ACTS OF FAITH: THE INTERFAITH YOUTH MOVEMENT
Writing on Religion
Published in the Bennington Banner July 19, 2008
By Mark E. Rondeau
One of the most exciting books about religion I have read in a long time is Eboo Patel’s “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation,” published by Beacon Press (189 pages).
Patel, who is in his early 30s, holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University and also regularly contributes to the On Faith blog at WashingtonPost.com. He is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, based in Chicago. This is an international non-profit building the interfaith youth movement.
“Acts of Faith” deals in part with Patel’s search for identity as the child of immigrants from India and as a Muslim. It was not an easy journey. Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, he encountered racial prejudice and violence in school. On the positive side, America’s diversity also brought him Jewish, Catholic and Mormon friends.
Patel was brought up in his family’s Ismaili faith, a form of Shia Islam which follows an Imam called the Aga Khan. The Aga Khan holds much the same importance for Ismailis as the Dalai Lama does for Tibetan Buddhists or the pope for Roman Catholics. The current Aga Khan, Karim Al-Husseini, has devoted himself to good works in the name of Islam. Open to the West and progressive, he has built innovative health, educational, cultural and anti-poverty institutions in 30 countries.
Patel stopped considering himself a Muslim as he grew up. For one thing, his parents’ successful careers left less time and energy for them to lead or participate in daily and weekly religious observances. Attending the University of Illinois, Patel became an adherent of identity politics and increasingly angry. “ ‘America is
bent on imperialism’ was the first thought I had every morning and the last thought I had every night,” he writes.
But his anger eventually found positive outlets. He became a volunteer with the Catholic Worker movement started by Dorothy Day; he saw and became inspired by the success of such visionary programs as Teach for America, City Year and Habitat for Humanity. Brother Wayne Teasdale, an influential Catholic monk, steered him toward interfaith work, which led to Patel meeting the Dalai Lama in India.
For a time, Patel considered himself a Buddhist and practiced meditation, but his Islamic heritage still called to him. While visiting India, he was struck by the quiet but heroic service his grandmother provided to homeless and abused women.
Later attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Patel turned more and more to his spiritual heritage. “The perspective I brought to Islam had been shaped by my admiration of Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi and
the Dalai Lama, as well as my friendships with Kevin [a close Jewish friend] and Brother Wayne.
“I loved the spirituality and social justice in Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism. I had no interest in Islam until my most recent trip to India, when I had found Muslim prayer surfacing in my Buddhist meditation, when the Dalai Lama told me to be a good Muslim and when I had seen my grandmother model what that meant,” he writes. “Now I wanted to learn the tradition behind her spiritual
equanimity and service ethic.”
In his book, Patel examines how violent groups indoctrinate and inspire young people. He tells the stories of the young Muslim men who blew up themselves and others in London in 2005 and the story of Eric Rudolph, a Christian extremist whose crimes include bombing two women’s clinics and setting off a bomb in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Patel also writes of the effective youth indoctrination efforts of a violent Hindu fundamentalist group which rampaged in India in 2002, killing 2000 Muslims. In each case, he wonders what would have happened if those involved had been influenced by constructive religious mentors and programs instead of destructive ones.
“Violence committed in the name of religion is really violence emanating from the heart of a particular interpreter,” he writes. “I believe that religious violence is the product of careful design, manipulated by human hands. It is more about sociology than scripture, more about institutions than inevitability.
“The theology of the world’s bin Ladens is influential because they have built powerful institutions that recruit, inspire and train people to act in hateful and murderous ways,” he adds. “When people respond to oppression by killing their enemies while whispering the name of God, it is because an organization convinced them that doing so is a sacred duty and gave them everything they needed to carry it out. And so often, their primary targets are young people.”
The Interfaith Youth Core is in part a response to the spiritual needs of young people, showing that one can be devout and passionate in one’s own tradition while being open to common universal values in and cooperation with other faiths. Youth joining together for service is a major component of the IYC.
“One of the top priorities of the Interfaith Youth Core was to help young people strengthen their religious identities by creating a safe space where they could talk about faith,” Patel writes. “Each religion has something unique to say about universal values through its particular set of scriptures, rituals and heroes.”
He adds, “I think of it as affirming particularity and achieving pluralism.”
The national and international interfaith movement is seen by many — if it is noticed at all — as an activity carried on by aging clerics through boring and soon-forgotten conferences. Patel brings a different perspective. “My greatest inspiration for this book came from the faith heroes who emerged as leaders in their teens and twenties and built movements with profound interfaith character. Chief among these are Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.”
With good reason, Islamica Magazine featured Patel as one of the leading young Muslim visionaries in America. Toward the end of his book, he notes that America is a nation that has been consistently
rejuvenated by immigrants. There are an estimated six million Muslims in the U.S. now, almost the same number as Jews and almost triple the number of Episcopalians.
“There is now a critical mass of Muslims in America,” he writes. “What notes will Islam contribute to the American Song?’ With people like Patel in the choir, the contribution will indeed be sweet.