to be the case. Religious traditions are not inevitably divided. They don't - they're not inherently at odds with each other, and what we have to do is instead of looking at the world as Muslim versus Christian, which is what the class of civilizations wants us to do, we have to look at the world as those are building pluralism versus those who are advancing extremism. And so what The Faith Divide is really about is trying to find people who are bridging it.

NEARY: Do you also say that the divide as being between those who are secular and those who are religious?

Mr. PATEL: I think that that's something else that needs to be bridged, absolutely. And I think the foundation of these bridges is shared values, compassion, dignity, equality, fairness, hospitality. These are values in Islam, in Christianity, in Judaism, in secular humanism. And what we need to be focusing on is how our particular traditions bring us to act upon those values, which is what we do at the Interfaith Youth Course. We're training young people to be leaders in identifying those values and then bringing people from different backgrounds together to act upon them.

NEARY: So what does This American Moment, this moment in our nation's life mean to you? What is the most important thing to you?

Mr. PATEL: I think what we have to be doing in America right now is living up to the dream of pluralism. George Washington had at his inauguration in 1789, a Jewish clergyperson. He wanted to send the signal very early in this nation's history that we are a place in which people from different religious backgrounds can live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty. One of my favorite sayings from George Washington is that the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land shall continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants.

And if you look at so many of our great figures through history, Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Adams, Dorothy Day, Thomas Jefferson, what you find is people who say, America is a nation that is a place where people from the four corners of the world come together and built a country. And that's remarkable and that's unique, and at this time in history, America needs to give a lie to the clash of civilizations. We need to be the model that shows the rest of the world that Muslims and Christians, that Hindus and Jews, that secularists and believers can live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty.

NEARY: Well, to what degree do you see that actually happening in this country at this time? And let's say in this election at this time, since we are sort of trying to step back and take a look at this election from a more- a broader perspective, let say.

Mr. PATEL: One of the things I find striking about Barack Obama in his book, particularly "Dreams From My father." He basically writes about his personal quest for identity, finding coherence amidst the multiplicity of who he is, part Kenya, part Kansas, part white, part black, part corporate lawyer, part community organizer. And in that personal quest for identity, he discovers the identity of his nation. America is also all of those things. And as Walt Whitman once said, I am wide, I contain multitudes. And I think the American challenge right now, this beautiful challenge that we have is to live up to what Michael Walzer once said, which is that, the challenge and promise of America is to embrace its differences and maintain a common life. And I think what's interesting is that in the biography of one of our candidates, that is such a - so starkly evident.

NEARY: And yet we still see the nation that seems to be pretty divided, at least politically, how does religious pluralism in any way become- or is it possible for what you are discussing this idea of religious pluralism to become a way towards getting away from the division that we see in this country politically?

Mr. PATEL: I think that one of the things that we can learn how to do is to both affirm our particularity and contribute to pluralism. It's one of the things that the Muslim community is doing right now, following very much from what African-Americans and Jews and Catholics and other minority, immigrant communities did in the past, which is to say that we are realizing that in order for us to live free, in order for us to have dignity and to be fair, we enter to have fairness, we need to contribute to a nation, in which everybody feels free, in which everybody feels like they have dignity, in which everybody feels treated fairly.

It was very much that the modus operandi of the civil rights movement is, you know, King would say over and over again, this is not just about African-Americans, this is about all Americans. And you build a country where everybody feels like they live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty by saying that you recognize, you share a huge part of your humanity with your neighbor. And if your neighbor goes down, you go down.

NEARY: All right, let's see if we can get a call here and I just want to tell our listeners that if you would like to join in our discussion of This American Moment with Eboo Patel, the number is 800-989-8255. We're going to go Nudia(ph), who is calling from Newport, Oregon. Hi, go ahead.

NUDIA (Caller): Hi, I'm just want to support your idea of plurality because you see divisions like that even within Christianity. And so people want to be divisive and fight about things, they'll find something to find as a difference even within their small - some- their same small groups. So I think it's an incredibly important idea.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call.

NUDIA: You're welcome.

NEARY: I think that Nudia was just affirming what you've been saying. And I want to ask you something about your latest blog entry, where you write that, Evangelicals may be more open to religious diversity than in the past. And I was wondering why you say that now, what makes you think that at this moment?

Mr. PATEL: Well, I think that you have a powerful new movement emerging in Evangelical Christianity and I count people like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels at Willow Creek church and Jim Wallace at Sojourners and Rich Isaac at the National Association of Evangelicals, and many others as friends and mentors. And one of the ways that they are friends and mentors of mine is by showing how they can hold on to their particular distinct religious traditions and contribute to a country in which Muslims like me feel free and feel like we're treated with dignity. And part of what they say is, you know, look Eboo, we might in some cases have different ideas about heaven but we share together Earth. We share together a nation.

And what we need to be doing is make sure that - is making sure that people of all backgrounds can thrive together in this nation. And they think that that's a big part of their religious identities. I have to tell you, it reminds me of one of the Christians that I admire most in the 20th Century, and that's Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who opposed Hitler's Nazi Germany, and after a Kristallnacht, which was one of the first forays of the Nazis into Jewish neighborhoods, Bonhoeffer got on German radio and spoke these lines, "Those who did not stand up for the Jews do not deserve to sing Gregorian chants." And what Bonhoeffer is saying, and I think also what guys like Rick Warren and Jim Wallace and Rich Isaac and my other friends in this movement are saying is, it's part of who we are as Christians. To make sure that people of all backgrounds, including those who are not of our confession, can thrive in America. That's what America is about, that's what Christianity is about. And let me tell you, that's exactly what's Islam is about also.

NEARY: But why do you think it's important that people of faith should be engaged in our national dialogue? Why does faith need to be at the table? That seems to be what you're saying, and that it should be a diversity of faith but that faith should be at the table.

