Illinois Alumni Magazine May/June: Acts of Faith Eboo Patel Works Toward a World where Religions are Respected

Eboo Patel ‘96 LAS has the radical idea that people from other religions shouldn’t kill each other.

“Why are religious extremists getting to young people before we do?” he asked. “Why don’t we build a different pattern, a pattern of religious pluralism?”

Patel, a Muslim, founded the Interfaith Youth Core in 2002 to do just that. IFYC is based on the premise that when young people from different faiths are brought together on a service project, mutual understanding and respect develop.

It’s a matter, said Patel, of creating space for people to tell a little bit about their story. It’s a way of thinking that encourages people to relate to one another in a positive way.

“The way I see it, you can either dance or fight,” said Patel, whose Indian immigrant parents raised him and his brother, Rahim ‘98 BUS, in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn. “Me, I say, let’s dance first and fight later because you’ll always remember the dance. See what I’m talking about?”

Patel encourages lots of dancing through the model of IFYC. Its work projects offer opportunities to help the local area, as well as provide time for the young volunteers to discuss what aspects of their religion inspire them to contribute. While University courses cover the academic study of religion, IFYC’s campus affiliate, Interfaith in Action, has drawn hundreds of students to volunteer together, teaching them not only about community needs but about each other. In such a way, IFYC moves beyond platitudes on religious tolerance to the realm of concrete action.

While money and attention are flowing to Patel from myriad directions, he thinks the true key to success of groups like IFYC lies with America’s college campuses. Patel believes the United States became more racially tolerant in large part because university settings embraced the idea of racial diversity. He is hoping that college campuses will do for religious pluralism what they did for civil rights.

Case in point: Reem Rahman.

“I first met Eboo when he was speaking to the Chancellor’s Scholars Program … about ‘New Leadership,’” the 21-year-old UI junior said. “Just that first encounter my freshman year on campus rocked my world view and has shaped the way that I interact with and see this world.”

Patel’s vision has resonated with a wide range of people and organizations. A mere four and a half years since his first grant in 2002 – $35,000 from the Ford Foundation – a lot of people have come to IFYC and said, “This is me. I want to be part of this.”

Patel’s mission has made its mark in a multitude of outlets. IFYC members have worked on more than 45 campuses and reached more than 4,000 students, faculty, staff and campus administrators through speeches, training, classes and workshops.

The U.S. State Department has conferred with Patel about sectarian violence in Baghdad, Iraq. As part of its “America at the Crossroads” series, which looks at the post-9/11 world, the Public Broadcasting Service will include IFYC and its founder.

Patel has been profiled by National Public Radio, CNN and the BBC and has worked with such leaders as Queen Rania of Jordan and former President Clinton. IFYC also has partnered with such organizations as the Religious Advisory Council of the Council on Foreign Relations and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

On the local level, IFYC has created Days of Interfaith Youth Service, a national event that pairs volunteer students with community groups. Interfaith in Action has coordinated the day at Illinois for the past several years. The 100 or so students who have participated each year break into teams of eight or 10, each with an Interfaith in Action mediator or leader, and assist places such as foodbanks, homeless shelters, homes for the aged or disabled and the Boys and Girls Club.

“It’s really a partnership with local organizations,” said Nick Price’06 LAS, who as a UI undergraduate in religious studies was active in IFYC. “We contact them and say, ‘We want to help; what do you need?’”

Afterward, the same small group gathers, usually over a meal. A discussion begins with a question such as, “I would love to hear how your faith inspires you to care for those whom we helped today.” In offering a piece of scripture or a bit of religious tradition, students may spur others to relate to a similar teaching in their backgrounds.

“It is amazing how – when you focus on a shared value – how people begin to resonate with one another,” said the 23-year-old Price, who has been a Christian since high school.

“There are so many forces trying to hand me a divisive and dour narrative of a ‘clash of civilizations,’” Rahman said of being a young Muslim today. “This has never held true to me nor made any sense to me.”

UI junior Hemang Srikishan, 20, said those dialogues come about more easily because a sense of community and comfort has been building throughout the day. “Through the course of the day, we get to know each other,” the psychology student said. Srikishan, raised with a Hindu father and a Jainist mother, first volunteered in an Interfaith in Action service day to support a friend serving on the board of the campus chapter. While Srikishan had been interested in religion in general, the service day kindled an interest in interfaith work; eventually, he became deeply involved in the organization.