Mr. PATEL: Well, over 90 percent of people in America say that they believe in God or some sort of higher power. Eighty plus percent say that religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. And in a democracy, what matters to people matters in the public life of a nation. And so if religion is important in peoples' lives, then it's going to be important in peoples' private lives. Then it will likely be important in our public life. I think the question is not if religion is going to play a role, it's going to. The question is, what role is religion going to play?

And I think one of the roles that religion should play is to make sure that we're building a country that lives up to the ideals of our founders. A country where people from all backgrounds can live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty. That's what we call pluralism at the Interfaith Youth Corps. And I think that if we're not digging deeply into what motivates people in huge ways, which is their religious traditions, we're missing out on a dramatic resource for the enrichment of our nation. And, you know, we're also living at a time in which religion is not neutral terrain. There are plenty of bad people playing on the terrain of religion. There people who are using religion to divide people, there are people who are using religion to built barriers, to build bombs. If we're not using religion to build bridges, we forfeit that terrain to people who are doing really ugly things with it.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Ron in Salisbury, North Carolina. Hi Ron.

RON (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

RON: The question I have is I'm sure that your guest is very familiar with the words of Dr. Samuel Huntington of Harvard in terms of the clash of civilizations as it relates to religion, as well as his views on the problems of assimilation of certain aspects of our immigration policy. I'd like to hear your views- the guest's views on that. Thank you.

NEARY: All right, thank you. Are you familiar with the work? I'm really not. So you'd have to explain it for me.

Mr. PATEL: Oh, am I familiar with Professor Huntington's work in the clash of civilizations. What the Interfaith Your Core is really about, what I think America is really about is giving the lie to the clash of civilizations. That thesis of the clash of civilizations is simple, it's that people from different religious backgrounds cannot live in harmony with each other. Professor Huntington says that the post-Cold War world order is going to be defined by the divide, and the war between people from different religions. What - that is an eternal war, that is huge quantities of bloodshed if two billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims are inevitably at odds with each other, and I just don't think that that's true.

And we have to make sure in America and rest of the world, we make sure it doesn't come true. We make sure that the clash of civilizations does not acquire the force of inevitability. One of the reasons - one of the things that we think is most powerful to show that that's not true is young leaders who are bringing people from different backgrounds together. And at the Interfaith Youth Core, we train these young leaders all over the world to start their own interfaith projects which are essentially anti-clash of civilizations projects. And let me tell you about one which I find really inspiring.

NEARY: Give me a second before you do. I just want to remind our audience that you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. All right. Go ahead.

Mr. PATEL: At the Interfaith Youth Core, we have a fellows program and one of our fellows at Wesleyan University was so inspired by the idea of Muslims fasting during the day for Ramadan and we just got done with that month and oftentimes giving the money that they would spend on food to charity, that she helped organize a fast-a-thon herself and she's Jewish. She found that the values of sacrifice and charity were deeply embedded in Judaism just as they are in Islam and she worked with her Muslim friends and colleagues at Wesleyan to organize a fast-a-thon and that raised over $11,000 dollars for a local food pantry.

I think that that's America - Jews and Muslims working together to serve others. And I think that that can be an inspiring example to the Christians and Hindus who are fighting each other in India right now, to the Sunnis and Shias who are fighting each other in Baghdad, to the Protestants and Catholics who are at odds in Belfast. We can be a model of how different religious communities, including people from no religion at all, engage each other.

NEARY: You are quite an optimist I think, because some of these conflicts that you just talked about are really centuries old conflicts, and they eventually become political conflicts. But a lot of our political conflicts are based in religious conflict.

Mr. PATEL: Well, you know, conflicts are not necessarily centuries old. Cooperation is also centuries old. As my friend Zachary Karabell, the author of a great book called "Peace Be Upon You" says that you can read history any way you want to. You can read it as models of coexistence or you can read it as chapters of conflict. And I think that the challenge before Americans today is which part of our history are we going to make real in the future. There's been religious conflict in America also. In Philadelphia in the last century there was bloodshed on the streets between Catholics and Protestants over religious textbooks but there's also been remarkable interfaith cooperation for social justice. I mean I think about Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching together for civil rights in Selma. I think about King's great line that the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist idea is that love is the supreme unifying principle of life, and that's the type of America that I want to help make real in the 21st century. That's the big focus that we've taken on at the Interfaith Youth Core.

NEARY: Let's see if we can get one more caller in here. Mary from Sacramento, California, go ahead. Mary, hello?

MARY (Caller): Oh, hi. I'm sorry.

NEARY: Go ahead.

MARY: I am really interested in what your guest is speaking about today and a lot of the quotes that he's giving are giving voice to what myself and my community that I surround myself with believe in recognizing the different views about heaven that live together on earth. So I'm hearing a recognition of the divide but I'm curious as to what binds us together. Does your guest believe it's language?

NEARY: Go ahead. I'm going to let him answer because we just have a little while - a little short time left. So go ahead, Eboo. Thanks for your call, Mary.

MARY: You're welcome.

NEARY: Go ahead.

Mr. PATEL: I think what binds us together as Americans is this notion that we inherit a nation built not on an ethnicity, built not on a religion but on an idea. And a big part of that idea is that people from different backgrounds can live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty. So I think that Thomas Jefferson speaks to us over the ages and I think that George Washington does. And when James Madison says that religious freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects which pervades America and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society, that's a gauntlet thrown down to this generation and you know America has stood in the world for equality and for freedom and for opportunity. And I think in the 21st century, we have to stand in the world for religious pluralism.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for being with us today, Eboo.

Mr. PATEL: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: Eboo Patel is the author of "Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. He's also the director of the Interfaith Youth Core and his blog is called "The Faith Divide." You've been listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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