As did Rahman. She helped organize the event during her freshman and sophomore years and created a management guide for future Days of Interfaith Youth Service.

And for Rahman, who is majoring in cognitive neuroscience, the lessons last far beyond the end of the service day’s work. She said she applies the “habits of listening empathetically, creating safe spaces and creating common grounds” wherever she is – in business and her living community, with her friends and family and as a civil rights and community activist.

Patel believes in emphasizing those common grounds. While one may think that religious antagonism may occur between, say, Jews and Muslims or Buddhists and Christians, he sees it another way. The “faithline,” as Patel calls it, lies between those who think like totalitarians and those who think like pluralists.

Totalitarians believe that their religion is the only way of “being, believing and belonging,” as Patel puts it, and that they must destroy all others. Pluralists – which Patel thinks make up 98 percent of the world’s population – believe in the “live and let live” model. If pluralists were to take an active stand, he said, the totalitarians would wither and die.

“My own understanding of the immense possibilities of humanity and human interaction are shaped by this vision of pluralism,” Rahman said.

Patel’s own understanding of human interaction came about on the UI campus, which helped him explore his own questions about social justice and diversity.

“I wanted to be involved in the life of the mind,” he said of his expectations of college. “Someone would mention a book, and I’d go read it. I didn’t just want to be a student; I wanted to be an intellectual explorer.

“That’s what I like about Illinois. There are lots of types of lives possible on campus.” For helping him imagine the possibilities, Patel particularly credits the Campus Honors Program and Allen Hall’s guest-in-residence program, which draws a wide range of accomplished people to campus. He found faculty and staff, whom he called “the gems of this campus,” eager to guide his intellectual exploration.

Among those mentors were Howard Schein, PHD ‘74 LAS, program director of Allen Hall, who introduced Patel to the work of Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on microfinancing; CHP’s Sonia Carringer and Richard Burkhardt, who helped admit Patel to the program; and Bruce Michelson, professor of English and current CHP director, who supervised Patel’s honors thesis on social justice projects in America, a project, said Patel, “that expanded my view on what it meant to turn ideas into reality.”

“I found a ton of responsiveness on whatever door I knocked on at the University,” he said, “and my world view has been framed by this experience. I’ve knocked on a lot of doors since then.

“The truth is – that skill of going out and finding things instead of having them handed to me has served me better than anything else in my whole life,” he said.

And while campus life opened Patel’s eyes in many ways, it was his own father who pointed out the absence of religious issues in the campus’s diversity movement. “‘What about the hundreds of thousands of Muslims being killed in Bosnia in religious identity-based war?’” his father asked. “‘Why is no one talking about that?’”

That conversation planted a seed in Patel’s mind that continued to germinate, during which time he graduated and returned to Chicago. There he taught in the inner city and built an “intentional living community” (aka “commune”) for artists and activists. Upon receiving a Rhodes scholarship, Patel went to Oxford, where he earned a doctorate in the sociology of religion and began doing interfaith service projects. Patel envisions those types of projects becoming ingrained in every house of worship.

“In 30 years, I’d like religious pluralism to be written into the socio-cultural DNA of America,” he said. “It will just be part of the deal. Your pastor might say, ‘Next Sunday, we’re going to build a house with the Muslim and Jewish communities.’ Then we will ask, ‘What is it about being Muslim or Jewish or Christian that inspires you to build a house?’”

Patel believes that the message of IFYC can change the fabric of society, much as the Peace Corps did.

“The Peace Corps was not just about the number of young people participating,” he said. “It was the idea that was important, the idea of the American vision of the world that counted. It’s a kind of effort that transforms civil society.”

And he sees plenty of reason to feel optimistic.

“I’ll tell you a great story,” Patel said. “It was just after Sept. 11, and I was in Chicago visiting my parents. I was driving by a mosque, so I dropped in to pray.

“When I got there, I saw a large group of Christians and a large group of Jews in the lobby of the mosque. I asked the imam what was going on, and he told me, ‘They are protecting the mosque.’

“That there is the best of America.”

Editor’s note: Eboo Patel’s book, “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation” (Beacon Press Publishers), is due out this summer.

Copyright © 2007, Illinois Alumni Magazine